Winds Of Change: Kashmiri Professionals Join Poll Fray

27 November 2014
Times of India
Sagarika Ghose

Srinagar: Haseeb Drabu, 52, and Zafar Meraj, 62, would have been unlikely Kashmiri politicians a generation ago, this being a state where politics has been the domain either of entrenched political families or separatist ideologues. Drabu is a former J&K Bank chairman, an ex-ADB economist who served as economic adviser to the PDP government. He's making his electoral debut as PDP candidate from Rajpora. Meraj, a firebrand journalist, worked for a popular news magazine, and now runs his own newspaper. He too is a first-time contestant from Habba Kadal on a PDP ticket. Both believe that just as middle-class professionals elsewhere now see politics as a way to bring about change, it's time educated and honest professionals joined politics in Kashmir. Drabu calls himself an 'experiment being tried by PDP chief Mufti Mohammad Sayeed'. The biggest issue in Kashmir is that politicians have used the system for personal gains, the former banker says. 'Kashmir has young politicians but aged political workers. Kashmir needs people willing to work at all levels.' Meraj says he realized the limits of journalism in his fight against BJP 'majoritarianism'. 'BJP's aggression in Kashmir made me want to defend what I believe is Kashmiri identity. Delhi ki ghulami nahin chahiye.' Drabu, spoken of as a possible khazana mantri or finance minister if PDP wins, comes from a reputable Rajpora family and says he's benefitting because his great grandfather's name is respected. 'I want to live up to my grandfather's good name.' 'Team Drabu' consists of 20-member village committees, five-member booth committees, data analysts and six core team members, all of them connected via SMS groups. Drabu's economic vision for Kashmir is import substitution, bringing back the missing multiplier into the economy, attracting local investment. He hopes to create 'constituency cards' that'll help his constituents get a basket of facilities. The articulate Drabu enjoys 24-7 politics, his clan of 48 cousins has joined his campaign and they feast on wazwan in the family's Rajpora mansion almost every night. He took the plunge 'because of my admiration for Mufti Mohammad Sayeed'. PDP, he says, isn't like the NC dynasty. Farooq was a doctor and Omar worked for a hotel, they para-trooped into Kashmir. Mehbooba built PDP. We are offline politicians, not online Twitter-FB types like Omar,' Drabu laughs. Meraj was once kidnapped at gunpoint, shot five times and left for dead. He got himself to hospital and was flown to Delhi for multiple surgeries. 'Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims have lived together for generations. When I sent my son Shameem to Delhi, he lived with a vegetarian Pandit family for seven years. That's why I oppose BJP's divisive agenda.' He says for decades Kashmir never had 'elections', only 'selections'. 'Since 2002 that's changed and democracy become vibrant.' Drabu and Meraj insist PDP, not NC or BJP, is the new party of promise in the Valley. 'My politics is for a politically empowered, self-reliant, socially cohesive Kashmir and for a Kashmir that enjoys political autonomy. PDP fits the bill. I didn't understand why Modi came to Kashmir to celebrate Diwali. Who celebrates Diwali here? Pandits celebrate Shiv Ratri,' Drabu argues. He says it's not the Centre that's disengaged from Kashmir, it's the civil society. 'Kashmir had the most radical land reforms in the democratic world. Why does no Indian academic study Kashmir's land reforms? Why do they only study Bengal and Kerala?' Drabu argues that he's disappointed that companies don't want to come to Kashmir. 'In Wall Street the saying is, when there's blood on the street, invest. Investing in risky places ensures high returns. But where's the investment in Kashmir? Not even Narayana Murthy is willing to come.' Meraj believes educated Kashmiris must invest in their home state. 'Azaadi resulted from false promises made by the likes of NC. If more educated people join, the legislature will become more representative.' Drabu says transforming the Kashmiri MLA's role is crucial. The MLA is still seen in transactional terms - someone who can get a boy freed from police if he's been unjustly picked up. The mobile phone, Drabu believes, was the turning point in Kashmir. 'The day mobiles came here, the state became safer, more connected. It dramatically changed the ground reality.' Is the entry of educated professionals a sign that the hold of the separatist mentality is on the retreat? It'd be a mistake to think that, Meraj says. The sentiment of mistrust is alive, which is why democratic representation is key. A youngster sees his vote as one that'll empower the Kashmir assembly,' Drabu says, 'That's a big change.'