Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, 26 December, showcased the recently concluded District Development Council elections in Jammu and Kashmir as proof of his commitment to democracy.
Meanwhile, in South Kashmir's Shopian district, Altaf Bukhari's Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, popularly called ‘Kings Party’ for allegedly being close to the BJP, has managed to secure the defection of one victorious candidate each from the National Conference and People's Democratic Party, even as the NC's district president Shoukat Ahmed Ganaie remains under detention.
This has enabled the Apni Party, which had originally won just two seats out of 14 in Shopian district, to stake claim to take control of the DDC.
An Independent has also joined the Apni Party, taking its tally to five. The NC and PDP, which had fought as part of the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, had won seven seats and were about to take control of the DDC with the help of one victorious candidate of the Congress. Now, they have six and the Apni Party has five, with three Independents holding the key.
NC Vice-President Omar Abdullah has accused the Centre of using its power to scuttle the democratic process in Kashmir by placing his party's leaders under detention. He tweeted:
“Shame on this administration for playing partisan politics to curry favour with the ruling party & their stooges. These parties couldn’t win seats so now they are using money/muscle/threats & government coercion to make up the numbers. So much for “democracy has won”!”Omar Abdullah
The defections in Shopian raised another question: who is Altaf Bukhari and is his 'Apni Party' working in cahoots with the Centre?
In addition to staking claim in Shopian, Bukhari's Apni Party is also likely to try and capture power in the Srinagar DDC along with Independents.
Who is Businessman-Turned-Neta Altaf Bukhari?
Altaf Bukhari is a businessman-turned-politician who had joined the PDP in 2005. His family owns FIL Industries that makes apple concentrates. The business side of things are handled by Bukhari's sons and his brother Syed Tariq. Besides apple concentrates, the family has stakes in several other sectors like healthcare, crafts, hospitality, agriculture products etc.
Bukhari won from the Amira Kadal in Srinagar in the 2014 Assembly elections. Ironically, in those elections, Bukhari and the PDP as a whole, got a lot of support from voters who thought the party was best placed to resist the BJP's efforts to make inroads into Kashmir.
He became a minister when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed formed a coalition government with the BJP but was dropped after Mehbooba Mufti took over. However, he was later reinstated and brought as education minister and later given charge of finance.
After the PDP-BJP coalition broke down, Bukhari was being considered as a consensus candidate for a possible PDP-NC-Congress coalition but the Governor dissolved the Assembly.
Formation of Apni Party
In January 2019, Bukhari was expelled from the PDP. After the abrogation of Article 370 later that year, Bukhari was among the few politicians who wasn't placed under arrest.
This was a time when not just the NC and PDP leadership but also leaders like People's Conference's Sajad Lone and Jammu and Kashmir People's Movement leader Shah Faesal were also kept under detention.
As months passed, the Centre desperately looked for a Kashmiri leader who would be willing to do business with it under the changed circumstances of Jammu and Kashmir not just being deprived of special status but statehood itself.
But no one agreed. Even someone like Sajad Lone, who was earlier said to be close to the BJP, is said to have refused to play ball. This left the field open for Bukhari.
The incarceration of top Kashmiri leaders proved to be beneficial for him as he went about wooing leaders from all the major parties as well as non-political people who were open to doing politics under the changed circumstances.
Bukhari had better luck among ex-PDP people as NC cadres mostly stayed loyal.
As a result of these efforts, Bukhari formed the Apni Party in March 2020 and is alleged to have become the Centre's new favourite in Kashmir.
In that sense, the defection of NC and PDP candidates in Shopian, while some of their leaders remain detained, is nothing but a repeat of how the Apni Party was formed.
What Does This Mean for Kashmir?
The Centre's alleged patronage to Bukhari is said to be part of the BJP's plan of capturing power in Jammu and Kashmir through the electoral process and possibly have its own (read Hindu) chief minister.
With that aim, any Kashmiri party doing business with it, will be expected to weaken existing Kashmiri parties enough to nullify the demographic disadvantage BJP suffers in the 68 percent Muslim majority state. If Bukhari is that player, then his aim would be to take over the non-separatist space in parts of Srinagar and some erstwhile PDP areas in Kashmir. Even a handful of seats may be enough to weaken the mainstream parties.
It’s not that the NC and PDP haven’t compromised with the Centre. The NC is tainted by the 1987 elections, which are widely alleged to have been rigged to ensure the victory of the NC-Congress alliance. The PDP on the other hand has faced allegations of being a creation of the Centre to break the monopoly of the National Conference in the late 1990s.
If one goes even more back in history, the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord brought an end to the Prime Minister's post in Jammu and Kashmir, one step towards diluting the autonomy of the state.
It also remains true that compromises with the Centre have seldom ended well for any leader, be it Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, GM Shah, Sheikh Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, or Mehbooba Mufti.
But despite all their compromises with the political autonomy of Kashmir, these leaders didn't make compromises that could change the cultural or religious profile of the Valley.
This may not be case now and any leader compromising with the BJP under the present circumstances, would be accused of going a few steps too many beyond what others did.