Altaf Bukhari and the business of politics

Riyaz Wani | Updated on March 20, 2020

Side talk: Many believe that Altaf Bukhari (centre) is the Union government’s man in Kashmir   -  THE HINDU/ NISSAR AHMAD

The founder of Apni Party believes it will kick-start political activity in besieged Kashmir

In 1984, when Farooq Abdullah was the chief minister (CM) of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), 13 MLAs left his party, the National Conference (NC), to form a new political outfit by the name of Awami National Conference. GM Shah, Farooq’s brother-in-law, was later anointed the CM, while a 24-year-old businessman from Ladoora, a village in north Kashmir, became known in the state’s political circles for his “role” in the coup. It is said that the man liaised between the Indira Gandhi-led government at the Centre and the rebel MLAs.

More than 35 years later, the same person — Altaf Bukhari — is once again being called the Centre’s man in Kashmir. This time around, it’s the formation of his own political party that has brought him back to the headlines. Even as Kashmir’s major political leaders remain in detention, Bukhari launched Apni Party on March 2. While the founder claims the move will help restart politics in the region after the revocation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, many in Kashmir are viewing it as a breach of trust as the Valley continues to be under partial shutdown.

Bukhari’s new avatar is a throwback to 1984 as well: All 24 members of his party once belonged to the Congress and regional parties such as the NC and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). So Bukhari has not only alienated people but has also antagonised other parties — especially the PDP, which gave him his first election ticket.

But negativity doesn’t bother Bukhari. “I am not luring away any party’s leaders but if they want to join me, I can’t shut the door on them,” he says, seated in a room of his palatial house at Sheikh Bagh near Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s commercial hub. Bukhari, however, is aware of the risks he has invited. “Sometimes, one has to go against the tide if you believe what you are doing is for a good cause,” he says.

Bukhari’s familiarity with risks stems from his experience of being a businessman, and a successful one at that. He is one of the richest men in the Valley. As an agriculture graduate in the ’80s, he took over his father’s pesticide business and expanded it to other parts of the country. A decade later, he got into food processing and his company FIL Industries Limited had the distinction of being the only private player in apple processing with German collaboration. He also claims to have introduced controlled atmosphere storage (CAS) in Kashmir and helped the Container Corporation of India in creating a 12,000-tonne CAS facility in Haryana.

In 2014, when he contested his first Assembly election, he declared assets worth ₹84 crore, making him the richest contestant at the time. He became the roads and buildings minister in the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed cabinet. When the then CM passed away in January 2016, his daughter Mehbooba Mufti dithered over renewing PDP’s alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was reported that Bukhari was in talks with the BJP to form a government by splitting the PDP.

Mehbooba, who succeeded her father as chief minister, punished Bukhari by dropping him from the new council of ministers. Later, however, he was made education minister and soon elevated to the prize ministry of finance. What is more, when Mehbooba’s government fell in June 2018 following the BJP’s withdrawal of support, Bukhari didn’t become irrelevant. When PDP, NC and the Congress unsuccessfully tried to form a new coalition, Bukhari was the chief ministerial candidate. In January 2019, the PDP expelled him, along with seven others, for “anti-party activities”.

On August 5, the Centre detained all major leaders in Kashmir including the three former CMs — Farooq Abdullah and his son, Omar, and Mehbooba. Bukhari was released after a brief confinement. And that is when he began his engagement with the Centre for a “post-Article 370 future” for J&K. The engagement has now culminated in the launch of Apni Party. Many in Kashmir are calling it the “king’s party”. But this makes no difference to Bukhari, who says that the party is ready to welcome both kings and commoners.

Bukhari’s immediate list of demands include statehood and domicile rights for land and jobs — topics that figured in his recent meetings with PM Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi. But the average Kashmiri may not have confidence in the Centre’s assurances, given the scrapping of its special status and bifurcation of J&K into Union Territories. Bukhari, however, believes in being practical. “Is there another option,” he asks before leaving for a party meeting.

Riyaz Wani is a journalist based in Srinagar

Published on March 19, 2020

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