Third front in Kashmir?

Apni Party

By Sagarneel Sinha
In static mode for the past eight months, finally there is a stir in Kashmir politics. Recently, Altaf Bukhari, a former senior leader of the People’s Democratic Party, formed his own party “Apni Party”. The party is banking on importing leaders of his previous party and other mainstream parties of the Valley which include the National Conference, Congress and JK People’s Movement, another new party formed last year by former IAS officer Shah Faesal.
Kashmir valley for the past two decades has been dominated by the two family-centric mainstream parties — NC of the Abdullahs and PDP of the Muftis. In between these years, there have been attempts to form a viable third front but without any success. Sajjad Lone, a separatist turned mainstream politician, tried to revive the Jammu and Kashmir’s People’s Conference founded in the late 1970s by his father Abdul Ghani Lone, separatist politician who was killed by pro-Pakistani elements for refusing to accept the biddings of Pakistan in 2002. And last year, ex-IAS officer Shah Faesal’s formation of People’s Movement attracted a lot of attention. However, the party is presently lost in the wilderness and remains only in paper, whereas Sajjad Lone’s party is mostly limited to Kupwara district.
Amidst all this, Bukhari came with his new party where most of the leaders strongly symbolise the well-known English proverb “old wine in a new bottle”. Unlike Faesal, Bukhari is a mature senior politician in the Valley who had also served as an education minister and later as the finance minister in the previous PDP-BJP government.
What is of keen interest is that when almost all political leaders of Kashmir, including pro-BJP Sajjad Lone, were put under detention by the Centre after abrogation of Article 370 on 5th August last year, Bukhari was not on the list and wasn’t put under any detention or house arrest. This has prompted many commentators to call Bukhari as New Delhi’s appointee and his party as New Delhi’s party. These allegations become stronger when the BJP too is seento welcome the formation of Apni Party.
Bukhari is aware that these allegations may have some negative impact on his party’s image in the Valley and thus to dismiss these, though not quite easy, the senior politician has decided to launch the party in Jammu, the region which is mostly now known as BJP’s bastion. An indication that the leadership is seeking not to be tagged as New Delhi’s party or even the B-Team of BJP, like others too.
However, when it comes to Kashmir, there have been many B-Teams, engineered from New Delhi. The Congress had tried this by managing splits in the National Conference — prominent examples being of Bakshi Gulam Mohammed and Gulam Muhammad Shah. However, the most successful attempt was the creation of PDP in 1999 by former Congress leader Mufti Mohammad Saeed, who was also in Jan Morcha and served as the Home Minister in the VP Singh’s government. It is often said that the PDP was created with New Delhi’s support as an alternative to break the backbone of NC of the Abdullahs — when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister.
However, separatism encouraged by the top PDP leadership didn’t go down well with the Centre. As a result, despite having many disputes, it is said that New Delhi, whether it is under BJP or Congress, has often preferred Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah than Mufti and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti. Recently, former RAW Chief A.S. Dulat in an interview to an online media house revealed that the present BJP leadership initially tried to form an alliance with the NC after the 2014 Assembly election results of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir State.
And though it somehow didn’t materialise, as perhaps Omar Abdullah wasn’t keen for the alliance, the end result was the saffron party was left with no options but to form an alliance with PDP. Not to forget that during Vajpayee’s era NC was an ally of BJP and Omar was a Cabinet minister.
So, the big question in this new push by New Delhi is whether the NC has been the most reliable partner of the Centre for years? There is another side of the story. Separatism has strengthened itself on the ground in the Valley. As a result, pro-New Delhi NC, when out of power, has sometimes spoken in the same vein as those expressed by Pakistan-backed separatists.
When it comes to nationalism, the present BJP Modi-Amit Shah leadership follows a tough approach. This can be seen in Bukhari’s language. He hasn’t criticised the abrogation of Article 370 and instead focussed on present issues such as demand for restoration of statehood, domicile law for Jammu and Kashmir, equitable developments of both regions, dignified return of Kashmiri Pandits et al — which generally don’t get objected to by the BJP.
Recently, an Apni Party delegation met with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, where the latter assured that demographics of Kashmir won’t be changed, a major concern of Kashmiris post the abrogation of Article 370. The delegation also demanded the lifting of house arrest of both Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.
It is also true that many Kashmiris now are trying to adjust with the present situation, as they know that Article 370 has gone forever. New Delhi under Modi-Shah team through Bukahri’s Apni Party is trying to create another PDP as was done by Vajpayee-Advani. The difference is that the present leadership wants to create a party minus colours of Pakistan-backed separatism and the Apni Party, as of now, has avoided the shades of separatism.
The Centre is trying to cause a heavy damage to Mehbooba’s party, most of the leaders of Apni Party, including Bukhari himself, are from it and which already has lost its base due to its alliance with the BJP. On the other side, this is also a move to keep the pressure on pro-India cadre based NC, which undoubtedly still remains the most popular mainstream party on the ground in Kashmir.
Nevertheless, the road for Bukhari isn’t so easy. The Centre has released Farooq Abdullah so that the Valley’s grand old party can resume politics. This perhaps is a signal from New Delhi to Bukhari that it is still eager to do business with NC. And interestingly, senior Abdullah hasn’t yet made any strong criticism against the Centre. So, for Bukahri, who also admires Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal development model, has to remain connected to the ground realities of Kashmir if he has to make his party “apni” for Kashmiris, while also maintaining friendly relations with New Delhi.
After all, the indisputable truth is that Kashmir’s fate is forever connected with New Delhi and not with Islamabad. It remains to be seen whether this third front will be viable. Bukhari’s attempts can’t be dismissed lightly. —INFA