‘I’m sowing the seeds of service, hope they will bear fruit’: Altaf Bukhari
After seven months of an unprecedented security and internet lockdown in the wake of the revocation of Article 370, Jammu and Kashmir is ushering in a spring marked by a calibrated easing of restrictions and release of political leaders. The latest straw in the wind is an effort to break the political ice. Altaf Bukhari, Kashmir’s leading business tycoon and an expelled senior leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has emerged as the prime mover in efforts to revive the political process.
On March 8, he is expected to announce the formation of a new political party, christened J&K Apni Party. The former minister’s gambit, widely seen to have the tacit backing of the Narendra Modi Government, is significant, coming when the Centre has slapped a stringent Public Safety Act, extending the detention of three key mainstream figures -- former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah (National Conference) and Mehbooba Mufti (PDP). Rallying behind Bukhari are 20-odd former legislators, mostly those expelled from the PDP.
In public perception, Bukhari, 60, is a practical man, an astute and resourceful political manager and a confidant of the establishment. But he calls himself a diehard optimist and insists that he is sowing the seeds of service and hopes they will bear fruit. Will he be dismissed as New Delhi’s stooge by the people of Jammu and Kashmir or will he be able to play a role in the new political order? Bukhari spoke about his motivation and the challenges he faces, in a wide-ranging interview with Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak at his swanky bungalow in Jammu. Excerpts:
What is your reading of the current situation in J&K?
Post-August 5, perceptions may vary but the hard reality is that Article 370 has been scrapped. Some people have moved the Supreme Court. ‘Khuda kare wohi ho jo log chahte hain (May the will of the people prevail)’. But, life has to go on. In the past seven months, problems have piled up. Jammu and Kashmir’s economy has been shattered, tourism is zero, and the hotel industry has gone down. Everyone is affected. So, somebody has to speak up for them. There are day-to-day problems that can’t wait for normalcy to return. One good thing is that our people behaved maturely. They have not come out on the streets. Lives were saved. I compliment the people. Of course, the administration also gets credit.
What can be done to restart the political process?
The starting point is to articulate people’s woes and get them redressed. That is what I am trying to do with a clear-cut purpose. There is no power politics in this. I strongly believe that Delhi cannot get somebody elected in Kashmir. It is your own people who will elect you. That stage will come when the assembly elections are held. I don’t see elections for a year-and-a-half because the delimitation process is to be undertaken. But, if we wait and do nothing till there is normalcy and all political leaders are released, our economy will further suffer. That is why I have got active to feel the pulse of the people. I’m launching a political formation called the J&K Apni Party. We have joined hands with a group of people with the common intent to raise public issues. We met the Lt Governor with a charter of 15 demands, such as the restoration of statehood, domicile rights for land and jobs, release of all political prisoners, including the three former chief ministers. People’s response to our initiative has been good. We know it is not within the LG’s powers to restore statehood and it will have to be done by Parliament. But he is the first point for contact. I have been out of the PDP for a year. But I haven’t stopped political outreach. I’m the only politician running a 5,000-sq ft office in Srinagar.
Why float a party when three former CMs are in detention under the stringent Public Safety Act?
We don’t know what is in the minds of those at the helm. I have a lot of respect for Dr Farooq Abdullah. He is the tallest among us. Omar (Abdullah) sahib has a humane heart. Mehbooba (Mufti) is a leader in her own right, though I may differ with her approach. But I can’t say they don’t matter. Unfortunately, after August 5 these parties behaved as if they were private limited companies. When their owners got jailed, the parties became dormant and stopped talking about people’s problems that have only become graver. Parties are meant to raise people’s issues with the government. That’s the task my colleagues and I have taken upon ourselves. We met the LG with a charter of demands. Mehbooba ji reacted and threw 10 former ministers and MLAs, including me, out of the party. She threw all of us out on the ground that we support the abrogation of Article 370. We didn’t have any locus standi to do that because the matter is in the Supreme Court.
What will the agenda of your party be?
We will seek what is achievable. The restoration of statehood and domicile rights for land, jobs and education will be our prime agenda. Besides, the autonomy of J&K Bank will be as dear to us as Article 370 because it gives 85% credit in Jammu and Kashmir.
There is a perception that your political venture has the blessing of Delhi. So don’t you run the risk of being dubbed the Centre’s stooge?
It’s a common perception in Kashmir that Delhi has not stood by anybody. But, at the end of the day, somebody has to start talking. I’m not talking to Pakistan. Our issues are with Hindustan. That means the Prime Minister or home minister of India. Who else will one talk to? I would not say that I don’t know them. I have been a minister who delivered. I have a clean image. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants clean politics in Kashmir, but I don’t go by his perception of blaming all of Kashmir’s problems on politicians and Article 370. It has been seven months since the special status was revoked, but we have not seen any rivers of milk and mounds of honey here since.
The PDP accuses you of back-stabbing.
That does not hold because I was expelled from the party without even a show-cause notice.
Who are the leaders rallying behind you?
Let’s not talk about the leaders. I’m an aam aadmi (common man). I’m not blue-blooded. My forefathers were not in politics. We are forming a party for the common man who aspires for peace and development of J&K. To me, power is not the end, it is a means to an end. At the moment, we will work to get some succour for the people and get the economy back on rails besides seeing if we can work with Delhi for our political agenda. It is not that we will jump into the fire. There is a danger. People will accuse me of being a traitor. Only time will tell whether we are pro-people or black sheep.
Right now, only some breakaway PDP leaders are siding with you.
I’ve not come forward to break parties. If someone wants to join me voluntarily, he or she is welcome. There is enormous young blood available to carry forward my mission to bring relief to the people. Some experienced people will also join hands with us.
You seem to be modelling your party on the Aam Aadmi Party?
I’m inspired by how they built it around the slogan of development. Maybe Kashmir also needs such a model.
You have been in touch with senior PDP leader Muzaffar Baig. Has he come on board?
At present, he is the patron of the PDP. I can reach out to him only if he resigns from that position.
You don’t have any cadre or organizational set-up.
That is a fact. But we are working for the people and will find volunteers. Fifteen to 20 people who have joined me have the legislative experience.
You will have to build your party from a scratch.
We will do that. In fact, we will have to build the state from a scratch because we have lost everything. What happened on August 5 was like disrobing us publicly. The only thing is that we have not committed suicide. We are living in shame.
Will the Kashmiris accept you?
I’ll make an endeavour to find a place in their hearts. If I get that in even 10% of the people, my objective will be achieved. The NC, PDP, Congress and the BJP are all responsible for the mess in J&K. They have a baggage that I don’t. The NC and PDP based their politics on slogans of autonomy and self-rule, but it has not borne any fruit. Rather, we have even lost what we had. They will have to come up with an explanation on whether their stand is still relevant. I’ll go to the people with what is achievable. I’ll promise according to my capacity. Agar mein ek mann ka wajan utha sakta hoon, ek hee uthayoonga (If I can lift 40-kg weight, I will lift only that much).
Why should Kashmiris trust you?
They should never trust me blind-folded. The biggest mistake they made is that they have been taking politicians on their word. Let them first watch my work and assess how much I have delivered on a scale of one to 10. Even if I am given four, they should start noticing me. Kashmiris will not be fooled any longer. That is why they have not hit the streets in favour of the Abdullahs and Mehbooba.
What role do you see for traditional mainstream leaders such as the Abdullahs and Mehbooba?
Of course, they still matter. You cannot wish them away. But who knows what will be their stand tomorrow? You can’t keep them behind bars forever. They should be released immediately. There may be difference of opinion between the Centre and them but they have always stood for India. That is a lesson for the likes of me too.
What is the lesson?
The lesson is to be mindful about how Delhi treats the people who stood by it. If someone tells me that Delhi is hand-holding me, I am not a fool. But I have no confrontation with Delhi. I have to deal with the central government. If I don’t, nobody will allow me to enter North Block or South Block. I work like a businessman and know how things work and what is possible. We also need support of India’s political parties for J&K who believe in the secular fabric of the country.
What is your equation with the PM or home minister?
I am too small a man to claim personal rapport with them. Definitely, they must have noticed me as I have come forward and am articulating people’s issues for the last month and a half.
The Centre claims normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir.
There is normalcy only in terms of peace. That is because people have chosen to stay peaceful. The rest I don’t buy. Unless economic activities are restored, tourists are back, horticulture and industry are back on the rails, how can it be normal? It is all optics. Nothing is happening on the ground. The PM is being given wrong feedback.
How have the Delhi communal riots impacted Kashmiris?
It is not impacting us because we have suffered worse than that here. It is a bad phase in the nation’s politics.
What is your next big test in Kashmir?
My test will be whether I can persuade Delhi to give something to Jammu and Kashmir. I have taken a huge risk. I am not asking for the moon. I want to use my credibility, whatever little I have, as a businessman or as a politician with the decision-makers in Delhi.