Kashmir: Apni Party is here. But can it win an election?
Apni Party, launched in Kashmir on Sunday by Altaf Bukhari, is unlikely to find spontaneous support for its politics. Its relevance, if any, hinges on an absence of political opposition which the centre has so far ensured by denying space to the established parties across the mainstream-separatist divide. But there is a limit to the centre’s role.
Finally, Apni Party was launched in Kashmir on Sunday. As expected, its leader Altaf Bukhari made politically correct noises, staying well short of demanding a reversal of the revocation of Article 370 which granted J&K autonomy under India’s constitution. Instead, he chose to focus on what he termed as “achievable demands”, which includes statehood for J&K and domicile rights for land and government jobs. While these demands do resonate with the people of J&K, a preponderant majority is loath to let go of the semi-autonomous status enjoyed by the region under Article 370. So, it is unlikely that Bukhari’s party will find much purchase in J&K. That is, unless it is the only party that is allowed to carry on with political activities in the region, and which is the case as of now.
As is well-known, New Delhi has imprisoned the top leadership of the main regional parties like the National Conference and the PDP. And for that matter, that of the smaller parties like People’s Conference and J&K People’s Movement floated last year by the former IAS topper Shah Faesal. This has brought their political activities to a halt. For the past seven months, none of these parties has held a rally, a public outreach program, or even a press conference.
Ditto for separatist groups. Almost all their leadership and the activists have been jailed. They have thus struggled to even issue a call for a hartal, let alone hold protests, which is otherwise their regular activity.
The consequent political vacuum certainly needed filling, but with a political representation that gave voice to the aspirations and the grievances of the people, and certainly not with the one that is seen to represent New Delhi in Kashmir. More so, at a time when New Delhi has divested Kashmir of its cherished special status.
So, on the face of it, Apni Party is unlikely to find spontaneous support for its politics. Under the circumstances, its relevance, if any, hinges on an absence of political opposition and which the centre has so far ensured by denying space to the established parties across the mainstream-separatist divide.
But there is a limit to the centre’s role. For example, it cannot prevent the other parties from participating in the polls, which will be the real test for Apni Party. And should the other parties contest the future elections, as doesn’t look unlikely, Apni Party is unlikely to fare well. Although some of its leaders do enjoy a strong support base in their respective constituencies, a conspicuous pro-New Delhi tilt of Bukhari’s party may not translate into votes. That is, unless the centre resorts to wholesale rigging of polls, a la 1987 style when a Congress government at the centre facilitated the manipulation of the election in favour of the National Conference. Muslim United Front, which otherwise had appeared the favourite to sweep the polls, ended up winning just four seats. But it may not be easy or advisable for the centre under the BJP to go that far this time.
Bukhari will have to develop his political credibility, the chances of which look moot. It will be a challenge for him to make his politics relate to the people. The general population in Kashmir still seems unwilling to let go of Article 370. Apparently, there's still no space for pro-India politics which doesn't acknowledge or seek to address the political conflict in Kashmir.
So, one would wonder what it is that motivates Bukhari and the other leaders of his party, if eventually, they don’t get to enjoy power? More so, when they have staked everything to be on the good side of New Delhi at a time when people are angry about its decision to abrogate Article 370. It is not an easy question to answer.
It, however, doesn't still mean that Bukhari's efforts are doomed to fail. They may well come to nought. But as long as the centre protects his politics from any opposition by keeping the established political leaders under detention, Bukhari is certain to draw a lot of attention, if not make himself immediately relevant. This makes the coming weeks and months very interesting in Kashmir. It remains to be seen if Bukhari and his team are able to create a space for an alternative political narrative in Kashmir, a job they have apparently taken upon themselves to accomplish.