SRINAGAR : Built on the fall of the so-called special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the Apni Party is now faced with slow and low profile exodus which could soon be unmanageable and irreversible as draft proposals of the Delimitation Commission has put its founder Altaf Bukhari in a spot.
Outcome of any delimitation process, anywhere in the country, leaves different political and social sections unhappy as is the case with change in any status quo but for the Apni Party in Jammu and Kashmir it has come as question to its existential ‘promise’, a naivety its leadership shouldn’t have taken to. As a number of Apni Party leaders including its founder lose the shape, size and composition of their constituencies, they are asking questions about a ‘promise’ which may have been entirely ‘unconstitutional’, advertently or inadvertently.
The ‘August 5’ Constitutional changes meant an effective change of the entire political status quo before restoration of the normal political process through next elections. A number of politicians made public their symbolic dismay over the loss of special status of Jammu and Kashmir but deep inside most were worried about losing the shape and composition of their electoral constituencies through the forthcoming delimitation process. This is where Altaf Bukhari held out the promise and premise of his Apni Party.
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His initial on-boarding process through private conversations with leaders of National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party and the Congress was mainly about “protecting the assembly constituencies” and ensuring the personal security detail which many politicians had lost before and after August 5. Interestingly, as a dividend of the prolonged disturbed situation in Kashmir, the personal security detail have over the decades been a measure of the stature political leaders across Jammu and Kashmir, even in the normal places such as Jammu city. The number of security guards in escort and at home has also come to determine the level of access to the power.
“Bukhari Sahab had visited me in early February 2020 to invite me to join the Apni Party. Besides explaining to me the importance of formation of new party as a sincere contribution to resumption of democratic process, he had categorically promised to have the boundaries and population composition of my constituency protected as it existed”, a former Minister told the Dispatch. Currently holding a senior position in the Apni Party, the former Minister has lost a significant part of his constituency in the delimitation process, even as he continues to enjoy a ministerial level security protection with his person and four residential locals across three districts in Jammu and Kashmir.
Announcing its mega arrival on March 8, 2020, the Apni Party had put up a spectacular show by making people see around two dozen former ministers and legislators on the side of Altaf Bukhari who had himself just walked out of the departure lounge of the Peoples Democratic Party. With top leadership of the Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference under detention since August 5, 2019, Bukhari’s co-founders of the Apni Party mainly came from these two parties.
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A week later, Bukhari took a planeload of his co-founders to a meeting with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. This meeting was the first major political contact between New Delhi and Kashmir after reading down of the special status. The Prime Minister and the Home Minister, who they met with the next day, received the delegation with extraordinary warmth and held out commitments on all genuine issued of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
“The Prime Minister’s and Home Minister’s reception of us was a great message to the administration and people in Jammu and Kashmir on the strength of which we could have built a great party”, an Apni Party leader told The Dispatch. “Sadly, most of our colleagues spent this strength on fixing old political rivalries and building fake image of power while not going to the public”, regretted the Apni Party leader.
Emerging from these two meetings, empowered by the commitments from highest authorities in the country, the Apni Party leaders were expected to go back to people, to build confidence, bridge the gaps between public and local government. However, instead of taking advantage of their access in New Delhi, misreading the respect and importance accorded to them, some of them started flaunting their connections and giving out false impressions of enjoying informal powers.
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While many top leaders of Apni Party began to claim removal and postings of officers from Secretaries, Deputy Commissioner to SHOs and Patwaris, the party supremo Altaf Bukhari dished out major commitments –protection of land, protection of jobs and culture, early restoration of statehood, fair elections. The weirdest of all of all promises of Bukhari’s have been “protection of constituencies” in delimitation process.
The delimitation is a quasi judicial, independent and autonomous process on which the politicians should not claim any influence. A number of Apni Party leaders claim that Bukhari continued to make repeated promises on delimitation until July 2020 when probably he realized that his influence was never going to make any impact on the process. At this stage he started accusing the BJP of influencing the delimitation process. In one interview to Junaid Hashmi of The Straightline in Jammu, Bukhari went on to accuse the State Election Department of “working at the behest of a political party”.
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The Apni Party sources say that Bukhari had also hired a team of experts to study the ground realities and make appropriate recommendations. “I don’t think Bukhari ever meant influencing the political process politically”, claims an Apni Party leader as he says, “Bukhari Sahab spent significant resources, energy, time and attention on creating studies, research and analysis for the delimitation commission to address”.
On December 20, when the Delimitation Commission shared with the Associate Members the methodology by way of which six of the seven new constituencies were proposed to be allocated to Jammu region, all regional parties reacted bitterly. The one party which had a moral problem was the Apni Party for its public promises that ‘justice’ in delimitation is one of the core premises on which the party was founded in March 2020.
Alleged that the Delimitation Commission’s draft recommendations have been framed to “suit only one political party”, Bukhari said on December 23, 2021, that his party was open for an alliance with other mainstream parties to “protect the rights of the people”. This offer of alliance had a moral dilemma in the background. Bukhari had for a very long criticized NC and PDP for supporting the delimitation processes which, he said, had left the people unrepresented. Now since the proverbial cat was out of bag –as far as allocation of seven seats was concerned –Bukhari now appeared reaching out to NC, PDP and also the People’s Conference of Sajad Lone for a joint response. None came forward, though.
Far from “securing constituencies” for Apni Party co-founders, Bukhari has lost his own constituency in Srinagar district. Bukhari had contested and won his first election from Amirakadal in Srinagar by defeating Nasir Sogami of National Conference in 2014. Securing 11726 votes from Amirakadal, Bukhari had established himself as key Kashmir politician, a dream he cherished since 1984 days of the fall of Farooq Abdullah Government.
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The senior vice president in Bukhari’s party, the veteran Ghulam Hassan Mir retains the name of his constituency but has lost areas to three neighboring Constituencies including the newly named Kunzer in Baramulla district. Since 1983, Hassan Mir’s stature has been due to his political acumen but also the population subsets in Tangmarg constituency. After being part of the cohort which toppled Farooq’s government in 1984 and being with Janta Dal, he had once inched back to National Conference but Farooq Abdullah didn’t concede Tangmarg to him which he had reserved for his brother Muatafa Kamal. Mir defeated Kamal in 2002 and returned as key player in Kashmir’s politics. Tangmarg now stands shredded.
Another main source of strength in the Apni Party, Usman Majeed retains his Bandipore constituency but has lost Ajas –the main area of his influence –to Sonawari constituency. Further north, Pahari leaders Javed Mirchal and Raja Manzoor are in spot after a significant part of Kupwara constituency is proposed to be moved into Karnah, thus changing the existing demographic dynamics.
In South Kashmir, from where Rafi Mir, another heavyweight comes to Apni Party, Pahalgam and Anantnag have undergone significant changes
Massive changes affecting political grounds of Apni Party leaders have happened in the Jammu region. One of the most potential winners for the forthcoming elections, Aijaz Ahmed Khan, in Reasi district, has lost his Gool-Arnas constituency. Khan brothers –Ajaz and Mumtaz –were seen as topmost political assets of Apni Party in the Jammu region.
In Reasi district, the altogether disappearance of Gool-Arnas Constituency, has raised new challenges for veteran leader Ajaz Ahmed Khan. The Gool-Arnas Constituency has been consumed in parts into the newly created Shri Mata Vaishno Devi, Reasi and Mahore Constituencies.
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A popular leader, Khan won three elections in a row. His brother also won from the erstwhile Ghulabgarh in 2014. Khan, one of the longest running Ministers in last few decades, may still contest from the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Constituency which has 23% SC votes and 15% ST votes.
Manjit Singh is among those mass base leaders the Apni Party roped in in Jammu region. His influence goes far and beyond his Vijaypur constituency.
A Jatt leader and president of the bipartisan powerful community organization, he has lost not only his constituency but all those constituencies which contain significant Jatt population. Samba district has seen creation of a new constituency called Ramgarh, with areas taken out from Samba and Vijaypur constituencies. Ramgarh seat accounts for significant vote account offering Manjit Singh good chances to win but this constituency has been proposed to be reserved for the Scheduled Castes. Suchetgarh and Marh, which have been electing Jatt leaders in past, have also, been reserved for the Scheduled Caste.
In Rajouri district, two key Apni Party co-founders, Chowdhary Zulfkar Ali and Choudhary Qamar Hussain, have lost shape and population composition of their constituencies. “Exclusion of Charhan, Nagrtoa, Palma, Sanukote, Sankari, Kotedhara is unacceptable”, said Ali said in a statement.
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The Apni Party, sources said, is now preparing a comprehensive petition to be presented before the Delimitation Commission during its public hearing once the draft report is formally made public later this month.