At helm of new J&K outfit, one of Valley’s richest politicians; in ranks, leaders with links across parties

Bashaarat Masood, Adil Akhzer, Arun Sharma
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Former PDP minister Altaf Bukhari and other leaders at the launch of Apni Party in Srinagar on Sunday. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi )

ONE OF the richest politicians of Kashmir, Altaf Bukhari’s first brush with politics came when he had just left college as an agriculture graduate. At 24, the resident of Ladoora village in Sopore was seen as one of the key players behind a coup orchestrated by the Centre in 1984 to replace then Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah with his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah, acting as the liaison between Delhi and the rebel National Conference leaders.

Also read | Altaf Bukhari launches Apni Party, says want to end mistrust between Delhi and J&K

It was only in 2005, however, that he formally plunged into politics, using his over-30 years in the sidelines to build ties across political lines on the strength of his financial clout. Having grown close to People’s Democratic Party (PDP) founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Bukhari chose the PDP to make his debut and was soon its main face in Srinagar, forcing local stalwart Tariq Hameed Karra out.

In 2014, Bukhari contested and won his first election as the PDP candidate from Amirakadal Assembly constituency in Srinagar, and was rewarded by Mufti with the coveted Roads and Buildings (R&B) Ministry.

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Bukhari was expelled from the PDP in January 2019 following allegations that he 'inspired and led dissent in the party'. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

Mufti’s death though, and Mehbooba Mufti’s dithering over continuing in government with the BJP saw Bukhari lead a rebellion. When Mehbooba finally took over as CM, she punished Bukhari for his dalliance with the BJP by stripping him of his portfolio. However, given Bukhari’s deep pockets, he couldn’t be kept out for long.

In 2017, he returned as Education Minister, followed it up with the coveted finance portfolio. When the BJP pulled out and the PDP and National Conference (NC) entered talks to form a government, his name was even floated as the consensus CM candidate. However, that was scuttled when Assembly was dissolved.

In January 2019, Mehbooba cracked down against him again, expelling him from the PDP for continuing his “anti-party activities”. Bukhari never hid his eagerness to engage with the Centre, and in October last year, 60-year-old Bukhari and PDP patron Muzaffar Hussain Beig attended a luncheon hosted by NSA Ajit Doval in New Delhi.

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At the launch, Altaf Bukhari said the party would preserve the self-respect and dignity of people of the Union Territory. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

Having started out with a pesticide manufacturing unit and since diversifying, Bukhari’s name had come up in connection with money laundering. Last year, the National Investigation Agency had summoned his brother, Tariq Bukhari, for questioning in hawala transactions.

Other leaders of Bukhari’s party include:

Ghulam Hassan Mir: A former Gulmarg MLA, the 70-year-old was agriculture minister in Omar Abdullah’s government from 2009-14. Mir’s name had cropped in an Army inquiry into the functioning of a secret intelligence unit set up by then Army chief General V K Singh.

While Mir had called the charge baseless, V K Singh had called Mir a “God, a nationalist and unifying factor in Jammu and Kashmir”.

Nicknamed as “manager” in political and security circles for his organisational skills, Mir, who had facilitated interactions of a 2010 all-party delegation, including then home minister P Chidambaram and BJP leader Arun Jaitley, with people in Tangmarg.

Muhammad Dilawar Mir: A former PDP minister, the 70-year-old is a relative of Altaf Bukhari. In 2014, he had been awarded three years’ jail and fined Rs 3.21 crore by a Delhi court over the wrongful release of Rs 30 lakh and a contract for sale of urea to his firm by the public sector National Fertilizers Limited between 1993-96. However, the court had granted him bail and suspended the sentence till January 2, 2015, to enable him to file an appeal.

Usman Majeed: Former Congress general secretary and MLA, the 60-year-old was once a part of the infamous counter-insurgent Ikhwan in the Valley. After he attended a lunch hosted by NSA Ajit Doval in New Delhi in October last year, the Congress had served him a notice. In February, he resigned from the Congress.

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Former PDP minister Altaf Bukhari at the launch of his 'Apni Party' in Srinagar on Sunday. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

Rafi Mir: A former legislator from Pahalgam in South Kashmir, the 61-year-old was expelled from the PDP after he met a delegation of foreign envoys who visited Srinagar in January. Earlier in the NC, he joined the PDP in 2006. After he lost in the 2014 Assembly elections, he was named vice-chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation by the PDP government.

Chowdhary Zulfikar Ali: A resident of Rajouri, the 51-year-old is the son of prominent NC leader Choudhary Mohammad Hussain. A two-time PDP MLA from Darhal, he was seen as the face of the party in the Pir Panchal region of Jammu and among its senior-most leaders. Made a minister by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in 2015, he stayed in the Mehbooba Cabinet. Ali’s nephew, Srinagar Deputy Commissioner Shahid Choudhary, has played a key role in the administration since the August 5 abrogation of the state’s special status.

Ajaz Ahmad Khan: The brother-in-law of Zulfikar Ali, the three-time Congress MLA from Gool-Arnas constituency in Reasi served as a minister in successive J&K coalition governments between 2002 and 2014, variously headed by Mufti, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Omar Abdullah.

A law graduate from Jammu University, 54-year-old Khan is the son of late Gujjar leader Haji Buland Khan. His brother Mumtaz Ahmed Khan, a first-time Congress MLA from Gulabgarh in Reasi, has also joined the new party. Khan’s sister is married to Zulfikar Ali.

Syed Asgar Ali: A former PDP legislator from Kishtwar, Ali had emerged as the NC’s face in the Chenab valley in Jammu. His daughter Sehrish Asgar, an IAS officer and Director, Information, has been seen as the administration’s face since the August 5 move.

Manjeet Singh: Samba district president of the Congress, the 56-year-old was earlier in the BSP as well as a part of the Mufti Cabinet. He lost the 2014 Assembly elections on a Congress ticket.

Kamal Arora: The 58-year-old was elected for the first time in 2014, winning from Bishnah Assembly seat in Jammu on an NC ticket. He is a registered medical practitioner in Ayurvedic and Unani medicines.