From a reliable Gandhi loyalist for nearly five decades, Ghulam Nabi Azad is now seen as one of the topmost dissenters by the Congress party. His recent activities and statements have provoked political pundits to make educated as well as wild guesses about his next move in his long political innings.
Many questions are being asked about Azad’s political ambition, especially on Kashmir’s sticky and altered political landscape post August 5, 2019. Is he hoping for a comeback as the next Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir? Will he cross the line and join the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or be content as the BJP’s B-team?
At the age of 72, Azad is perhaps convinced that he won’t enter the Upper House of Indian Parliament, Rajya Sabha, as the Leader of opposition ever again. Perhaps that door has been slammed shut for him forever. The Congress party has not ruled out any possibility, though.
Azad’s roots are in a remote village of Soti of Gandoh Tehsil (Bhalessa) in the Chenab Valley’s Bhaderwah area in Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir. Born on March 7, 1949, in Bhalessa Bhaderwah, Azad has come a long way.
According to a reliable family source, Azad fell in love with a renowned Kashmiri singer Shameema Dev and immediately decided to marry her in 1980. Azad and Shameema have two children—Saddam Nabi Azad (son) and Sofiya Nabi Azad (daughter). “Politics aside, Azad is a good husband, a loving father, and a humble human being,” a source told The Federal.
With no political experience or solid background, Azad’s ascendancy in the Congress Party has mostly depended on the Gandhi family’s ‘ashirvad’ (generosity)! It is highly believed that two years before the Emergency, Indira Gandhi handpicked him after taking a liking to his simple personality. He remained a Gandhi family loyalist from 1973 to 2020. After Indira’s assassination in October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi too continued giving Azad the importance that his mother did.
During his long political career, Azad has served as Minister of Health and Family Welfare, the Leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha, and Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir from 2005 until 2008 when the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was a partner of a coalition government with the Congress from 2002 till 2008. On rotation basis, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed served as the Chief Minister for the first three years. In the aftermath of the Amarnath land row and subsequent cancelling of transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), Azad eventually tendered his resignation.
Azad’s political innings began in 1973 from Doda district’s Bhalessa region as the secretary for the Block Congress Committee. He trudged up the ranks and got appointed as president of the Youth Congress. Seven years later, in 1980, Azad won his first parliamentary elections from Washim constituency in Maharashtra. Enjoying patronage of the Congress, he got inducted into the cabinet as a Union Minister in the Ministry of Law, Justice and Company Affairs in 1982.
As a key negotiator, he often helped his party to stitch seemingly difficult alliances in different states. Whenever the Congress anticipated trouble, Azad would come to the rescue by holding negotiations with the rivals and succeed in forging political partnerships with some of them. This helped him to climb up the political totem pole. He bagged a few more prolific roles in the government as a Minister of state.
In a dramatic sequence of events last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bid an emotional farewell to the Congress leader, saying “my doors are always open for you”. Modi almost held back his tears. Then, Azad delivered an emotional speech where he showered praise on several leaders, from Indira Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This surprised many in Kashmir for, in their view, Azad should have talked less about himself and more about the “arbitrary and unconstitutional removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and semi-autonomy”.
On his recent visit to Jammu region, Azad again praised Narendra Modi. This did not go down well with many, even among some of his admirers in the Congress party. “In Parliament, in terms of his conduct, Azad has generally been viewed as a decent legislator and a good human. One could see Prime Minister Modi’s praise in that context,” Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, a distinguished political analyst, told The Federal.
“But his praise of Modi in Jammu may have something to do with his current location at the political crossroads that he is placed at because of the dissenting position that he has taken vis-à-vis Congress leadership. He could be securing his alternative options in politics,” Professor Baba added.
What are his realistic political options? One view is that he could be a consensus candidate for Chief ministerial post as and when the BJP decides to restore Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood. The BJP may need a leader of his brand to sell its agenda in Kashmir.
In Professor’s Gul Wani’s appreciation, Kashmir politics is personality-centric. “From mountains of Jammu to the Kashmir Valley, Azad has the political outreach and acceptability. The BJP also needs a taller leader in Kashmir who can act as a saviour and seller of politics post-abrogation of Article 370.”
Veteran political commentator Professor Wani believes that Azad is trying “to generate more pressure for organisational overhaul within the Congress party. If that does not work well, Azad may get out and consider some sort of alignment with the BJP, if not complete merger.”
Azad’s speech in Jammu obviously was a contrast to his previous speech in the Rajya Sabha that he delivered soon after the Modi-led government scrapped J&K’s regional autonomous status and statehood in August 2019. Azad later became a part of the group of 23 senior Congress leaders who wrote to party’s interim chief Sonia Gandhi in August last year, demanding changes in the party organisation, including internal elections from the block and district levels to the central level. Unofficially, this group of dissenters has been given the moniker ‘G-23’. Azad has become the face of G-23.
“I like a lot of things about many leaders. I’m from a village and I feel proud of it. Even our PM (Narendra Modi) is from a village and used to sell tea. We’re political rivals, but I appreciate that he doesn’t hide his true self. Those who do are living in a bubble,” Azad said in Jammu.
Soon after he showered accolades on Modi, some Congress supporters burned his effigies in protest in Jammu and elsewhere. This put pressure on him to issue a clarification as damage control exercise through sources. People close to Azad told The Federal that the leader’s remarks were “misunderstood.” “In due course, Azad sahib will clarify and set the record straight.”
Of late, Azad has been criticising the party leadership of having a ‘five-star culture’. For obvious reasons, Azad’s statements have not gone down well with the party leadership.
Former Vice-Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), historian and noted academic Professor Siddiq Wahid told The Federal that “Ingratiating power when you are out of power. The test of competence, principles and, indeed, sincerity in politics: Politicians like Ghulam Nabi Azad need to introspect on that every day and wear the shoe that fits.”