Ghulam Nabi Azad’s desertion: What does it mean for Cong in J&K?

Ghulam Nabi Azad’s desertion: What does it mean for Cong in J&K?

The bitter and angry resignation by Ghulam Nabi Azad — a Gandhi family loyalist for about five decades — from the Indian National Congress (INC) was being anticipated for a while now, but the manner in which Azad’s desertion move plays itself out on the political chessboard of Jammu and Kashmir in the near future would be attention-grabbing for sure.

“Some of my other colleagues and I will now persevere to perpetuate the ideals for which we have dedicated our entire adult lives, outside the formal fold of the Indian National Congress,” Azad wrote in his detailed resignation letter. in which he took a pointed dig at Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.

In words of a former president of Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC), Azad’s departure from the INC is “unfortunate, but not unexpected.” Several Congress veterans in Kashmir are not stunned by Azad’s walking out.

In March 2021, The Federal had predicted Azad’s future course of action — that he could be hoping to make a comeback as the next chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir with the blessings of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or cross the line and join the BJP, or float his own party and be content as the BJP’s B-team.

Also read: Ghulam Nabi Azad to launch new party soon, first unit in J&K

Azad, at the age of 73, is perhaps convinced that he won’t enter the Upper House of Parliament as the leader of opposition ever again. For all practical reasons, that door has been slammed shut for him forever.

A casual reading of the situation would make one jump to a hasty conclusion that Azad’s exit from the Congress Party only two months subsequent to Kapil Sibal’s leaving is another “major blow” for the grand old party. But on Jammu and Kashmir’s political landscape it is no earth-shaking moment given the enormous changes made after reading down of Articles 370 and 35(A) in August 2019. In J&K, politics has been made redundant since June 2018 when the BJP broke its alliance with the regional People’s Democratic Party (PDP), its coalition partner since early 2015.

 Expected exit

Veteran Congress leaders from Jammu and Kashmir though concede that when the party’s 45-year-long investment made on someone like Azad does not bear fruit, it is a “cause of concern.”

“Even if an ordinary booth level worker leaves the party, you feel sad and bad. Ghulam Nabi Azad’s departure is unfortunate, but it is not unexpected. His resignation too is part of the BJP’s game plan for Kashmir,” Ghulam Ahmad Mir, former president of JKPCC (2015-2022) and ex-member of J&K Legislative Assembly from south Kashmir’s Dooru constituency, told The Federal.

Immediately after Azad’s exit from INC, at least eight of his loyalists, including three former ministers, resigned from the party’s primary membership. Sources in the know told The Federal that a few more “resignations in solidarity with Azad by his supporters cannot be ruled out.”

Those who expressed solidarity with Azad and exited Congress include former ministers R S Chib, G M Saroori and Abdul Rashid; former MLAs Mohammad Amin Bhat, Gulzar Ahmad Wani and Choudhary Akram; and former member of erstwhile J&K Legislative Council Naresh Gupta. Salman Nizami, a loyalist of the Azad camp, has also shared aims with Azad.

Do these resignations mean anything significant in terms of electoral arithmetic? Critics of Azad say that he has never won an election in J&K on his own and that his importance was largely credited to his proximity to the Gandhi family and the positions and posts that he was bestowed with from time to time.

“We all heard what Narendra Modi said to him during his farewell in Parliament and how Azad responded to the praises showered on him. Azad was totally blown away. He was duly rewarded for his role played before and after abrogation of Article 370. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2022,” a veteran Congress leader said on condition of anonymity.

Padma Bhushan is India’s third highest civilian award; it was given to Azad for his work in the field of public affairs.

“Azad’s praise of Modi as a return gift (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,” senior political commentator Professor Baba had told The Federal.

Farooq Abdullah’s ‘googly’

In an interesting twist, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Dr Farooq Abdullah, has offered comfort to Azad and struck a conciliatory tone. “If and when it happens and if he (Ghulam Nabi Azad) asks us, our doors (of the J&K National Conference) are open; our heart is open for him. Zaroor (Indeed), Bismillah (in the name of God!),” senior Abdullah said, adding that “Azad worked for India, not for the BJP. So what if PM Modi patted him on his back, that does not make him pro-BJP.”

Speaking to a television channel, Abdullah said that “Someone in Rahul Gandhi’s close circle is not only giving him wrong advice, but is also trying to finish off the Congress.”

However, with an eye on the forthcoming elections in J&K, Azad appears all set to launch a Jammu and Kashmir unit of his new political outfit soon. For obvious reasons, speculation is rife in relation to Azad’s political ambition and next moves on Kashmir’s now altered political landscape post August 5, 2019.

Leaving a bitter taste

Salman Soz, economist, author and Congress leader, said that Azad’s flight from Congress telegraphs a wrong message. “His exit sends out a message that in politics, ideological commitment does not matter. After such a long association, what does it say if a leader of his stature leaves in such a way?” Soz told The Federal, adding, “Azad Sahab’s departure leaves a bitter taste because a senior leader like him should have shown more grace. How do you leave at a stage when India needs a united opposition against the BJP?”

In Soz’s words, the manner in which Azad left appears to be all about hurting the very party he grew up with. “It is like hurting a family that is already down. He may be putting himself and his self-interest ahead of his family, the Congress family,” he further said, adding, “It is disappointing but that seems to be the new norm with a very ascendant dictatorial regime receiving even more support because of episodes like this.”

Another veteran Congress leader said that Azad enjoyed political power and the perks that came along with it for four decades that no Congressperson could dream about. “It is not a happy occasion, but life moves on,” the leader said while sarcastically adding that “He is good-looking and tall, which makes him a showpiece for the BJP come the elections in J&K.”

Azad’s profile

Azad hails from 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. He served as the leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha for seven years, beginning 2014. Besides, he also served as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir from 2005 to 2008.

In the aftermath of the Amarnath land row and subsequent cancelling of transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) in 2008, Azad had to eventually tender his resignation as J&K’s chief minister.

With no political experience or solid background to bank on, Azad’s ascendancy in the Congress was mostly dependent on Gandhi family’s ‘ashirvad’ (generosity)! It is widely believed that two years before the Emergency (1975), Indira Gandhi handpicked him after taking a liking to his simple personality.

His political journey 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 was inducted into the cabinet as Union minister in the Ministry of Law, Justice and Company Affairs in 1982.

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.

According to a reliable family source, Azad fell in love with a renowned Kashmiri singer Shameema Dev and instantly decided to marry her in 1980. Azad and Shameema have two children – son Saddam and daughter Sofiya. “Politics aside, Azad is a good husband, a loving father and a humble human being,” a source told The Federal.

The path ahead

After forming his own political outfit, what could lay ahead for Azad? He could become a consensus candidate for the chief ministerial post as and when the BJP decides to restore J&K’s statehood and holds assembly elections under the new order.

Also read: How BJP is becoming its own dangerous enemy

According to political scientist Professor’s Gul Wani, Kashmir politics has historically been personality-centric. “From mountains of Jammu to the Kashmir Valley, Azad has 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.”

Dr Siddiq Wahid, former Vice-Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), told The Federal that “Ingratiating power when you are out of power; the test of competence, principles and, indeed, sincerity in politics — politicians like Azad need to introspect on that every day and wear the shoe that fits.”

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