It was meant to be the final rapprochement between the Congress’s first family and their erstwhile retainer, but it quickly turned into yet another crisis for the Grand Old Party (GOP).
Late Tuesday (August 16) evening, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi approved a major reshuffle of her party’s Jammu & Kashmir unit. While Ghulam Nabi Azad was made chairman of the party’s election campaign committee for the Union Territory, his close aides Vikar Rasool Wani and Raman Bhalla were appointed the J&K unit’s president and working president respectively. Azad was also made a member of the political affairs committee while a big chunk of his supporters was stacked across the newly constituted committees for coordination, publicity & publication, drafting the poll manifesto and short-listing election candidates.
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The new appointments come amid speculations that the Election Commission could conduct the first elections for the Union Territory sometime early next year. The proposed delimitation of constituencies for the UT, carved out in August 2019 following the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, has been challenged in the Supreme Court and is currently pending final adjudication. However, the EC had indicated recently that it would complete publication of the new electoral rolls for the UT by November 25.
The Congress’s organisational reshuffle in the UT virtually signalled that the top leadership was surrendering the reins of the J&K unit to the 73-year-old Azad, prime mover of the now disintegrated G-23 group of party leaders who have, since August 2020, been severely critical of the state of affairs within the GOP. Azad’s appointment as head of the election campaign committee, a section of party leaders felt, was also an indication of the Gandhis endorsing the sulking veteran as the party’s chief ministerial face whenever the Union Territory went to polls.
The appointment of Wani as the new PCC chief – he replaces Ghulam Ahmed Mir, a known Azad baiter – and Bhalla’s continuation as the working president also showed an over-reliance on Azad. Like Azad, both Wani and Bhalla, former MLAs from Banihal and Gandhi Nagar constituencies respectively, come from the Jammu region. This was a departure from the Congress’s established practice in J&K of ensuring that Hindu-dominated Jammu and Muslim-dominated Kashmir get parity in appointments to senior-most organisational roles.
However, within hours of AICC general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal releasing details of the new office bearers, the growing buzz about the Gandhis’ going the extra mile to placate Azad hit an abrupt end. Azad did not issue any formal statement, but sources close to him said he had declined to steer the campaign committee as he felt “humiliated”.
Congress in silent mode
Left red-faced by Azad’s latest salvo, the Congress went into a silent mode, with neither Venugopal nor the party’s usually hands-on communication chief Jairam Ramesh offering an official comment on the developments. Requesting anonymity, a senior Congress functionary tried to play down Azad’s refusal, claiming that the veteran leader had “declined the role due to health issues”. Shortly thereafter, Ashwani Handa, Azad’s supporter and local party leader from Jammu, told reporters that the party had “meted out injustice to grassroots workers” and that “Ghulam Nabi Azad has resigned as he was unsatisfied with the committees”.
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While party leaders at the Congress headquarters were still trying to figure out what Azad’s latest gripe was all about, other resignations – from the newly constituted committees as well as from the party – began pouring in. Mohammad Amin Bhat, former Congress MLA from Devsar in Kulgam, resigned from the coordination committee while Gulzar Ahmed Wani, former MLA from Shangus in Anantnag district, resigned as member of the election committee. Abdul Rasheed Dar, who was appointed member of both election and coordination committees, resigned from the primary membership of the party.
By midnight, several other party leaders in the UT had resigned either from their newly assigned roles or from the party citing reasons ranging from resentment against the 47-year-old Wani’s appointment as the PCC chief to the reshuffle not giving adequate representation to seniors and grassroots workers. Congress sources said not all leaders who had sent in their resignations belonged to Azad’s camp, hinting that the unrest the reshuffle had caused was across different factions of the party as well as the two regions of Jammu and the Kashmir Valley.
“If leaders close to Azad are resigning because they feel Azad has not been given due respect, almost an equal number of people are quitting because they feel Azad has been given a free hand. The party is in free fall. The committees make no sense from any point of view… we can understand that the leadership wanted to placate Azad but in order to do so, it has ended up creating further divisions within the ranks… we have never seen the state unit president, working president and campaign committee chief all being from the Jammu region,” a senior party leader from Kashmir told The Federal.
‘Misled’ by Azad
An AICC functionary who was privy to the discussions on the constitution of the new committees told The Federal that the party leadership was “misled” by Azad. “The appointments were made after detailed consultations with Azad that began almost two months ago… Wani and Bhalla were both handpicked by him, as were a majority of other appointees. He wanted to lead the campaign committee, and the high command thought it was a valid demand as he is our most senior and prominent, even if not most popular, face,” the AICC functionary said.
Explaining why the party decided to give greater representation to Jammu despite the Valley having a larger share of seats even after the proposed delimitation of constituencies, the functionary said, “Azad and some others insisted that this was necessary to stop the BJP from sweeping the Jammu region again.” He added, “Azad is from Doda (Jammu region) and he has some influence in the seats that fall in the Chenab Valley; Wani is from Banihal in Ramban (also in the Chenab Valley) while Bhalla is from Jammu… some people argued that since constituencies in the Valley are likely to vote predominantly for the Farooq Abdullah-led Gupkar Alliance because the National Conference is very strong there, we should focus on Jammu and those seats of Kashmir that fall along the Chenab Valley.”
Azad’s supporters, on the other hand, said the party “insulted” him by appointing him as a “mere member of the political affairs committee” that is headed by Tariq Hamid Karra, a founding member of Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP who had shifted to the Congress in early 2017. A fierce critic of the BJP, Karra is a prominent leader from the Kashmir Valley who had defeated National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah from Srinagar – Abdullah’s only electoral defeat to date – in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Azad and Karra lead rival factions of the Congress in J&K. “In June, Azad was made a member of the Congress’s national political affairs committee under Sonia Gandhi… is it not insulting to him that he should now be a member of a similar committee in a UT under a one-term former MP,” a close aide of Azad said, adding that the veteran leader was “repeatedly and deliberately humiliated by the central leadership.”
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The Congress high command’s (failed) bid to placate and rehabilitate Azad after he was denied another term in the Rajya Sabha and kept away from any major organisational role since the G-23 ‘letter bomb’ of August 2020, said sources, had come after long discussions between him and the Congress leadership (or its emissaries).
Feud with Gandhis
The leadership, it is learnt, believed that Azad had finally agreed to a ceasefire of hostilities. He had addressed a press conference at the Congress headquarters last month along with his G-23 co-traveller Anand Sharma to condemn the interrogation of Sonia Gandhi by the Enforcement Directorate in the National Herald case. Citing ill-health, Azad had kept away from the protests the party had organised when former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi was questioned by the ED in June and had refrained from issuing a statement expressing solidarity with Rahul.
A further indication of Azad’s willingness to end his running feud with the Gandhis, particularly Rahul, came as recently as August 15 – a day before Sonia approved the new committees and office bearers. As Congress leaders gathered at the party headquarters to hoist the National Flag on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, Azad and Anand Sharma were seen standing on either side of Rahul. Later, when Rahul marched with his party colleagues from the Congress headquarters at Akbar Road to the Gandhi Smriti at Tees January Marg, Azad walked alongside him, carrying the National Flag.
The scenes had immediately triggered speculation among Congress leaders and the media alike of the high command finally winning over the rebel leader who, not too long ago, revelled at being tagged a Gandhi family sycophant. Tuesday’s developments, however, show that Azad’s dissent is far from over – and that’s bad optics for the leadership.