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Can Ghulam Nabi Azad Reinvigorate J&K's Political Scene and Reclaim His Status?

Azad's party will have far-reaching consequences for entrenched political strategies in the former state of J&K.

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Nowhere has Ghulam Nabi Azad’s exit from the Congress party hit a nerve as much as in J&K—the veteran leader’s home turf. Veering away from what is known to be a five-decade-long association, Azad who resigned from all posts within the party on 26 August is all set to venture into his new political ambitions in the form of an independent party. This will have far-reaching consequences for entrenched political calculations and strategies in the former state, still reeling under the aftermath of the abrogation of article 370 of the Constitution in 2019.

There’s been a lot of fuss around elections in J&K over the past few weeks. Political groups in Kashmir have either coalesced around like-minded fronts such as regional amalgam—the Gupkar Alliance seeking that the special status be restored or have announced their own ventures while batting for reversing autonomy politics as is the case with Altaf Bukhari-led Apni Party.

But the sudden development of a veteran Congress leader who has had helmed the state of J&K as a Chief Minister crafting a political bloc of his own and expectedly in a grand scale by holding road shows and organising big rallies in both the regions of the Union Territory, is likely to upset a lot of apple carts.

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Sweeping Exodus of Kashmiris From Congress Following Azad 

So far, around 100 members, big and small from the rank and file of Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) have sided with Azad ever since he tendered his resignation last month.The defectors include former Congress leaders like G M Saroori, Taj Mohiuddin, Tara Chand and Peerzada Mohammad Syed all of whom have served in the J&K cabinet in the past.

The language of Azad's resignation letter was steeped in deep anguish and sharp criticism. It reflected his disenchantment over the alleged recalcitrance of Congress towards party reforms and appeared to suggest that he in fact, had a bone to pick with the party he’d given his blood to since long.

In 2020, Azad lost his post as All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) general secretary after he and 22 other leaders known as ‘G-23’ pressed for a leadership overhaul in the party. What followed was more removals as a year later his name from the party’s disciplinary action committee was also dropped.

But the proverbial last straw may have been the JKPCC’s organisational restructuring following the quitting decision by Ghulam Ahmad Mir, the party’s former J&K head. Rumour has it, Azad and Mir did not see eye-to-eye.

Can Azad Really Fill the Political Void in Jammu?

The August rejig saw Azad being consigned to “subordinate” positions such as Chief of the Campaign Committee and a member of the Political Affairs Committee stewarded by Tariq Hameed Karra, a 2017 entrant in the party despite the former’s long-standing contribution. Adding insult to injury, he got further demoted in party ranks.

The decision to appoint Vikar Rasool Wani, a former Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) as the new JK unit chief sparked another wave of resignations in the party plagued by factionalism. This downgrading bolstered Azad’s move to break free as he declined both the aforementioned posts and later stepped down from all positions in the party.

While the barrage of commentary dubs Azad’s exit as ‘strategic’ in terms of the ex-Congress stalwart’s widely purported tacit alliance with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) that might steer the saffron party towards electoral victory in the UT, experts and political scientists who have closely monitored the ebbs and flows of regional politics tend to differ.

“There are two broad scenarios that I see playing out. One, Azad’s party becomes just yet another political front among so many that will only succeed in fragmenting the anti BJP votes,” said Rekha Chowdhary, former professor at University of Jammu who specialises in the Kashmir conflict. "That will only leave the valley polarised, especially the areas of mixed demographics such as the Pir Panjal and Chenab and help BJP consolidate better and break through."

Secondly, Chowdhary says the fact that unlike Kashmir, Jammu has a lot of political space and Azad can be the ideal of leader to fill that void. “He can become a proverbial bridge between the two regions via his brand of balanced politics which repudiates extreme ideologies and supports development and good governance.”

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Azad’s Illustrious Political Innings

Born in Jammu’s mountainous Doda region, Azad (73) has seen a mercurial rise within the Congress party and also served as J&K’s Chief Minister briefly during the People's Democratic Party (PDP)-Congress coalition government in 2006. During the second tenure of United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Azad was sworn in as Union Health Minister. After Congress lost power to BJP in 2014, he was nominated as the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

The political parties from Kashmir have exercised caution while reacting to his breakaway, wary of Azad’s tall stature and his potential to resonate with the people in the valley.

National Conference (NC) leader Omar Abdullah termed Azad’s exit as a body blow to the Congress, saying it was “sad and scary” to see the grand old party implode. Refuting such claims,Senior Congress leader and former minister Tariq Hamid Karra cited personal reasons guiding Azad’s exit. PDP, on the other hand, sought to welcome Azad back into the J&K politics and called his exit from Congress an “internal matter” of the party. However, it was the Senior Congress leader G A Mir’s reaction that ultimately courted controversy by calling Azad’s proposed new party an “A-Team” of the BJP.

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Neither a Kashmiri Ultra-Nationalist Nor a Jammu Chauvinist

Observers say that the tendency to write Azad off because of a pro-BJP rhetoric is simply unreasonable. . “To say that someone is with BJP and another is not will be quite a challenging proposition,” said Zafar Choudhary, an author of books on Jammu. “Parties ruling at the Central level have always wielded significant influence on local groups in J&K right from the time of partition,” he added.

Choudhary also went onto narrate that even in the Kashmir of 1930s and 1940s, political groups at the Centre have been manipulating regional politics.

“It was at Nehru’s behest that the then Muslim Conference was converted into National Conference in 1939. If you review the newspapers of the 1940s, things written about Sheikh Abdullah then are being reiterated about Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and now Ghulam Nabi Azad today. Almost every party in J&K is either in cohorts with or under duress from the Centre,” pointed Choudhary. He also remarked that Azad is part of the same mainstream apparatus as other politicians but what distinguishes him is his ability to be a great equaliser.

“He is neither a Kashmiri ultra-nationalist nor a Jammu chauvinist. He treads a middle path and that makes him acceptable to both regions. Those who have tendered mass resignations in support of Azad are the ones who were born and brought up in Congress lap,” Choudhary said. “None of them have been party hoppers. So it means this decision is not an impulsive one but rather carefully thought through weighing in all possibilities.”

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Different Reactions in Kashmir to Azad's Political Moves

While experts believe that Azad’s politics of prevaricating on emotive subjects may win him some political dividends on both sides of the aisle, his own former colleagues at the Congress aren’t convinced.

“J&K hardly has any space for political parties,” Saifuddin Soz, a veteran Congress leader and former Parliamentarian said, speaking to The Quint, “It’s already dominated by NC.”

Soz categorically denied the allegations that Congress had spurned Azad. “He was appointed Rajya Sabha member by Congress many times. This time Congress was not in a position to do so. Azad is a friend and has contributed immensely to the party but I don’t think there will be a substantial turnout in his favour. He might win a few seats from Jammu but it’s unlikely that he is going to cut any ice in Kashmir.”

Salman Nizami who was among the Congress members to put down papers following Azad’s exit mocked the idea of aligning his senior’s political aspirations with that of BJP’s, terming it ’ridiculous’. “If he (Azad) needed BJP’s backing, he would have accepted the post of President or Vice President as there were rumours that he was propositioned by the rival camp,” he said.

“He launched his own party because he wants to work for the people of J&K as a Chief Minister. We may have left the Congress but we haven’t deserted our ideology. Azad Sahib was also humiliated by the party recently when he was awarded lesser positions in the party hierarchy in J&K.”

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Can Azad Make Use of Anti-Incumbency in Jammu?

Several experts opine that the factor that will also be decisive in determining Azad’s political survival is anti-incumbency in the Jammu region.

“There is a stark leadership crisis in Jammu,” Chowdhary, the former academic says. “People are yearning for a solid political stronghold. Then there is also anti-incumbency against BJP. Central rule is being seen as the extension of the BJP rule and there’s also anger against the bureaucratic administration. BJP is at a disadvantage here because it cannot take an anti-establishment position. All of this can work in favour of Azad should he manage to play his cards right.”

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India and more. He tweets at @shakirmir.)

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