Ghulam Nabi Azad, outgoing Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, is not a man given to expressing his emotions in public. But just as he delivered a moving speech in the Rajya Sabha when the Modi government presided over the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019, he turned emotional once again on Tuesday, 9 February: his term in the Upper House was winding down, signalling in all likelihood the end of a distinguished political career spanning half a century. Expressing the fervent hope that militancy would end in Kashmir, he quoted poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz:
“Dil na-umeed to nahi / nakaam hi to hai / lambi hai gham ki shaam / magar shaam hi to hai” (the heart has not lost hope even though it has been unsuccessful, long is the evening of sorrow, but it is only yet evening).
Why Ghulam Nabi Azad Will Be A Hard Act To Follow
More surprising was the fulsome — though entirely deserved — praise that Azad came in for from a teary-eyed Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The latter, however, after referring to the close personal bonds between the two former chief ministers, made a well judged home thrust — he pointedly mentioned that Mr Azad had signed a controversial letter to Sonia Gandhi suggesting a major overhaul of the Congress, something that had not endeared the letter writers to the party’s leadership. Given that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) goal under its current leadership is to decimate the principal opposition party, Mr Modi’s using this occasion to make a dig at the Congress makes perfect political sense.
But Mr Modi’s statement that Mr Azad will be a hard act to follow is nonetheless true. For the former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister is that rare creature in the Congress— a self-made leader who rose from the wilds of Doda in the Jammu region to become a front ranking national leader. Equally significant, for the past so many years, he has been among Sonia Gandhi’s closest confidantes in the party, one of just a handful to whom she has turned for political advice. Mr Azad’s loyalty to the Congress has always been unquestioned — and his signing the letter written by those who have come to be known as the ‘G-23’ — despite his proximity to Mrs Gandhi — was read as a sign that the paralysis in the party caused by Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to step up to the job and get the Congress functioning again was getting to him.
Ghulam Nabi Azad: An Unbiased, ‘Clinical’ Leader & Longest Serving Member of CWC
As a man who overcame the modest circumstances into which he was born, Mr Azad has held a majority of the key jobs on his way up. A block committee chairman at 24, he became president of a powerful Youth Congress and a Lok Sabha MP at 31. He was elected to the Lok Sabha twice from Maharashtra’s Washim constituency, and since then has spent 28 years in the Rajya Sabha. At 33, he joined Indira Gandhi’s union council of ministers and was a member of every subsequent Congress government. In between, he was Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir for three years.
In 2014, he became LoP in the Rajya Sabha, and he has held that job since. And a little known fact about him is that he is the longest serving member of the party’s apex decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee: indeed, even at the time that the late Pranab Mukherjee was still in the party, Mr Azad outranked him in the CWC. He has also served as national general secretary several times.
A current party functionary recalled: “Unlike many leaders who let personal prejudices cloud their decisions, Azad saheb is clinical. I recall an assembly election in J&K when he was the general secretary and I was assisting him. In the final list of candidates there were nine names that were at loggerheads with him. When I checked with him whether those names should remain, he simply told me: they are also the most likely to win from the those constituencies. What good will it do us if we lose the elections?”
Eight of the nine ended up winning their seats, and the Congress on that occasion was able to form the government.
Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Exit: Greater ‘Control’ For Rahul Gandhi’s Congress?
Today, it seems unlikely that Azad will be given another term in the Rajya Sabha because he will have to wait till at least April before getting elected to the Rajya Sabha, when the Congress will be able to get a party candidate elected to the Upper House from Kerala.
Jammu and Kashmir, from where Mr Azad is an MP, does not currently have an elected assembly. However, with assembly elections due in Kerala in May 2021, party sources say that the Congress leadership is unlikely to take a step that may create a political backlash in the southern state. Earlier, the Kerala unit of the Congress had reportedly refused to send P Chidambaram to the Rajya Sabha. Chidambaram later became a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra.
Already, there is talk that Mallikarjun Kharge — Congress Leader in the Lok Sabha between 2014 and 2019 — will take over as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha after 15 February, when Azad’s term ends. Azad’s deputy, Anand Sharma, another Gandhi loyalist, has also blotted his copybook by being a signatory to the G-23 letter.
For Rahul Gandhi and his band of loyalists, the effective exit of Azad takes them one step closer to greater control of the party; party sources say that even though Sonia Gandhi remains Interim President she is no longer involved in day-to-day decisions.
Why Azad’s Exit — Soon After Ahmed Patel’s Death — May ‘Damage’ Congress
But for the Congress, Mr Azad’s exit close on the heels of the untimely death of Ahmed Patel, once referred to as the second most important person in the party, will damage the organisation for more than one reason.
Mr Azad, like the late Ahmed Patel, was a consummate crisis manager, entirely reliable and hardworking, whose loyalty to the party was never in question, and who was widely respected in the party.
The party will also, with Mr Azad’s departure from the spotlight, lose a major Muslim face at a time when the beleaguered minority community is looking for leaders. The Rahul Gandhi Congress believes that the tag of ‘Muslim appeasement’ has been damaging, but evidently, it doesn’t understand that competing to be the BJP’s ‘B team’ is not going to help it wean Hindu followers from the ruling party.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)