After Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, an internal crisis is coming to the fore in Jammu and Kashmir, the Union Territory where assembly polls are round the corner.
While Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is said to be returning to India anytime, All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) interim president Sonia Gandhi is trying to avert a split in Jammu and Kashmir. She is said to be in touch with Ghulam Nabi Azad, J&K Congress chief GA Mir, AICC in-charge of the Union Territory, Rajni Patil, and other stakeholders.
Congress insiders and those familiar with Jammu and Kashmir political affairs, claim that Patil’s bid to sideline and isolate Azad triggered a chain reaction. Patil has recently replaced Ambika Soni as AICC’s point-person. When Patil had toured Jammu and Kashmir in October this year, she had reportedly chastened Congress workers from chanting Azad’s name repeatedly.
Supporters of former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad are resigning in large numbers. Numbering around 20, the Congress dissenters consist mostly of local party functionaries, former ministers and influential leaders from the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region.
Azad, who is a signatory of a letter that questioned Congress central leadership’s style of functioning, is busy touring Jammu and Kashmir. For the past 48 hours, Azad has drawn big crowds at Dyala Chak in Kathua, Thatri Inderwal, Jammu, and Banihal in spite of the party cadre’s knowledge that he is a member of a nearly rebellious G-23.
A report of the Delimitation Commission headed by Justice (Retired) Ranjana Prakash Desai is ready to hold elections in 90 assembly segments. There is a buzz that Jammu and Kashmir Assembly polls will be either held along with Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and Punjab polls in March 2022 or separately in May 2022.
The Congress sources say Sonia Gandhi’s preference for Jammu and Kashmir is conciliation with Azad instead of confrontation or purging. She is aware of Azad’s strength in the Union Territory and his rapport with Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference, which is set to be electoral alliance of the grand old party.
However, it remains to be seen whether Rahul Gandhi is on the same page with her. Azad had accompanied Rahul Gandhi when the young Congress leader had toured Jammu and Kashmir in October this year.
Until August 2020, Azad was considered a ‘Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist’. But his association with G-23 dissenters resulted in losing the coveted post of the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. When Azad’s term ended in the upper house, he was not re-nominated.
Azad was drafted in the party by Sanjay Gandhi in early 1970s. Sanjay Gandhi had stayed in Srinagar for three days attending every ceremony when Azad had got married to famous Kashmiri singer Shamim, considered to be Lata Mangeshkar of Jammu and Kashmir.
There has been no looking back for him as he went on to become Union minister, chief minister and key AICC functionary. In 24, Akbar Road main building the Congress’s headquarters, there is not a single room that has not been occupied by Azad from 1980s till date.
Since the time of Sanjay Gandhi till 2020, Azad had not looked back. He went on to head the Youth Congress and the Sewa Dal before becoming party general secretary. In the Congress circles, Azad is considered as an excellent weathercock, having a knack of being in the right spot at the right time.
When Rajiv Gandhi began having problems with Vishwanath Pratap Singh who held important portfolios of finance and defence in that government sometime around 1986-87, Azad quickly offered his services, resigning from a ministerial assignment to take up party work.
In 1992, when then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao faced a challenge from Arjun Singh, Azad decided to take on the thakur leader.
In an incredible admission, Azad had once claimed that he had spent more than 1,000 hours with Rajiv Gandhi in private, implying that there was none other who could boast of such proximity to him.
Once Narasimha Rao was shown the door, Azad became a favourite bhatija (nephew) of ‘Chacha’ Sitaram Kesri. In August-September 1997, Sharad Pawar then a powerful Congress leader decided to throw a leadership challenge to Kesri, who was AICC chief.
Azad was in a fix as he was deeply indebted to Pawar. The gratitude stemmed from reasons ranging from Pawar ensuring his victory in the 1984 Lok Sabha election from Vashim in Maharashtra to mobilising resources for the Rajya Sabha polls.
As Azad dithered and pleaded sick, Kesri became restless over his defiance. The cosy relations between chacha and bhatija took a dive. Till his death, Kesri continued to speak ill of him, but Azad was unmindful. He had found a new mentor in Sonia Gandhi and bridged his differences with Arjun Singh.
Under Sonia, Azad increased his clout considerably. He was put in charge of party affairs in Karnataka and Kerala in 2001. The Congress won elections in both states. His camp began circulating reports that he had a magic touch, that he was a lucky mascot for the party. He was not a ghulam (slave) but azad (independent).
Others said he was indispensable. The talk reached Sonia Gandhi, and she began looking more closely at his style of functioning. Soon after, the general secretary burnt his fingers in Kerala when he failed to strike a balance between then Chief Minister AK Antony and his archrival K Karunakaran.
When, in February 2002, the party won election in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand (then named Uttaranchal), Azad made an abortive bid to prop up trade union leader Harish Rawat as the chief minister of the state. The elected MLAs opted for veteran leader Narayan Dutt Tiwari.
The MLAs complained to Sonia Gandhi that Azad was thrusting his choice on them. Azad temporarily ran out of luck in March 2002 and paid the price for the party’s drubbing in the Uttar Pradesh polls. He was AICC general secretary in charge of the state.
There were allegations backed by statistics that said the Congress performed badly in places where the Samajwadi Party had won comfortably. The insinuation was that he had tried to work out a deal with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh without taking permission from the high-command.
The Congress forfeited deposits in as many as 325 out of 403 assembly seats. In the Afzalgarh constituency in Bijnore district, the party finished a distant eleventh, much behind many Independents and non-serious players.
Sonia Gandhi discarded him as general secretary on March 27, 2002 and gave him a punishing assignment as chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress, a unit that was virtually defunct in the violence-ridden state.
Azad’s exit had surprised many in the party. Senior leaders took it as a sign of Sonia Gandhi acting independently, dumping her reliance on the coterie. As the Jammu and Kashmir Congress unit chief, Azad faced an uphill task.
The JKPCC president was expected to revitalize the party and take on the firmly entrenched National Conference. The problem was that he was perceived to be close to the NC chief, Farooq Abdullah their friendship dating back to his election to the Rajya Sabha when the National Conference donated its surplus votes to see him through.
With a slice of luck, Azad proved his detractors wrong in Jammu and Kashmir. The outcome of the assembly polls in November 2002 surprised everyone, including Azad, as the party did exceedingly well, finishing second behind the National Conference.
Three years later, Azad created a history of sorts, becoming chief minister of his home state.
The big question doing the rounds at 24 Akbar Road is whether, twenty years later, Azad can repeat his 2002 performance on his home turf?