Azad Retires

At 71, Ghulam Nabi Azad completed his last term in the Rajya Sabha. His political career spanned over 41 years and saw many highs, lows and the controversies. While retiring as the leader of the opposition – at a time when Jammu and Kashmir will lack a face in the House, it triggered yet another controversy for him, reports Tasavur Mushtaq

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

With the House of Elders, bidding tearful adieu to the four nominees after completion of their term, the Rajya Sabha has landed in a not-so-unprecedented state where it will lack a voice from Jammu and Kashmir, a state reduced to a Union Territory (UT). Unlike Shamsher Singh Manhas, the BJP leader from Jammu, all others – Ghulam Nabi Azad, Fayaz Ahmad Mir, and Nazir Ahmad Laway are rumoured to become impacted by the redeployment of the political forces in Jammu and Kashmir. There has not been an official confirmation but Laway is considered to be distant from PDP and Mir is likely to join Sajjad Lone’s Peoples Conference that quit the PAGD recently.

Azad In Focus

The more important, however, is Ghulam Nabi Azad, the former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who has been the vocal leader of the opposition in the Upper House. It is his retirement after 41 years of political career during which he worked with five Prime Ministers, has the distinction of being general secretary in-charge of all states at various points of time, and has been a member of the all-important CWC for more than 18 years and has pushed the Jammu and Kashmir group in limelight.

Given the emotional exchanges during the farewell event, sections in the media report that the Narendra Modi government has opened the doors for Azad, a respected Kashmiri speaking Muslim face from Jammu who has evolved as a crisis manager for Congress before falling out of favour. Newspapers are speculating that he could be a BJP’s Vice Presidential candidate, Chairman for the Rajya Sabha or could be deployed as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir with the support of BJP and its allies.

A Long Career

Azad has been an impressive speaker. Of his 41 years in politics, he actually has been a member of the Rajya Sabha for 28 years and spent a decade in Lok Sabha. When Article 370 was read down and the special position binned in August 2019, Azad was a major critique of decision-making and had accused the BJP of “murdering the Constitution”. In a way, he was trying to be the conscience keeper of a House and the spirit of democracy.

Ghulam Nabi Azad

Azad’s 30-minute long farewell speech, however, was the listing of the milestones in his career but also gave the sense that there is no chance of him being re-elected to the Rajya Sabha.  He detailed how he would routinely get the beating from his classmates when he would prefer celebrating the August 15 function rather than August 14, in the SP College at Srinagar. He talked about his official meeting as Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister that was deliberately held at Sopore, a constituency that Syed Ali Geelani represented twice in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. Asserting that he never visited Pakistan, Azad highlighted the crisis that Pakistani Muslims are facing. He said he is a proud Hindustani Musalman. Politely dropping a hint, Azad said the majority community will have to walk a step so that minorities walk 10 steps.

Rightly highlighting the negotiations and alliance that he personally managed, Azad actually offered an idea about his crisis management within the political space that Gandhi’s’ gave him. In public service, he talked about how he lived in jungles for 10 days to help people in super-cyclone-hit Orissa when he had to leave his cancer afflicted father in the hospital. In his impressive speech, Azad avoided Article 370 and did not forget either the soldier on the border or the Kashmiri Pandit.

Azad listed the five occasions when he actually cried loudly and publicly. The last time was when, within days after his takeover as the Chief Minister, when four Surat tourists were killed (he wrongly said one dozen tourists were killed) in a grenade explosion.

An Emotional Prime Minister

His services, however, were already acknowledged by none other than the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who actually got emotional while talking about his contributions. Both of them were Chief Ministers’ at one point of time. Modi’s speech was actually interspersed with frequent long pauses as he broke down.

In this December 2007 photograph, Ghulam Nabi Azad is seen listening to Narendra Modi. Then, both of them were the Chief Ministers.

His work, Modi said, will inspire generations of MPs to come. “Posts come, high offices come, power comes, but one must learn from Ghulam Nabi Azadji how to handle them,” he said. On the killing of the tourists, the Prime Minister said: “Nabiji was as concerned as he would have been if his family members were victims. He was the first person to call me. During that call, he continuously wept.”

“At a personal level, I would request him to not consider that he is not in the House. My door is always open for all of you,” Modi said. “I will always expect, and value, your views. I will not let you retire.”

The Prime Minister highlighted many things from the mutual relationship. The all party meeting on Covid-19 was conducted on Azad’s suggestion.

It was Ramdas Athawale, the RPI leader and Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment whose intervention led the house to break into quick laughter. “You should come to this House again,” he told Azad. “If the Congress does not bring you here, then we are ready to bring you… Even I was there, I came here…”

A Successor?

Azad is 71 and reports appearing in the media suggest that he has four years to reach the age where rightwing sends leaders away from public life. While reports indicate that the Congress has started looking into his replacement in the House (Modi said: “I worry that after Azad, whosoever will take over from him will have to fill very big boots, because he cared not only about his party but about the country, as well as the House.”), there are reports that the Congress can re-send Azad to the House in April when some berths from Kerala will get available. (Congress has appointed Mallikarjun Kharge as its new leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha.) Will the Congress do it especially when Azad has fallen from the favours for taking a stand for party re-organisation?  Will the party reconcile on that especially when some Congressmen already accused him of hobnobbing with the BJP. One of Azad’s meetings with the Prime Minister late last year had literally created a ruckus in Delhi.

Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad prevented Dr Farooq Abdullah’s fall on the stairs on March 14, 2020, when the two leaders came out of the meeting in Srinagar.

The tensions that exist between the senior leader and his party were apparent in how the Congress reacted — or didn’t react — on his retirement from the house of elders, even though opponents praised him to the sky. While BJP and other NDA leaders praised Azad for his speech, the Congress largely kept quiet. Only late Tuesday evening did the party tweet two snippets of his speech, and one quoting from fellow senior leader Anand Sharma’s speech, calling it an emotional moment.

However, the bitterness between the leader and the party since the ‘G23’ letter was noticeable in Azad’s speech too — he acknowledged he entered the party because of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi and mentioned many Congress stalwarts, but not Rahul Gandhi.

By and large ignored, at least two other leaders of the group, Anand Sharma and Shashi Tharoor showered praise on Azad, with the latter even saying “(Azad) the only Congressman who has reduced the PM to tears.”

Personally, Azad said he is a free man now who lacks a desire to hold any public office. He said he will be around because he has time now. “We understand some people superficially while others in-depth. Those who understood me in-depth and saw my work over the years became emotional yesterday. I am thankful to everyone. I would also thank people who messaged me, called me and tweeted for me,” Azad was quoted saying when asked about the showering praises in the House. “I am thankful to the PM, President and colleagues of the various parties who showered their praise on me and with whom I got the opportunity to work. I am thankful to all for their wishes.”

Asked if he will join the BJP, Azad picked Kashmir weather to respond: “I will join the BJP when we have black snow in Kashmir.”

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