Congress in Crisis?

India’s grand old party was always in crisis in Jammu and Kashmir. Recently in wake of the appointment of a new PCC Chief, there were resignations and a lot of criticism. Days later, Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has been wielding a lot of influence, resigned from the party after half a century. Though Azad mentioned the politics within the party, his resignation has implications for Jammu and Kashmir politics as well, reports Tasavur Mushtaq

It was a development that people had predicted a long time back. Congress was supposed to leave Congress and for at least two years, he has been weighing his options. Finally, he ended more than 50 years of his relationship with the party on Friday, August 26, 2022, by sending an almost 2000-word resignation letter.

Detailing his entry into the party in 1970 despite the 1953 arrest of Sheikh Abdullah being the nadir of its (party’s) political myopia, Azad has listed his contributions as a youth leader, a party man and a minister of four Congress Prime Ministers. Accusing Sonia Gandhi of “dethroning” Sita Ram Keasri and using a remote control to manage the UPA-2, Azad put a lot of blame on Rahul Gandhi. He has been accused of demolishing the party’s consultative system and encouraging a “new coterie of inexperienced sycophants” to take the party decisions. His tearing apart of a government ordinance was put by Azad as the “most glaring example of his immaturity”.

Highlighting how Congress’s situation contributed to its decline and defeat, Azad said a group within Congress wanted a course correction. In response, he regretted that “the coterie chose to unleash its sycophants on us and got us attacked, vilified and humiliated in the most crude manner possible”.

“The only crime committed by the 23 senior leaders who wrote that letter out of concern for the Party is that they pointed out both the reasons for the weaknesses in the Party and the remedies thereof,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, instead of taking those views on board in a constructive and cooperative manner we were abused, humiliated, insulted and vilified in a specially summoned meeting of the extended CWC meeting.”

“It is therefore with great regret and an extremely leaden heart that I have decided to sever my half-a century-old association with the Indian National Congress and hereby resign from all my positions including the primary membership of the Indian National Congress,” Azad concluded.

Though they knew it was happening but the timing was what Azad choose. Even some members of the 23-member “rebel” group were shocked and asserted that it was avoidable. He is being criticised for leaving the party at a time when Sonia Gandhi is undergoing treatment in America. A general impression in Congress linked his resignation with not being reappointed to Rajya Sabha and the mechanisation of the ruling party. “A man who has been treated by the greatest respect by the Congress leadership has betrayed it by his vicious personal attacks, which reveals his true character,” Congress spokesman, Jairam Ramesh said. “GNA’s DNA has been modi-fied.”

Kashmir Politics

Azad’s resignation came at a time when the party in Jammu and Kashmir was in crisis. In an attempt to rejig the party in Jammu and Kashmir, Congress was caught in a whirlpool of resentment and resignations. Face to face with perpetual factionalism, the standing of the party to secure its already shrinking base is threatened.

A gathering of Congress leaders and workers in Devsar area on November 27,2021

On August 19, after more than eight years, there was a change in the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC). In an order issued by the general secretary (organisation) of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), KC Venugopal, a two-time lawmaker from Banihal, Vikar Rasool Wani was appointed as JKPCC chief, and Raman Bhalla, a former minister, who once represented the powerful Gandhi Nagar constituency, the party’s working president.

Besides other committees revamped were the campaign committee, Political Affairs Committee (PAC), manifesto committee, publicity, and publication committee, disciplinary committee, and Pradesh election committee.

Azad was made head of the campaign committee and member of the PAC, to be headed by Tariq Hamid Karra, a new entrant to the Congress (2017). Besides, Karra was designated as vice-chairman of the campaign committee as well.

The committee headed by Karra, besides Azad, included other veteran Congressmen, Ghulam Ahmed Mir, Prof Saifuddin Soz, Peerzada Mohammad Syed, Taj Mohiyuddin, Tara Chand, Mula Ram, and Khemlata Wakhlu.

Moments later after the reshuffle was affected, there was more resentment than respite. With various panels rearranged, many of the party leaders resigned from the roles assigned to them.

The First Surprise

The first surprise came from none other than the Azad himself. Azad declined both the roles of being campaign committee chief of the party and a member of the PAC. Other leaders, believed to be close to Azad, including former MLAs, Ghulam Mohammad Saroori, Muhammad Amin Bhat, Gulzar Ahmad Wani, and Muhammad Akram Choudhary also put in their papers from official positions. One leader, a two-time MLA from Sopore Abdul Rashid Dar went a step ahead and quit the party.

Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad along with other Senior leaders during an election rally in south Kashmir.

Except for Azad, who did not give any reason for rejecting the newly assigned role, all others had taken in a bad light to have “junior” Vikar Rasool as the party chief. There was a notion that the position would be given to Saroori, the man who represented the Inderwal constituency for 16 years from 2002 to 2018, and who was strongly recommended by Azad.

Jammu Dominance?

Kashmir-based leaders regret that the party did not bother about representation from the valley. “I am saddened that how party ignored Kashmir in all its important committees as if we have not done anything,” Muhammad Amin Bhat told media immediately after the development. He further added that “serving Congress for nearly four decades and seeing someone junior being promoted is a shock.”

“We are unhappy as senior leaders were not consulted before taking a decision on JKPCC chief,” Rashid Dar said,. “We have resigned from the party’s coordination committee as a protest against the recent announcements of the PCC chief. I have resigned from Congress’ primary membership.”

Surprisingly, this time Congress deviated from its past practice in Jammu and Kashmir of ensuring that Hindu-dominated Jammu and Muslim-dominated Kashmir get parity in appointments to senior-most organisational roles. “We have never seen the state unit president, working president, and campaign committee chief all being from the Jammu region,” said a party leader.

The Azad Factor

What makes the story more interesting is that Vikar is also a close Azad buddy. The sources said that “he was also part of the process to dislodge Mir as PCC chief.” Mir off late has emerged as a known Azad baiter.

But what came to the surface after talking to a few Congressmen off the record is that “Azad has felt insulted after being made to work under Karra, who is way junior to him in the party.” When Azad led a PDP-Congress coalition, Karra was the finance minister. “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 told media, adding that the veteran leader was “repeatedly and deliberately humiliated by the central leadership.”

Azad loyalist and local leader from Jammu, 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 “Azad has resigned as he was unsatisfied with the committees”.

However, another group of Congress leaders suggests that organisational change was an indication that the party’s high command is aware of the “significance of Azad” in Jammu and Kashmir.  That is why, they had put his loyalists in important positions, including the PCC chief. “In a way, the move showed over-reliance on Azad Sahab and he was put as Chief Minister candidate,” said a leader wishing anonymity. But, the process to placate Azad has met an abrupt end.

Another party leader quipped that party leadership was “misled” by Azad. “All the roles were assigned after proper consultation with Azad sahib. He in fact handpicked most of the members including Vikar and Bhalla and was suggestive of giving Jammu more representation with a reason that BJP needed to be stopped there.” What has happened afterwards is nobody’s guess as of now.

Not A Family Loyalist

But, unlike in the past, once revelled at being tagged as a Gandhi family sycophant Azad was not sharing a warm relationship with the party’s high command for the last few years. He had been the prime mover of the now disintegrated G-23 group of party leaders who have since August 2020 been critical of the state of affairs within the AICC.

If rumours have a reputation, it was said that “Azad will float his own party along with his loyalists in Congress.”

Not First Time

Internal power politics in Congress is not turning into a public spectacle for the first time. It seems ingrained in the institutional set-up of the party here. The last bickering being held in public was in 2021. The target was Ghulam Ahmad Mir, the then PCC chief. Mir was accused by his other colleagues of “many things” and sought his removal from the post. The ‘rebel’ leaders had alleged that “unscrupulous sycophants” have “hijacked” the functioning of JKPCC and “party posts were distributed without consultation of senior leaders and sitting MLAs/MLCs.”

The resenting leaders while raising accusatory fingers at Mir alleged that “he doesn’t carry the desired reputation required for the coveted post” and under his leadership, Congress is “heading towards a disastrous situation.”

The ‘rebel’ leaders, whose number was said to be around 20 included senior functionaries of the party, former ministers, and lawmakers. Most of them were Azad loyalists. In their multiple communications, they pointed out that Mir has lost popularity among the voters and how he lost the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and even his son, backed by Gupkar Alliance (PAGD) could not win the 2020 DDC elections.

Weak Wicket

If the results of the last assembly election held in Jammu and Kashmir and the subsequent events are the reference, Congress as of now has lost the place of a kingmaker in Kashmir politics. Its own influential existence is at the stake. Post-2014, the margins to manoeuvre have thinned, particularly in its erstwhile strong belt, Jammu. The paradigm of politics has shifted and the space and sentiment sacred to Congress has been completely taken over by BJP in a different direction, leaving little for the oldest political party of India.

In December 2014 assembly polls, not a single seat went to the kitty of Congress from mainland Jammu and also had ignominy that none of its Hindu candidates won. It could manage to win only 12 seats, the least in the last three elections held in the erstwhile state. The party also has not been able to get a berth in Lok Sabha polls from the region it once represented completely.

Figures and Faces

In the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha Polls, Congress got no seat to represent Jammu and Kashmir. In both the elections, the BJP’s streak of winning three seats remained constant. However, on the other side, PDP and NC won one term each, respectively.

Figuratively, BJP’s vote share increased from 34.40 per cent in 2014 to 46.39 per cent in 2019, leaving Congress with a vote share of 28.47 per cent in 2019.

Figures apart, when it comes to the people, Congress is face to face with a serious crisis. The ones who used to win are leaving the party and joining other platforms. Amongst these people, there are many who have a strong base and can swing their entire vote share.

If the recent developments are dwelled upon, the leaders who are aghast include strong faces of the party. Having been in the party for nearly four decades, Muhammad Amin Bhat is a former lawmaker from Devsar. Another senior leader Gulzar Ahmad Wani represented Shangus. Both Devsar and Shangus are in the south Kashmir belt. Abdul Rashid Dar represented Sopore in north Kashmir. Choudhary Muhammad Akram is a former MLA of Surankote, a constituency in the Pir Panjal range.

Earlier, three of its former MLAs and ministers, Usman Majeed from Bandipora, Aijaz Ahmad Khan from Gool Gulabgarh, and Mumtaz Ahmad Khan from Reasi also deserted the party and joined Apni Party led by Syed Altaf Bukhari. Apni Party was floated immediately after scrapping Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and bifurcation into two union territories.

Further, the scion of the royal family and son of senior Congress leader Dr Karan Singh, Vikramaditya Singh also resigned from the party, saying it has failed to “realize and reflect the sentiments and aspirations of the people” of Jammu and Kashmir.

Further Fraction

After his resignation, most of the Azad loyalists have either resigned or are seriously thinking of quitting the party. The Azad factor, analysts believe will play an “important part” in deciding the prospects of the party in the erstwhile state.

A middle-rung Congress leader told Kashmir Life on condition of anonymity that “loss of Congress is gain of BJP.” “The political turf is the same for both the parties majorly, and if Congress fails to keep its flock together, BJP is the only option.” By the way, BJP is already out of the Jammu plains. It now has the middle of Jammu and Kashmir as a possible refuge, an area currently under threat.

Azad’s Options

In the given situation, Azad is expected to be a major factor in the post-2019 politics in Jammu and Kashmir. The options, however, are limited. He is unlikely to join a party. Even his resignation indicates that he may float his own party.  “Some of my other colleagues and I will now persevere to perpetuate the ideals for which we have dedicated our entire adult lives outside the fold of the Indian National Congress,” Azad has written in his resignation letter. This, however, offers no indication if he is talking about a pan-India party with his G-23 or a regional party in Jammu and Kashmir. It is too early to predict anything.

Azad, however, has a huge influence in Jammu and Kashmir across the parties. Barring one or two parties, almost everybody will be willing to work with him and that does not exclude BJP. This may come in handy for the decision makers in Delhi to permit Azad to salvage the politics in Kashmir. Even that intervention will have consequences. It might help the ragtag groups to create a better grouping and it can also induce new fragmentation within Jammu and Kashmir. In both cases, though, it will suit the BJP. If Azad comes up with a party – he is actually launching his party in Jammu in early September – BJP too will find a reliable alliance partner in him.

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