The Azad Factor

Half a century later, after Ghulam Nabi Azad parted ways with Congress, it triggered a sort of crisis in Jammu and Kashmir, his home state where he barely won an election. As most of the Congressmen deserted the party, the Kashmir political class is busy evaluating the impact they will have to take as Azad, 73, plunges himself into the most challenging battle of his political career, reports Tasavur Mushtaq

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

On February 9, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen in an unexpected mood on the floor of Rajya Sabha. Moist eyes. Long pauses. Sipping water and salutations. An unusual sight for a person in the position of power who is very calculated in everything he says or does, his fairly long and deeply emotional speech was a farewell message for the outgoing Leader of Opposition and a Congressman for over 50 years, Ghulam Nabi Azad. Azad was going to retire a week later.

While talking good about Azad, Modi recalled the conversation the two leaders shared when they led Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir as Chief Ministers and remembered how Azad had offered crucial support in evacuating Gujaratis stuck in Kashmir.

“Do not feel like you are no longer in the House. My doors are always open for you. I will need your suggestions. I will not let you retire,” a visibly perturbed Prime Minister said, amid pauses. The pauses were filled with pin-drop silence, and in between Modi wiped his tears and took water to clear his throat. He just looked Azad in the eye. This unusual overture of the Prime Minister towards a Congress stalwart – a Kashmiri-speaking Jammu Muslim – triggered speculations in political circles.

Effusive in his praise, Azad too reciprocated the feelings. He avoided talking about downgrading Jammu and Kashmir, his home state and bifurcating it into two Union Territories. Besides, Azad felt compelled to say that he was proud to be a “Hindustani Muslim” while feeling “fortunate” to have never visited “Pakistan”.

Back home, the emotions expressed in Rajya Sabha and newly found Azad-Modi bonhomie rendered Azad’s position ambiguous, both within his party and outside. He stood alienated. In the first incident of its kind, his effigy was burnt in Jammu by Congress workers. The writing was on the wall.

18 Months Later

Unhappy with the happenings in Congress for the last many years, signs of Azad’s discontentment were visible since 2020 when he questioned the leadership. Finally, on August 26, 2022, the stalwart ended his 50-year-old relationship with a 5-page letter.

Working with the third generation of leadership in Congress, he also remained a trusted confidante of Sonia Gandhi right from the time of Sitaram Kesri’s unceremonious exit as party’s chief in 2000. At the same time, however, Azad was always engaged in a cold war with 10-Janpath and most of the issues were then settled by Ahmad Patel. It was this tension that would see him getting appointed on “punishment posting” to manage hard areas for the party. What is interesting, luck always favoured him and he would report back with a good performance leaving no chance for his masters to displace him further.

This “blessing in disguise”, made him sort of a “crisis manager” and in public perception, Azad emerged as a go-to-man for Congress to deal with any difficult situation, be it campaigning or cobbling up new alliances. This time, however, Azad said, “the situation has become irretrievable.”

In the phenomenal rise in the party, his loyalty was the key factor. Now, he will be remembered as the Congressman who choose an interesting time to quit, more than a year after literally founding G23, a group of veteran Congress leaders who wanted party reform.

From The Horse’s Mouth

Azad in his admission seems to be a sad man. “I am disappointed,” he told the media. “I have given everything to Congress, my youth and entire life.” Recounting his Punjab campaign at the peak of militancy when he was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer, Azad said he remained admitted in the hospital for 29 days.“Every day Rajiv Gandhi would visit me thrice a day, morning, afternoon, and late in the night.” At one point, when his condition worsened, he said, Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had suggested shifting him to England.

Keeping most of the anecdotes for his book, Azad said he was the man who used to unfurl the tricolour in Kashmir during difficult days. “I along with a few students was the ones who used to organize the August 15 function in SP College, when more than 95 per cent of people were celebrating August 14,” Azad told reporters. “After that, I would not come to the college for a few days because I was beaten.”

Leaving Congress has not been easy. He said he did not sleep for three nights before the resignation and is not sleeping well now. Erasing his Congress memories, he said is possible only through a “heart transplant”. The name of Indira Gandhi, he said would be buried with him to his grave “and not before that.”

The main draft of the letter spanned 15 pages and it took him many nights to reduce it to the final five 5 pages. “Even on the day of release, I worked on it from 5 AM and got out more crude words,” Azad revealed while speaking to reporters in a frame that shows photographs of Indira, Rajiv and his own mounted on the wall.

Ghulam Nabi Azad with Rajiv Gandhi

“We won’t remain tenants anymore. We will build our own house,” Azad told reporters about his plans to have a national party. “Jammu and Kashmir is now the priority as elections are coming and there is no hurry at the national level.” Asked about the fate of Amarinder Singh in Punjab, Azad was sharp in saying: “He was isolated by the party in Punjab and I have isolated the party in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Azad’s autobiography, which he wrote when his party made him sit home, is expected to be out next year. It will have tons of information about his days in Congress and the way it declined.  “Indira Ji used to meet almost 1000 people without the appointment and even I used to sit with Rajiv Gandhi till 2 AM and start again at 8 AM the next day,” Azad talked about the peak Congress days. “I have never taken an appointment from Sanjay or Rajiv Gandhi. I have not met Rahul Gandhi one-to-one in the last one and half years.”

The Reactions

Azad’s resignation was national news and continues to be. Nowhere, however, did this development impact as much as it did in Jammu and Kashmir. There is not a single actor in the political class who did not react to the development that came at a time when politics is in a state of paralysis.

“If Congress was strong and Azad sahib had left, it was not a problem,” Dr Farooq Abdullah, with whose support Azad remained in Rajya Sabha for a very long time, said. Post-resignation, Farooq hoped that Azad would continue to work for the secular values of the country. He even suggested Azad keep his stature in mind and launch a national party. Omar said the resignation letter was a “very painful reading”.

Defending his decision and terming it to be his “democratic rights”, PDP welcomed Azad back into Jammu and Kashmir politics. “Azad Sahab is a towering political leader and he is welcome back to J&K. It is a democratic right of any person including Azad Sahab to leave a party and form a new party,” party senior leader Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjura said. Unlike NC, Azad had a very interesting relationship with PDP. Having worked under Mufti as a worker, Azad’s government fell as PDP pulled support in June 2008.

People Conference’s Sajad Lone avoided talking about the game-changing development.“Azad was feeling suffocated in the Congress and that no person with self-respect could work with the Gandhi dynasty,” BJP leaders said in Jammu.

The fierce reaction, however, came from Apni Party’s Altaf Bukhari. Accusing Azad of “scrapping special status to form his party with the blessing of BJP leadership,” Bukhari whose party is being seen as the “B-team of BJP”, said Azad is “befooling the people by saying that he will fight for the restoration of articles 370 and 35A.”

“When Article 370 and 35A were abrogated in parliament, then Azad was the leader of the opposition, why was he not able to do anything at that time?” Bukhari questioned. People in Jammu and Kashmir trusted him, not knowing that “he had made a back deal with the Government.” A day later, he even said that Azad “voted for the abrogation of Article 370”.

The Congress Camp

Though Azad’s Azaadi from Congress is expected to impact the entire mainstream camp in Jammu and Kashmir, Congress had to take a major hit. So the fierce reaction came from the party.

Vikar Rasool, the new chief of the party in the region, was crestfallen. For a young man, who had followed Azad for around 24 years and whose elevation to the position took place on his recommendations was shocked. “I spent long hours with Azad sahib in Delhi and we discussed how the party will be revived,” Vikar told Kashmir Life. “He did not offer even a hint that he was unhappy and was leaving the party. Three days later, he resigned.” Terming Azad as “scrap” and “A-team of BJP”, Vikar believes the party will revive as the “cleansing” has paved way for new faces to get in. “We, otherwise, were not in a position to be in government,” Vikar said, “In the election, we will ally with like-minded like NC and PDP.”

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 in March 2020.

Azad’s bête noire and former JKPCC Chief, Ghulam Ahmed Mir regretted that Congress had invested in Azad for 40 years and he betrayed him.

“Azad sahib was a political tourist for his home state,” Mir said, “He spent his entire life in Delhi and would come to Jammu and Kashmir only when he knew that he was losing the ground. He enjoyed the privilege because Kashmir’s name was attached to him despite the fact that he is not even a resident of Kashmir.”

In Delhi, Congress leaders officially said that “GNA’s DNA Modi-fied” and the resignation letter he wrote was actually “written by RSS” and that the invective “sycophant” applied to him. “Azad Ji got everything in the party due to the leadership of the Gandhis,” Rajni Patil, the in-charge Congress in Jammu and Kashmir said. “He could win just one assembly election from Jammu and Kashmir, that too after he was made the CM, from a seat held by Congress.”

Who Is Azad?

Born in 1949 in Soti village of Bhaderwah, Azad joined Congress during his student days in Srinagar, initially as a Youth Congress activist and later the president of Youth Congress in India. It was in Delhi that he became literally a member of the Gandhi family as Sanjay Gandhi was his close friend. He passed the loyalty test during the emergency in 1975 and then there was no looking back.

His first formal stint in the organizational setup was from 1973 to 1975 when he became the secretary of the Block Congress Committee in Bhalessa and moved up the ranks to become the president of the Jammu and Kashmir Youth Congress in 1975-76. This was the time when being associated with Congress in Kashmir was taboo given its chequered history, especially after dethroning and arrest of Sheikh Abdullah on August 8, 1953. In his resignation letter, he termed the development as the nadir of his party’s “political myopia”.

After his stint at the state level, his focus shifted to Delhi.  From 1977 onwards he was general secretary of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) led by Sanjay Gandhi.

Post-Sanjay Gandhi’s demise, he took over as the National President of IYC in 1980 and inducted Rajiv Gandhi into the Indian Youth Congress as a member of the National Council on Sanjay Gandhi’s first death anniversary on June 23, 1981.

In his nearly 50 years in politics, he has been a two-term Lok Sabha and a five-term Rajya Sabha member, and a union minister in all Congress governments since 1982. He also remained a two-term member of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in 2006 and 2008, besides serving as chief minister of the erstwhile state from 2005 to 2008.

Within the organisation, Azad was a general secretary with every president of the Congress since the mid-1980s and was a member of the Congress Parliamentary Board headed by Rajiv Gandhi till his death in May 1991. He was also a member of the Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, continuously for nearly four decades in an elected and nominated capacity, and served as AICC general secretary in charge of almost every state and the Union Territory at one point of time or the other over the last 35 years.

Electoral Politics

Electorally, Azad won his first parliamentary election in 1980 from Washim in Maharashtra as Sanjay Gandhi’s poster boy and became a minister of Indira Gandhi in 1982. He represented the same constituency again in 1989.

Azad served under all Congress Prime ministers – Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao, and Manmohan Singh. Azad was first given a Rajya Sabha ticket in June 1991.

Azad, however, largely had no success in electoral battles at home. To his victory in Maharashtra, the then chief minister of J&K and NC founder, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah made a sharp remark. “The day he will get 1000 votes from anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir, I will recognize him as a political entity.” This was an apparent reference to Azad’s maiden attempt in represent Inderwal in Kashmir Assembly in 1977 when NC swept the polls leaving Azad with an insignificant 959 votes and forfeiting his security deposit.

Thereafter, he did not contest elections in his home state for almost three decades. He had to wait till 2006 to contest and win an assembly by-election after succeeding Mufti Muhammad Sayeed as Chief Minister in November 2005. His cousin, Mohammad Sharief Niaz, vacated the seat for him. He secured 62072 votes against 4057 votes of BJP’s Kaushal Kotwal. After PDP withdrew the support and the government collapsed, Azad returned to Delhi and became a Rajya Sabha member for a fourth term.

Six years later, in the only other election that Azad contested at home, in 2014 from the Udhampur Lok Sabha constituency, BJP’s Dr Jitendra Singh defeated him.

The Impact

Normally Azad’s resignation and floating of a new party would not have been a major event in Jammu and Kashmir. However, the frame of politics stands frozen since June 18, 2019, a day when the coalition government headed by PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti collapsed after the pullout of its partner BJP. The political class remained in induced paralysis since August 2019, when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was read down. In between a new political outfit, the Apni Party was launched by Syed M Altaf Bukhari. Though the faces remained the same – mostly from PDP, where Bukhari was a Finance Minister, the facet changed.

PDP saw a major exodus of its prominent leaders. Out of 28 lawmakers, around 18 quit the party. The rebels joined the NC and PC, but Apni Party got a bigger share. Only one person, Dr Haseen Drabu quit politics.

The Matrix

Azad’s launch of the new party is likely to upset the political applecart especially in ‘political party abundant’ Kashmir.  Now, he will be yet another dimension to electoral politics, especially in elections, possible in 2023 summer. The areas which are likely to see some impact of the new party will be the twin regions of Pir Panchal Valley and Chenab Valley – the two sub-cultures located between Kashmir and Jammu.

The political class in Kashmir sees Azad’s entry will fracture the mandate further. “I think 57 seats will have fractured verdict,” Old city resident, Mushtaq Ahmad, who has been following politics for fifty years, said. “ “Kashmir’s all the 47 segments and 15  in Jammu region will see a multi-cornered contest with perhaps the weakest getting the seat.” This, he believes will be an “advantage to BJP and its allies.”

Though carrying a “clean image”, Azad is unlikely to impact the BJP vote bank.  The key negative that will play against him in the Hindu vote bank is how he in 2008 took away the land that the then governor, Maj Gen SK Sinha had taken for developing infrastructure for the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. NC is expected to be as the loser as its vote bank will shrink. There is a strong possibility that in the “redeployment of political forces”, Apni Party and NC may lose a few “wickets” and PC also may not survive unscathed. PDP is in a safe zone as it has nothing much to lose now.

Though everybody between Azad and Saroori are insisting that they would avoid any handshake with BJP, the politics being the “art of possible” can create the Mufti Sayeed moment for Azad too. Mufti fought polls against BJP in 2014 and the party’s landslide mandate in Jammu led him to join, what he said north pole-south pole alliance.

In the post-2019 Kashmir, PAGD has emerged as a loose alliance of parties seeking status quo ante. It has NC, PDP and CPI (M), as the key constituents. Though the alliance has not taken a call about how it will behave as a block in elections, the larger question remains – where Azad will place himself in a relationship with PAGD. Azad has been the top beneficiary of his personal relationship with Dr Farooq Abdullah. Most of his Rajya Sabha mandates came from NC support.

Azad, however, has asserted that he would be unlike Assadudin Owaisi, who is being accused of dividing Muslim votes in mainland India. “I will give blood for Jammu and Kashmir,” Azad told an interviewer. Normally, democracy does not require blood.

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