AT 73, Ghulam Nabi Azad is an unlikely rebel. But, having joined the Group of 23 a year-and-a-half ago demanding widespread changes in the Congress, the old Gandhi family loyalist has now put the party on notice with a series of rallies across Jammu and Kashmir.
Azad held his first rally in Banihal in the Jammu province, bordering Kashmir, on November 16. He went on to address nearly a dozen, well-attended, meetings in three phases, concluding at Ramban on December 4 — his first such rallies in the Union Territory since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Two of these meetings were in the Kashmir province.
A native of Bhaderwah in Doda, Azad remains the only chief minister of the erstwhile state belonging to Jammu province, and is among the tallest leaders of the Congress across the Union Territory.
With many Congress leaders joining him at his meetings, and 20 of his loyalists quitting party posts recently seeking a change in leadership in the UT, speculation is brewing about Azad’s future plans. Significantly, Azad did not directly attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah or Lt Governor Manoj Sinha at the meetings, even as he criticised the BJP. At one rally, Azad said Sinha was “good”, but that his administration could not be a match for elected representatives.
On Sunday, speaking to reporters, Azad said the current Congress leadership does not brook any criticism, unlike Indira or Rajiv Gandhi.
While Azad has asserted that he is a lifelong Congressperson, and would remain so, loyalists do not rule out the possibility of the veteran floating a new political front. One of the 20 who quit Congress posts recently, Ghulam Nabi Monga, the former state unit vice-president, said: “We have issues with the party’s leadership. We have been raising these for four years and the high command did not act.”
While calling the talk of a new political front “a media creation”, Monga was non-committal about their options should the party not accept their demands. “Azad sahib has already said that anything is possible in politics. But as of today, we are with the Congress,” Monga said.
Another party leader pointed out that the Congress high command was yet to react even to their decision to quit. “If it goes on like this, you may well see the emergence of a new political party,” he said, adding that Azad was “testing the waters” with the rallies.
Asked about it Monday, Azad declined to comment. A senior leader in Delhi said, “What is wrong with Congress leaders holding public meetings? Azad has not said anything against the party or the leadership.”
Leaders considered close to J&K Congress president G A Mir, who remained away from Azad’s rallies, said the meetings were an attempt by Azad to keep himself relevant as the high command has sidelined him following the G-23 letter. Once the Congress’s go-to person for election-bound states, Azad remains a member of the Congress Working Committee.
However, Azad loyalists say that rather than him needing the Congress, it is the other way round. A former minister said Mir can’t compete with Azad in either the Hindu-dominated areas of the UT or Muslim parts. Addressing a rally with Azad in Kathua, another former minister, Manohar Lal Sharma, said: “Yahan koi Mir-sheer nahin chalega, sirf Azad chalega (No Mir can work here, only Azad can).”
Other Congress leaders say only Azad can give competition to the BJP in Jammu areas, where the BJP won 25 seats in the 2014 Assembly seats and severely dented the Congress, and that Azad’s three-year term as CM is still remembered fondly. The National Conference, another party with presence in the area, is hampered due to its stand on Article 370, dictated by its Kashmir base.
A consistent theme at Azad’s meetings was a guarded acceptance of the scrapping of J&K’s special status. He said there was no point talking of it as the matter was pending before the Supreme Court, and that any government could bring back Article 370 only if it had 300 MPs in Parliament, and that he didn’t see the Congress getting as many in 2024.
Azad also said the government “has agreed to our demand to hold Assembly elections, conduct delimitation, and restore statehood”, and that he has sought in turn that the last two be done prior to the polls, and that a Bill be brought to safeguard people’s rights to land and jobs.
Azad avoided other hot-button issues in his speeches – careful not to tread on the divide between Kashmir and Jammu, or the Gujjars and Paharis – sticking to promises of governance and development.
Former MLA Naresh Gupta said Azad will resume his rallies from mid-December. With National Conference president Omar Abdullah attacking Azad over his Article 370 stand, the Congress is not the only one watching him.
With Bashaarat Masood in Srinagar