Ghulam or Azad?

This piece was first published by Kashmir Observer on December 18, 2021.  We are reproducing it in view of Ghulam Nabi Azad’s resignation from the Congress and his decision to float a new party. -Editor

Ghulam Nabi Azad- Photo credit PTI

TOP Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s re-entry into an otherwise crowded political arena in Jammu and Kashmir has all the makings of changing the political game in the union territory. In recent weeks, Azad has addressed around ten impressively attended rallies in parts of the Jammu division and southern Kashmir, something that has greatly contributed to the revival of political activity. This has also prodded the regional parties to resume their public outreach with the NC Vice president Omar Abdullah holding a rally at Chatroo in  Kishtwar district of Chenab Valley. Mehbooba Mufti who has, by and large, been more visible publicly since her release has also tried to up her game. Ever before Azad’s arrival on the scene, Mehbooba was making some loud political noise in Jammu. She later held a small protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.

Over the last two years, the political position taken by Mehbooba on the demand for the return of Article 370 has veered to the extreme. In one rally in Chenab Valley, she went even to the extent of warning New Delhi that it should restore Article 370, if it wanted “to keep Kashmir.” The National Conference has been more restrained but steadfast in its demand for restoration of autonomy. The People’s Conference led by Sajad Lone, on the other hand, has grown increasingly non-commital on the issue since the party suddenly parted ways with the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. Lone has, instead, focussed on strengthening his party by poaching upon the leaders from the PDP and the NC, some of them with significant support bases in their respective constituencies. Whether this translates into any winnings for his party in the future Assembly polls is in the realm of speculation. More so, when a party that is most vocal about the demand for return of J&K autonomy is likely to resonate with the people both in the Valley and the Muslim dominated areas of Jammu.

From the PC onwards, there is the Apni Party which apparently has all but reconciled to the post-Article 370 state of affairs. Jammu-based parties, including Congress which has some presence in the Valley too, see the withdrawal of Article 370 as a good riddance and their position enjoys wide support among the region’s majority community. In fact, the more extreme the position on the issue as the one the espoused by the BJP, the more uncritical support the party can expect from a majority of the majority community in Jammu.

It is in this convoluted political arena that Congress leader Azad has tossed his hat in. Although Azad has given no indication that he is floating a new party, he has also not ruled it out.  “In politics, no one can predict what will happen next,” he told the media in a not so cryptic statement about his future plans should his party alienate him further. Congress has already removed him from its disciplinary committee. And in J&K, twenty of Azad’s loyalists have quit the party in so far starkest signal that the cohort has plans up their sleeve if the high command doesn’t go along with their demand, which seems unlikely.

An impossible demand on the part of the rebel group could also be a calculated ploy to pursue a different political course. One possibility that is being bandied about is that Azad is on course to do an Amarinder Singh in J&K. And he could very well do it. And he seems to have every reason to choose this course, one of them being  his current abysmal relations with the Congress high command. Second, the existing state of Congress in the country gives little hope that the party will pose any credible challenge to the BJP’s pan-India sway in the next year’s five Assembly elections, let alone in 2024 general elections.   Third, this leaves Azad nowhere in terms of his political career. Joining the BJP may be an option and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s perceived soft corner for him may make the entry easier and even earn him  some post in the government but politically this will be a suicidal move. It can politically deracinate Azad.

Only plausible option under the circumstances for him is to launch a new party. And should he do that, it has the potential to redraw the political map of J&K – it could very well be a throwback to the advent of the PDP in 1999.  And there are reasons for it. While Azad may have lost the last parliament election to the current union minister Jitendra Singh, he enjoys a good deal of goodwill in parts of Jammu and Kashmir if not an easily identifiable support base. This is because he has always deftly straddled the political divide between Jammu and Kashmir. In Jammu, his pro-India credentials remain impeccable – an attribute now even certified by PM Modi.

And, in Valley, his advantage is that no one expects him to be adversarial towards New Delhi, a characteristic that is expected of every Kashmir based leader. In fact, a Kashmiri leader’s popularity is directly proportional to how aggressively he challenges New Delhi’s hegemonistic policies – real and perceived – towards Kashmir. Azad is not burdened by such expectations and therein lies the secret of his modest acceptability in the Valley. Also, for all his ideological contradictions with the drift of the  political discourse in the Valley,  Azad’s politics has invariably had a benign orientation  which trumps a hostile public response.

Azad has also been smart enough to locate his politics at the only conceivable political meeting ground between the Valley and the majority community in Jammu: He doesn’t demand restoration of Article 370 which faces opposition in Jammu’s Hindu dominated areas but he wants protection for jobs and lands, something that resonates with both the regions.

This is where Azad threatens to emerge as a dark horse. And to his advantage, if things don’t go well enough for the BJP, the saffron party would be content with a potential cameo role by Azad for one important reason: he could help splinter further Muslim vote and potentially stymie a Valley based party’s or a coalition’s bid to get a reasonable number of seats let alone a majority, the BJP’s mortal fear.

But there are many other factors at play whereby Azad’s entry could even weaken the BJP’s stranglehold in Jammu. It would be difficult then to predict how the post-election scenario will pan out. More so, in the event that the BJP goes on to lose Uttar Pradesh early next year. Azad might then get a maneuvering space to strike on his own – in an Azad way. Otherwise, he will continue to be seen as subservient to the BJP’s agenda in J&K – a Ghulam.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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