Azad In Naya Kashmir

By Deciding To Float A New Party In J&K, The Veteran Congress Leader Could Play The Role Of Either A Mufti Mohammad Sayeed Or An Assadudin Owaisi

GHULAM Nabi Azad, a veteran Congress leader, resigned at a time when the party is preparing to launch the 3500-kilometer Bharat Jodo Yatra, a 125-day mass outreach campaign from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. The march will be flagged off from the Gandhi Mandapam in Kanyakumari by former Congress president Rahul Gandhi on September 7. The party has already unveiled the logo, slogan and website for the yatra. The slogan is ‘Mile Kadam-Jude Vatan,” which is an attempt to convey a message that runs counter to the Hindutva narrative. It is not clear yet what will be the extent of Gandhi’s participation in the yatra. Some reports, however, have said Gandhi will be part of the foot march and that he will hold public interactions and meetings with locals. He is also not going to stay at hotels but at local accommodations.

On August 22, Gandhi met a group of civil society representatives and told them that the yatra’ will be like a “tapasya (penance)” for him. Gandhi said he is ready for a long battle to unite the country. The march is expected to cover approximately 25 kilometers every day by foot, and only a core group of 100 to 150 people would actually go the whole distance.

As is apparent, the yatra is part of the party’s preparation for 2024, although the party is projecting it as an apolitical exercise. But the moot point is whether the march will connect with the people. Though only a small number of people will be part of the yatra, its success will be determined by how many more people will join it across the twelve states through which it is due to travel. And also how many people will attend Gandhi’s public interactions. So, in a sense, the yatra will be a political bellwether: it will make it clear whether the Congress and with it the wider opposition, stands a chance in 2024 against the BJP juggernaut.

Many political observers, however, remain skeptical about Gandhi’s ability to generate a public groundswell in favour of the Congress. Some are calling it the umpteenth “relaunch” of Gandhi who has so far singularly failed to match up to the overarching political persona of prime minister Narendra Modi. Will he pull it off this time around? Odds are heavily against it. Ever since he took over the leadership of the Congress, both in his formal and de facto roles, Gandhi has proved incapable of rallying people behind the party. True, PM Modi’s charisma, oratory skills and media support have made Hindutva a reigning ideology of the country. But the lack of an alternative ideological narrative has made the BJP’s job even easier.

The lack of a narrative, however, is not the only undoing of the Congress. The organization is itself falling apart. While Gandhis have become a political liability, the party is unlikely to rally around a leader other than the one from the family. Azad’s exit came around the time when the interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi who is abroad for a medical check-up has reportedly requested Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to take over.

Azad is the latest among several top Congress leaders who have quit the party in the recent past. Some of them are Kapil Sibal, RPN Singh, Sunil Jakhar, Ashwani Kumar and others. But Azad’s resignation seems to have reverberated across the country’s political landscape. More so, because his exit isn’t entirely traced to the beleaguered state of Congress or a fight over principles. Ever since PM Modi gave Azad a tearful adieu from the Rajya Sabha last year, he has found it hard to shrug off a public perception, shared by some members of the Congress party as well, that his political moves are somehow dictated by the BJP. “GNA’s DNA has been modified,” wrote senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh soon after Azad’s resignation.

However, Azad and his associates have tried to dispel such an impression by reiterating their commitment to secular ideals. He has also nullified the earlier rumours of joining the saffron party by deciding to float a new party. His would be the second party to have come up in J&K following the revocation of Article 370. The first one is the Apni Party led by the businessman turned politician Altaf Bukhari which is deemed close to the BJP and sees the withdrawal of Article 370 as a fait accompli. But Azad, if the media reports are correct wants reversal of the move.

The advent of Azad’s yet to be announced party further complicates the political scene in the Valley. What Azad is up to remains, thus, a mystery. There is, as yet, no telling if he has any understanding with the BJP beyond his perceived good rapport with PM Modi. Or whether he plans to go solo in J&K elections or form an alliance with the other parties, more importantly with the PAGD. As of now, there are no straws in the wind that could point to his likely course of action. But one thing is sure: should Azad decide to go it alone, he could well end up doing what Assadudin Owaisi did in the UP: split Muslim votes to give the BJP a clean sweep in Jammu and potentially at a few seats in the Kashmir Valley too. Or he could even turn out to be another Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who will emerge as yet another political force in J&K, this time potentially from Jammu division.

As for the fallout of Azad’s exit on the fortunes of the Congress party, it only further reinforces its image of a sinking ship. And in J&K, the party has ceased to be a viable political force with hardly any vote-gathering leader left in its ranks.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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