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September 17, 2022 7:48 pm

Azad in J&K

KO Photo By Abid Bhat

Former Congress leader is gaining attention nationwide and in Jammu and Kashmir thanks to the momentum his dramatic resignation from the Congress has created

FORMER Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s decision to float a new party has suddenly redrawn the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. His recent rallies across Jammu  and in the Valley  have witnessed a significant attendance of people. Riding on the momentum generated by his dramatic resignation from Congress, which saw him launch a blistering attack on Rahul Gandhi, Azad is wallowing in attention across the country and in J&K. And he is trying to make the most of it by rallying people around his soon to be named party. Considering the existing state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir, he snugly slots into a political space that gives him wider acceptability. His biggest advantage, for example, is that he effortlessly straddles otherwise yawning political divides in both the regions.

In the 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.

In Jammu, while Azad may have lost the last parliament election to the current union minister Jitendra Singh,  he enjoys considerable goodwill in parts of the region, if not an easily identifiable support base.  In the Hindu-dominated region, his pro-India credentials remain impeccable – an attribute now certified by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Last year, when Azad’s Rajya Sabha tenure came to an end, the PM teared up during his farewell speech while reminiscing about his long association with the former Congress leader.

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

This is here that Azad threatens to upset the apple cart. 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.

With Azad’s entry, the political scene has become even more crowded. His will be the second political entity after the Apni Party to have come up after the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. Now, there are around eight parties  – BJP, NC, PDP,  Congress, PC, Apni Party, AAP and Azad’s party –  helmed either by major leaders or the major political organizations jockeying for power. This excludes other minor organizations such as the Panthers Party, Communist Party, Engineer Rashid’s party etc. Such a congested political space is unlike any other state in the country – some of which with a disproportionately larger population – where the principal electoral contest is largely confined to two to three parties.

So, who is going to come out on top? It is impossible to make a guess. But there are several scenarios that could play out. Azad, no doubt, has his political strengths, but it is difficult to predict what his party would actually end up doing: One possibility is that it would split the Muslim vote in Jammu and to a lesser extent in Kashmir Valley – a la Assadudin Owaisi in the UP. Or he could garner a significant number of seats in Jammu and a few more in the Valley, and thereby emerge a consensus candidate for chief ministership which even the BJP wouldn’t grudge – a la Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in 2002.

As for the BJP, it is still favourite to win hands down in Jammu. In the event, Azad’s party splits Muslim vote in Jammu, the BJP could again end up making a clean sweep in the division, something that could help it emerge as the single largest party in the union territory and thus in a position to install J&K’s first Hindu chief minister in a coalition with some Kashmiri-based parties.

What about the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration which mainly comprises of the NC and the PDP?  In the DDC election held last year, the alliance won a majority without even campaigning and without even people participating in large numbers. Would it repeat the performance in the Kashmir Valley and in Jammu’s Muslim dominated areas. One can only make a guess. But much has changed since the DDC election and now. Sajad Lone’s PC has separated from the alliance and it  has now been buttressed by the influx of leaders from the PDP, some of whom can boast of independent constituencies.

Can there be consolidation around the demand for the restoration of Article 370? Again it is difficult to predict anything. Some people even doubt if the electoral contest itself will even be fair.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer