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Azad: Survivor Extraordinaire’s Return in Season of Jammu

Ghulam Nabi Azad | The Dispatch

Jammu: Ghulam Nabi Azad’s resignation letter causing national embarrassment for Congress leadership and raising uncomfortable questions on his own decision and it’s timing is one part of the story, the other part is the Jammu and Kashmir project which needs a deep dive into post August 5, 2019, politics.

Azad and his aides have indicated imminent formation of a ‘national’ political party under his leadership, with ‘immediate’ focus on Jammu and Kashmir. The ‘national’ is a mere camouflage to settle down the August 5 dust for which Azad, for his social base across regions and communities, is the most ideal candidate to give much awaited direction to politics in Union of India’s ‘Naya Jammu and Kashmir’ territory.   

The long story

Leaders from small states such as Jammu and Kashmir, contributing just one percent of seats to Lok Sabha, barely stand out to make any mark at the national political scene.

Partly for the complicated political history of this part of the country and partly for their acumen, at least six politicians from Jammu and Kashmir rose in stature to be rightly known as national political figures.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Dr Karan Singh, Syed Mir Qasim, Dr Farooq Abdullah, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad have not just been Jammu and Kashmir politicians at the national scene, but they rather represented India back home.

Appearing on the national political scene in pre-Independence days, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s stature continues to remain unrivaled. In 1947, Sheikh stood against all odds to represent the idea of India in Jammu and Kashmir and help deliver the indecisive and embattled Princely State to India by not only moral and political but also ‘militia’ support.

Inheriting a princely legacy of over a century, Dr Karan Singh weathered all seasons to remain politically significant all adult years of his life. Being in one or the other office of power for 69 years, he continues to remain relevant even in ninety-first year of his life. His statements on crucial political events, such as abrogation of Article 370, carry symbolic values and so do his two sons as the Dogra identity quest sees revivalism. From several-term Minister to Ambassador in Washington, Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Karan has been through diverse offices of power over the decades.

Syed Mir Qasim, India’s Kashmir face at world capitals and forums across 1950s and 60s, played a crucial role in reconciling an apparently irreversible Centre-State confrontation by facilitating Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s return from a separatist course to mainstream politics. Two and half decades later, when Vajpayee made unprecedented reach out to Kashmiri separatists, he personally engaged with Mir Qasim for mediation. A celebrated lieutenant of Indira Gandhi, Qasim was a Minister at the Center after stepping down as Chief Minister for Sheikh in 1975.

His personal friendships transcending across regional and ideological barriers beyond three generations of Gandhi family, from Dravidian politicians in the south to Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra and Badals in Punjab, Farooq Abdullah has always found silos of support in diverse circumstances. At 85, Farooq Abdullah is among the most popular leaders at the national level.

From Sardar Patel to Amit Shah, every Home Minister’s stature had a definite Kashmir marking. Mufti broke the glass ceiling by being first and last Muslim Home Minister of India, but, ironically, Kashmir was not under his charge of affairs. From revolting against Rajiv to splitting from VP Singh and then winning Sonia’s trust and Vajpayee’s administration, Mufti’s Delhi base actually brought him to the office of Chief Minister in 2002, twenty-five years after his first bid in 1977.

Survivor Extraordinaire

Ghulam Nabi Azad has been stayer extraordinaire at the national scene beginning 1975 pick by Sanjay Gandhi. Every leader listed above had Kashmiri language, nativity and legacy behind his rise and relevance. Azad came from a nondescript background, hailing from a remote village in Doda district of Jammu region. Many distinguished Dogras have often alleged that for Delhi, Jammu has merely been rugged foot-mat for dusting shoes before stepping on the silken carpets of Kashmir.

After winning Lok Sabha elections from Maharashtra, being in the Rajya Sabha for 28 years, enjoying close relations and ministerial berths with four Prime Ministers, calling shots as all-powerful general secretary for several states, when Azad came to his home state in 2001, he chose the most unusual path -exploring way to power through Jammu region. His strategy of harping on Dogra identity renaissance paid dividends -twenty seats on Congress ticket and support of five Independents. The core constituencies of BJP also supported Azad, as in him they saw the first practical possibility of a Chief Minister from Jammu, though a Muslim from Doda who could also speak Kashmiri.

Despite bagging 28 seats, National Conference decided to sit in Opposition as the 2002 Assembly didn’t have any Abdullah family member in the House. A distant third at 16, Peoples Democratic Party under Mufti Mohammad Sayeed raised the ‘Kashmir issue’ to claim leadership of coalition with Congress.

Azad suddenly realised that Jammu plank does not work with decision-makers in Delhi. He then brought the television cameras to his name plate on a Srinagar house, to the fact of his postgraduation in Zoology from Kashmir University and a more profound fact of his marriage to a Kashmiri woman. None of these did work for this veteran politician born in Doda and armed with mandate from Jammu region.

Mufti was able to hard-sell Kashmir, the pain of Kashmiris and need for ‘healing touch’. Azad had to settle down for a half-term rotation and eventually took over as Chief Ministers in November 2005. He took a policy line diametrically opposite to traditional politics -raising stakes of Jammu, making non-Kashmiri communities such as Dogras and Gujjars etc more visible on political and cultural scenes. He tried to demystify the Kashmir dialogue by giving space to every region, sub-region, community, and sub-community on two roundtable conferences chaired by the Prime Minister.

Six months before his term was to end, the PDP brought down his government in most humiliating manner over Amarnath land row. Kashmir was jubilant, rather massively jubilant, over Azad’s fall. But sadistic pleasure of his friends in Jammu and Delhi was also clearly visible.

In season of Jammu

Jammu and Kashmir ‘state’ has a well-established and historically known regional dichotomy between Kashmir and Jammu which has only deepened, year after year in post-1947 scenario.

In 2002, Azad was testing ‘political break’ for Jammu, but that was in a ‘high season’ of Kashmir. Two decades later, as he turns ‘regional’ after 47 years of an enviable practice at national scene, it is happening in the much awaited ‘season of Jammu’. Twenty years ago, Azad’s march to CM’s office was blocked by empathy for Kashmir and apathy to Jammu.

Also Read | Azad’s resignation from Congress. Full text of letter to Sonia Gandhi

But does this season of Jammu offer any space to Ghulam Nazi Azad? That’s the question everyone is asking. A hard fact will have to be stated: The binary that was about Jammu versus Kashmir for decades, is now clearly Jammu versus Kashmir plus Muslims. Azad has an unrivalled goodwill in the Hindu majority Tawi catchment areas of Jammu but in terms of who has joined him and who is expected to jump in, his area of influence is likely to be restricted.

“Those who understand Jammu and Kashmir would also know that I can’t increase a single vote in BJP’s constituency, and they can’t increase a single vote in my constituency”, Azad said in Delhi Monday morning as candid admission of fact.

After 43-year long legislative career (very rare for any politician) why would 73-year-old Azad try a party of his own when similar experiences of his colleagues offer no good examples. From Congress (T) of the Thakur stalwarts of Hindi heartland, to Tamil Manila Congress of G.K. Moopnar and Congress Jananayaka Peravai of P Chidambaram, most of them had to return to the parent fold or fade away to irrelevance. Most recent damp squib is of Captain Amarinder Singh who drew a humiliating blank in recent Punjab elections. In deference to all these theories of failure, the politics of Jammu and Kashmir is different, the juice of it is in its strategic depth.

In the middle of G-23 storm two years ago, the original idea was to have a national party or national alliance. As it came to the brass-tacks, no G-23 leader other than Azad had any regional base. From late last year to early this year, Azad did a chain of extensive public rallies to establish that in the deep running regional and communal divides of Jammu and Kashmir, he is perhaps the last such leader who could pull sizeable crowds in at least 70 of the 90 constituencies. This exactly is why Azad matters in post August 5, 2019, scenario.

Azad for ‘Naya Jammu and Kashmir’

That last elected government was demolished single-handedly by BJP in June 2018 as part of its process to carry out the August 5 operations. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019 provisioned elections after Delimitation. The Delimitation Award is out since May 2022. A process of electoral revision is currently on. Elections will have to be faced by all parties at some point but presently every party is wary of the results. Traditional regional parties, National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party and their constituencies, are visibly fearful of BJP’s further ascendency. But if there is one party that is deeply worried about an uncertain result, that is BJP itself.

From the security and strategic perspective, any party or combination of parties, hostile to August 5 events, coming to power to Jammu and Kashmir could trigger a long-drawn confrontation with the Center. The parties fundamentally opposed to August 5 will also have populist pressure to undo whatever possible. Center would not like to see such a situation.

The BJP has tried everything possible in the rulebook to achieve a situation for favourable mandate but the ground assessments, even after factoring in its two potential allies and possible listing of Pahari people as STs, offer no great promise. A vast section of strategic community in New Delhi believes that any further effort a la saam daam dand bhed may get BJP to power but that might result into a longer instability. Stability and the acceptance of whatever happened in last three years is what New Delhi would like to see, from the security perspective.

Also Read | What do we know, so far, about elections in Jammu and Kashmir?

In the wake of his resignation event, allegations of him being in cohorts with BJP have started coming up. Jammu and Kashmir’s politics is such that one can’t spare anything from attribution to masked powers and hidden agenda. It is in this context that ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams of BJP is a popular parlance. Sometimes they are allies of New Delhi, sometimes not. But one can’t make out who is in and who is out. May be all of them are allies at all the times but being handled separately. At times of his toppling in 1984, at time of stitching alliance with Rajiv in 1986, at time of getting Omar Abdullah to Vajpayee cabinet and at countless other times, Farooq Abdullah has always said, “you can’t do politics in Jammu and Kashmir being on the wrong side of Delhi”.

Azad certainly enjoys a degree of friendship and trust with Prime Minister Modi and there is no secret about that. When Prime Minister talked about manicured back-garden of Azad’s house on February 9, 2021, he suggested a relationship between the two that extends beyond normal political courtesies.

If Azad can pull out a campaign making him the first Chief Minister of post-Article 370 Jammu and Kashmir, that could be a consolation for almost all anxious stakeholders. A Muslim Chief Minister for the Muslim majority where August 5 is perceived by many with BJP’s sole agenda of installing a Hindu Chief Minister. From New Delhi’s security prism, a thoroughly national security man who has always detested Pakistan and separatists, in public and private, Ghulam Nabi Azad has a very clear view on August 5 right from the very evening of August 5 (read his LS speech): no problem with removal of Article 370 but downgrade of a historical state to Union Territory is unacceptable. Upgrading the UT to full state minus Ladakh is a stated policy of the Center.

Can he pull the show?

Now, where are the numbers? Alone or in alliance, he needs to command 46 seats in the House of 90 to form the government. His bold decision of resigning from Congress, which poses his stature and integrity to grave risk, is a hugely bold decision which must have been arrived at with a definite plan and infrastructures of support in place. It is, therefore, to early to start calculating number, say, based on who had joined him so far.

In the end, it would always be naïve and stupid to understand anything about Jammu and Kashmir through a single story. With Kashmir at the Center, there are a range of factors including security, geopolitical situation, elections and political trends in other parts of country which keep on impacting the dynamics in Jammu and Kashmir. Leaders in local unit of BJP have their own electoral ambitions irrespective of Center’s strategic thinking, the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party remain significant players. Apni Party of Altaf Bukhari, which took off with a dozen and half former Ministers and Legislators has an activity almost every day. Sajad Lone’s Peoples’ Conference is strengthening a formidable presence in north Kashmir. Besides these players, a there a vast number of newly emerging young faces through Panchayati Raj institutions who don’t want to ally with any of the parties in this sea of uncertainty.

What are Azad’s real prospects of pulling up a show? It is too early to make an assessment.


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About the author

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Zafar Choudhary

A journalist since 1999, Zafar Choudhary is also a policy analyst and author. An alumni of the London School of Economics, his book ‘Kashmir Conflict and Muslims of Jammu’ addresses a critical gap in scholarship on Kashmir. Zafar is founder and editor of The Dispatch

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