Although the group of 23 (“G-23”) dissenting Congress leaders may be quiet for now despite their humiliating exclusion from the list of campaigners in the ongoing State elections, the aggressive posturing by their supporters in Jammu and Kashmir, where the group’s leader Ghulam Nabi Azad had been Chief Minister, betrays the fractions that threaten to mar the grand old party in the foreseeable future. It also reveals how Azad is eyeing Jammu and Kashmir as his political battleground against the Congress high command as the chorus for “democratisation” of the party attains a feverish pitch. Azad was one of the 23 senior leaders who wrote to the party’s interim chief Sonia Gandhi in August 2019 demanding changes in the Congress organisation, including internal elections from the block and district levels to the central level.
Ever since Azad held a massive public meeting in Jammu on February 27 and mounted praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi a day later, his followers in the State have been following a similar trajectory. They have been abstaining from the party’s official events and giving sound bites aimed at cementing the perception that the “Congress is weakening” (with Rahul Gandhi as its most prominent face). Their combative rhetoric at a time when many believe the party’s performance in the Assembly elections will determine the future of its former president Rahul Gandhi underlines their intent.
In off-the-record conversations, they use succinct but politically evocative statements about their opposition to the idea of Rahul Gandhi helming the party or controlling the levers of power through any informal arrangement. The Congress Working Committee (CWC) is scheduled to hold elections for the party’s top post in June. It is not clear whether Rahul Gandhi will contest or not.
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“It’s a big game”, “Wait until May 2 [when the outcome of the State elections would be known],” members of Azad’s inner circle say, confident that an adverse outcome for the party in the elections would be their best opportunity to redraw and perhaps even command the leadership of the party, which had been the exclusive privilege of the Gandhis ever since Indira Gandhi charted an independent course in 1969 and formed the Congress (R) or Indian National Congress (Requisitionists). The brief period between 1991 after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and 1998, when Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress president, was the only time the party was led by a non-Gandhi.
On March 21, several Congress leaders from the Kashmir Valley boycotted progammes organised by State Congress chief Ghulam Ahmed Mir and All India Congress Committee (AICC) in charge Rajini Patil. They included former State Congress chief Peerzada Syed, CWC member Tariq Karra, former Minister Taj Mohudin, former Member of the Legislative Council N. Monga and former Member of the Legislative Assembly Amin Bhatt. Ostensibly, the boycott was meant to voice grievances against Mir, but political observers say this is Azad’s way of keeping the high command under pressure.
Boycott of leaders
Pro-Azad leaders not only refused to attend programmes held by Mir and Rajini Patil but issued a litany of complaints against Mir to the press. According to them, Mir had been sidelining leaders close to Azad and “selling tickets” to outsiders. They also allege that during the District Development Council (DDC) election in December 2020, Mir remained stationed in Anantnag to focus on the campaign of his son, who was a candidate from one of the wards in that district. They have been demanding Mir’s replacement as the State Congress chief.
At first glance, this would look like a bickering amongst regional satraps for political clout, but, as Mir alluded while speaking to this reporter, boycotting the AICC referee to the Union Territory is nothing short of a mutinous posturing against the high command. Mir told this reporter that there was no apparent trigger for these leaders to shun Rajini Patil’s programmes. He told Frontline: “Rajini Patil had met these leaders in October and given them a patient hearing. There are disagreements in every party and there are platforms available to voice grievances and seek redressal. Their failure to participate in Patil’s programmes in Kashmir is unprovoked and inexplicable.”
Conversations with political actors and observers in Jammu and Kashmir reveal two explanations as to why Azad’s supporters are seizing on the Congress’ rout in the elections and creating embarrassing optics and sound bites for the high command. One theory is that the Prime Minister’s Office is in constant touch with Azad and is keen on leveraging his stature as a unifying force in Jammu and Kashmir. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been conspicuously working to splinter regional parties, and its leaders believe that Azad could be an acceptable, consensus chief ministerial candidate to the mismatched group of defectors with whom it hopes to form the next government in the State.
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A very senior leader from Kashmir confirmed the same to this reporter. He said: “Ghulam Nabi Azad is useful to the BJP. Slowly, they are coming out of the delusion of installing a Hindu Chief Minister in Jammu and Kashmir. They know that they cannot clinch a majority of their own or even in an alliance with Sajad Lone’s People’s Conference and Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party which they have created by splintering the PDP [Peoples Democratic Party]. They will certainly attempt post-election permutation and combination, but for that to be viable, they would need a senior figurehead, which is Azad.” According to this senior leader, the BJP has told Altaf Bukhari, Lone and its other allies in Kashmir that they will have to agree to work under the Congress leader “when the time comes”.
This scenario is not improbable given that the Prime Minister recently went out of his way to laud Azad’s stature and integrity in Parliament, and appeared to shed a tear. “I worry that after Azad whosoever will take over from him will have to fill very big boots because he cared not only about his party but about the country as well as the House. This is not a small thing, this is a big thing,” Modi said. Azad’s term in the Rajya Sabha ended on February 15.
On February 27, Azad organised a “shanti sammelan” in Jammu, sharing the dais with several G-23 leaders, who wore saffron turbans. Those who attended the gathering included Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Raj Babbar and Vivek Tankha. The event was seen as a political messaging to the Congress high command and its loyalists. Kapil Sibal was vocal. He told the crowd: “The truth is that we see Congress party getting weak.”
“Our voice is for the betterment of the party. It should be strengthened everywhere once again,” he added, giving substance to the argument that it was time for collective leadership of the party. That the Congress refused to retain Azad in the Rajya Sabha conveys the Gandhis’ enormous discomfort with that idea.
A day after the shanti sammelan, Azad addressed a public meeting in Jammu and praised Modi. He said he appreciated Modi for never hiding the fact that he hailed from a village and used to sell tea. Said Azad: “I like a lot of things about many leaders. I am from the village and feel proud.… Even our Prime Minister hails from the village and used to sell tea. We are political rivals but I appreciate that he does not hide his true self.”
A couple of days later, in an event that some believe would not be orchestrated without the party high command’s tacit approval, a section of Congress workers in the State burnt Azad’s effigy and accused him of conspiring against the party at the behest of the BJP. State Congress general secretary Shahnawaz Choudhary and his supporters burnt Azad’s effigy and raised slogans against him outside the Jammu Press Club. Several members of the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) sought Azad’s removal from the party.
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Azad maintains that he “will join the BJP when we have black snow in Kashmir”. This has helped spur a second reading of the situation that his and his supporters’ role is limited to ending the Gandhis’ monopolistic control of the party.
Several of Azad’s supporters in Jammu and Kashmir with whom this reporter interacted gave the overwhelming sense that they did not see Rahul Gandhi as a bankable face in 2024 against Modi. It was also clearly articulated that his younger sibling Priyanka Gandhi was more suited for that role.
Voices from within the Azad camp say that should there be another dismal show from the Congress on May 2 when the Assembly elections are out, “there would be a series of public expressions of discontent against Rahul Gandhi’s leadership”.
Worryingly for the Congress high command, the statements may not be only from within. A reliable source told this reporter that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently had a chat with Azad and that she expressed her displeasure against the Congress’ alliance in the State with the Indian Secular Front (ISF) led by the Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui. The source said that on May 2, “if things go as they are hoping”, which is if the Congress loses all the five States/Union Territory, there would be “statements from [Nationalist Congress Party leader] Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee” too. The idea is to involve senior non-Congress leaders in whipping up a perception that “Congress and the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] both need a change of guard”.
Not surprisingly, soon after the Congress stitched an alliance with the ISF, G-23 leaders questioned the party’s secular credentials, an enormously damaging thing to do given that the party lost the Seemanchal region in last year’s Bihar elections owing to a fragmenting of the Muslim votes by Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). Said Congress leader Anand Sharma in a tweet: “Congress’ alliance with parties like ISF and other such forces militates against the core ideology of the party and Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism, which forms the soul of the party. These issues need to be approved by the CWC.”
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Sources in the State Congress who swear allegiance to Azad claim that they are working on a strategy to ensure that Rahul will not have the numbers to return as Congress president when the CWC holds the election in June. While speculation is rife that Azad or someone else from his camp may contest for president, Azad’s close aides told this reporter that “he would not”. The sources said they would prevail on Priyanka Gandhi to contest, but the first step in that direction would be to turn the arithmetic against her older sibling.
According to a Jammu and Kashmir Congress leader who is close to Azad, Priyanka Gandhi recently met Azad. Whereas there is nothing to suggest that Priyanka Gandhi would contest against Rahul Gandhi, efforts are on to scupper Rahul Gandhi from contesting or nominating anyone else who could be his rubber stamp. Several voices from the Azad camp in the State said that they desired a situation where Priyanka was the party president and a strong leader such as Azad or Sharad Pawar was the UPA chairperson, and that “everything depends on what happens on May 2”.