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Azad’s resignation likely to trigger spate of defections beyond Congress

Ghulam Nabi Azad

Even as almost all the existing political parties in Jammu and Kashmir are apprehensive of losing their cadres to the former Congress veteran, Ghulam Nabi Azad’s resignation has caused a massive dent to the Congress party in the Union Territory. Over a hundred Congress leaders, including former Ministers and legislators, have tendered their resignations and sided with Azad ahead of his floating a new mainstream political party.

After his 5-page resignation letter, addressed to the Congress President Sonia Gandhi, surfaced in media on 26 August, veteran leaders issued statements in solidarity with Azad who has served as President of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) and the erstwhile State’s Chief Minister in the past.

Azad’s claim of enjoying support of 99 percent of the JKPCC rank and file is dismissed as an exaggeration by independent political observers. Nevertheless, a number of the stalwarts, who have remained associated with the Congress party since long, have publicly supported Azad even before his launching a new party.

In New Delhi, Azad has told mediapersons that he would launch a new national party. Since the Assembly elections are round the corner in Jammu and Kashmir, the first unit, according to Azad, would be created in his home State which became a Union Territory (UT) in August 2019.

In Jammu, Azad’s loyalists, with the former Minister Ghulam Nabi Saroori on the forefront, are making preparations for a ‘grand reception rally’ as the former Chief Minister is scheduled to start a tour on 4 September.

One-time Indian Air Force officer and Rajiv Gandhi’s close friend, R.S. Chib, was the first to come out in Azad’s support last week. Chib has served as a Minister in Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference-Congress coalition in 1987-90 as well as Omar Abdullah’s cabinet in 2009-13. In January 2013, Chib was the only Minister dropped from the Congress quota in Omar’s cabinet but he continued his association with the party.

Chib’s resignation and support to Azad was quickly followed by similar actions and statements from the former Deputy Chief Minister and Speaker Tara Chand and the JKPCC veterans and ex-ministers Ghulam Mohammad Saroori, Taj Mohiuddin, Abdul Majid Wani, Manohar Lal Sharma, Gharu Ram. Former Deputy Speaker and MLA from Jammu’s Bani segment, Ghulam Hyder Malik, former MLA of Sopore Haji Abdul Rashid, who enjoyed Ministerial status as the Vice Chairman of a Corporation in Omar’s NC-Congress government as also former MLAs Choudhary Akram, Balwan Singh and Shoaib Lone and former MLCs Subhash Gupta and Sham Lal Bhagat have also deserted the Congress party and sided with Azad.

A number of the members from the Panchayati Raj Institutions, Urban Local Bodies, District Development Councils, Block Development Councils besides office-bearers in District and Block committees have also announced their resignation from the party and supported Azad. In Jammu, as many as 64 Congress leaders dashed a joint resignation letter to the All India Congress Committee (AICC) supremo Sonia Gandhi, invariably echoing Azad’s concerns.

Even as Azad is yet to launch his party, leaders and activists disgruntled with other parties have also begun sending signals to Azad’s camp. On Monday, a group of 12 leaders of Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party (AP) in Azad’s home district of Doda announced their resignation from the party and aspiration to join the new party. Interestingly, they severed their ties with the AP immediately after Bukhari, once a top leader and Minister in Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti’s government and thereafter a contender for Chief Minister’s post, made a scathing outburst against Azad. He accused Azad of being hand-in-glove with Prime Narendra Modi in terminating Article 370 in the Parliament in 2019.

Until now, only Bukhari and the Congress leaders, Tariq Hamid Karra and the new JKPCC chief Vikar Rasool have issued statements against Azad. But at the same time, support is pouring in for Azad from some unexpected quarters. In his media interviews, NC’s President and former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah described Azad as a great leader. People’s Democratic Party’s senior leader and former Minister Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjoora too issued a policy statement in support of Azad which wouldn’t have come without Mehbooba Mufti’s approval.

Former JKPCC Presidents Saifuddin Soz, Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed and Ghulam Ahmad Mir have been seen in the official Congress camp. However, insiders insist that several district and tehsil committees as also ULBs and PRIs, DDC and BDC members would en masse resign and join Azad’s camp after the party’s launch next week.

As of now, Azad and his close associates have maintained that they would maintain a distinct character and contest on all the 90 Assembly segments without joining any alliance. However, analysts believe that Azad would keep his options open.

“For now, he will surely strengthen his party and consolidate his base in Jammu and Kashmir. He will be certainly poaching a remarkable number of his loyalists in the Congress party while simultaneously taking out most of the migratory birds from almost all the parties–AP, People’s Conference, PDP, NC and BJP. There’s a strong possibility of the AP leader and ex-Minister Usman Majid and Hakeem Yasin joining Azad”, said a faculty at the Department of Political Science in the University of Kashmir.

“When the BJP brought down Mehbooba Mufti’s government and there were speculations of the Centre installing an anti-PDP, anti-NC Kashmiri Muslim as Chief Minister, a number of the PDP leaders switched over to Bukhari’s AP and Sajad Lone’s PC. Some more joined them from NC and Congress. That was a different time. Over the years, most of these migratory birds are looking for greener pastures that could make them partners in the power with the Centre’s support. In the current situation, when both Bukhari and Lone are seemingly demoralised and their associates perceive Azad as New Delhi’s new poster boy, there are huge prospects of defections in almost all the existing parties”, said a former Minister who is no longer in active politics.

Acceptability in both, Kashmir and Jammu, among Muslims as well as non-Muslims, unmatched political profile, strong nationalist credentials, zero tolerance to terrorism and separatist narrative, non-involvement in corruption and nepotism  are some of the distinctions which make Azad superior to many of his peers whose attraction and acceptability in Delhi has been reduced by their equivocal politics in the recent times.

Also Read: Exodus gathers steam after 64 Congress leaders resign and join Ghulam Nabi Azad