The Rajya Sabha last week witnessed emotional scenes as it bid farewell to the Leader of Opposition and Congress party’s Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Prime Minister Narednra Modi paid rich tributes to Azad’s stint in Parliament and praised him for his work because he was not only concerned about his party but also about the country and the House. He added that whoever replaces Azad will have big shoes to fill.
In a display of rare camaraderie, Azad reciprocated Modi’s gesture by saying that the PM brought a personal touch to all matters.
Just a day before, replying in the Rajya Sabha to a debate on the President’s budget session speech, Modi had marked out the veteran Congress leader for special praise. He had taken a swipe at the Grand Old Party’s ongoing internal tussle regarding the leadership issue and the letter controversy.
Azad was one of the signatories to the letter written by 23 senior leaders of the Congress party to interim president Sonia Gandhi.
They called for sweeping changes including a “full time and effective leadership” which is both “visible” and “active” in the field; elections to the CWC; and the urgent establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party’s revival.
This rebel group is referred to as G-23 and Azad is the tallest leader of the group. This had strained the relationship of Azad with the Gandhi family with loyalists demanding action against G-23.
After the abrogation of Article 370 and bifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir into two Union territories: 1) Jammu & Kashmir and 2) Ladakh. No Assembly election has been conducted and J&K can only send members to the Rajya Sabha after the new Assembly is in place.
This means that the 4 members who have retired from the state, including Azad, can’t get re-elected any time soon.
Three Rajya Sabha members will be retiring in Kerala and 1 in Puducherry this year which means Congress could struggle to get Azad re-elected soon.
What is brewing?
Ghulam Nabi Azad is by far the tallest leader of the Congress party who hails from the minority community. He is amongst the country’s tallest leaders who belong to the minority community.
A staunch loyalist, currently, he is feeling a bit neglected in the Congress due to Sonia Gandhi’s reluctance to put anyone apart from the Gandhi family as in-charge. The bad blood between Rahul’s new team versus the old guard has also worsened matters.
The dwindling fortunes of the Congress party across the country means that it may not be in a position to accommodate Azad in Parliament soon, even if it wishes to.
The Congress party is expected to have a new President by June 2021. How many demands of the G-23 are met? Do they corner in plum organizational posts in the new dispensation or are neglected? All of this could decide the next course of action of Azad and G-23.
PM Modi choked in Parliament while saying, "I would not let you retire, will continue taking your advice. My doors are always open for you." This assumes significance in light of these developments. It is just sort of an open invitation to rock the boat and join the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Azad will be a prize catch for the BJP. He feels proud to be a Hindustani Muslim. He stated in Parliament: “... if any Muslim in the world should be proud, then it should be the Muslims of India.” This would be music to the ears of BJP’s ideology parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
It will improve the acceptability of the BJP amongst the minority community and could reap rich electoral dividends. It also helps the BJP spread the narrative that Congress meted out bad treatment to its top most minority community leader.
And if this happens before the J&K polls, then it provides the BJP with a face in the valley. Currently, it is strong in Jammu but lacks support in the Kashmir region.
Rashid Kidwai points out that the political motive of the prime minister's speech was to show how Azad, just as PV Narasimha Rao and Pranab Mukherjee of the past, was not getting his due in the Congress.
With his speech, Modi has also given fire to the brewing rebellion within the Congress so that the Gandhis, struggling on various fronts, remain embroiled in managing the in-house crisis.
Azad is still 71 and has some years of political career left. His next moves would depend upon how ambitious he is, how he is handled by the Congress party going forward and how the party takes this new Modi-Azad bonhomie.