The January 15 cabinet expansion in Jammu & Kashmir has triggered a fresh factional strife in the Pradesh Congress as activists loyal to Ghulam Nabi Azad and Saifuddin Soz held their rival faction’s leader responsible for “losing out” the party’s stronghold of Doda to the National Conference.

Ghulam Mohammad Saroori (MLA from Inderwal) and Mohammad Sharief Niaz (MLA from Bhaderwah), contenders for cabinet berths in the Omar Abdullah-led coalition government, were dropped. Mr. Abdullah instead picked the Congress MLA from Doda, Abdul Majid Wani, who is a Ghulam Nabi Azad loyalist and an equally strong contender to fill up the “vacuum” in the State’s largest area district, which was bifurcated during Mr. Azad’s chief ministership.

While both Mr. Niaz and Mr. Wani were ministers in the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led Congress-PDP government, Mr. Saroori, a strong Azad loyalist himself, was the head of a social welfare advisory board with status of a junior Minister.

Under Mr. Azad’s leadership, Congress had swept the 2008 election, winning five out of six seats in the so-called Chenab belt. Once holding fort in Doda, the National Conference had to be content with the one-odd seat of Kishtwar that went to its nominee, Sajad Ahmad Kichloo.

After Mr. Azad went back to New Delhi and was elected as a member of the Rajya Sabha in 2009, Mr. Niaz, his cousin, contested from Bhaderwah and won for the second time after 2002.

Amid a deluge of speculations, Mr. Abdullah inducted Mr. Wani, understandably in the wake of reconciliation between Mr. Azad and Mr. Soz; the two head the two warring factions in the Congress in the State. He also inducted the National Conference’s Mr. Kichloo and another Azad loyalist, Viqar Rasool, as junior Ministers. The Chenab belt, which remained unrepresented in Mr. Abdullah’s cabinet for four years, is now enjoying the distinction of having three of its six MLAs as Ministers.

Significantly, Mr. Soz got a free hand in allocation of portfolios among the Congress’ Ministers. Ironically, neutrality had an edge over the factional loyalty in another sphere as Gulam Ahmad Mir, an independent, was inducted and another, Rajinder Singh Chib, was dropped from the Cabinet.

In the last two days, Mr. Saroori’s followers have claimed in e-mails to media that over 500 Panchs and Sarpanchs have tendered their resignations in Kishtwar and Inderwal areas in order to register their protest over their leader’s non-inclusion in the cabinet. However, rather than blaming Mr. Abdullah or the AICC leadership, they have publicly held Mr. Soz responsible and stressed on his immediate dismissal as J&K Pradesh Congress Committee chief.

On the other hand, Mr. Niaz’s followers have sent e-mails to newspaper offices, claiming that nearly 500 Panchs and Sarpanchs had quit the party over their leader’s absence from the Cabinet, for which they blamed Mr. Azad.

Meanwhile, Mr. Abdullah is coming to terms with his own party’s angry legislators. He has, however, reasons to be free of tension as most of the people in Kashmir have hailed the “expulsion of corrupt and incompetent Ministers.”