The Congress is pinning its hopes on Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has strong secular credentials and a good track record, to score big victories in Jammu and Kashmir
When Sanjay Gandhi’s poster boy Ghulam Nabi Azad secured 2,45,091 votes, winning by a margin of 1,51,378 votes in Washim, Maharashtra, in the 1980 Lok Sabha election, Jammu and Kashmir National Conference’s founder and Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah made an acerbic remark on the Youth Congress leader’s victory: “The day he will get 1,000 votes from anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir, I will recognise him a political entity.” ‘The Lion of Kashmir’ had a reason to taunt the boy from Bhaderwah. Mr. Azad had cut a sorry figure in his maiden attempt in the Assembly elections in Inderwal in 1977 when the NC swept the polls in Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslim-dominated belt. He had secured a paltry 959 votes and forfeited his deposit against the NC’s candidate.
Thereafter, Mr. Azad did not for long contest elections in his home State.
Twenty-six years later, he returned with a vengeance from Bhaderwah. Appointed as Chief Minister in November 2005, Mr. Azad was required to be elected as a member of the State legislature. In his landslide victory in 2006, he secured a massive 62,072 votes against the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate’s 4,057 votes. The record stands unbeaten in the history of electoral battles in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2008, when he lost power due to withdrawal of support by the People’s Democratic Party, he returned from Bhaderwah yet again with the largest winning margin. But soon after that he returned to national politics and became a Rajya Sabha member for a fourth term.
Of his 30 years in Parliament, Mr. Azad has been in the Upper House for about 20 years after representing Washim in the Lok Sabha for two successive terms — in 1980 and 1989.
The ‘Modi wave’
An unexpected massive response to Narendra Modi’s December 1 ‘Lalkar’ rally in Jammu seemed to have shaken the Congress. Leaders who bragged of winning six Lok Sabha seats “independently” and “an absolute majority” for the Congress in the Assembly elections, were found not only holding onto the party’s coalition partner, the NC, firmly, but also looking for a messiah to offset the ‘Modi wave.’ Incontrovertibly, Azad alone had the qualifications: He is a Kashmiri-speaking Muslim but hails from Jammu; his secular credentials have been unmatched by other politicians; his campaign rejuvenated the Congress and gave it impressive tallies in the Assembly elections of 2002 and 2008. His tenure as Chief Minister is rated as Jammu and Kashmir’s golden period in terms of development. Unlike the party’s legislators and Ministers in the State, he never landed himself in a scandal or controversy.
Arguably, Mr. Azad alone could also consolidate some lateral gains for his party. The BJP has expelled its senior-most leader Chaman Lal Gupta, who is harnessing his son — not to win but to divide the right-wing Hindu vote bank in Udhampur and Kathua districts. Paradoxically, National Panthers Party supremo Bhim Singh would be subscribing to the Congress’ prospects just as he did in 2009 by cutting away nearly 70,000 votes. The BJP’s Nirmal Singh had lost to the Congress by a thin margin of 14,000 votes.
“We may fare well in the Assembly elections but none of us can win from Jammu or Udhampur. Azad sahab alone has the potential of winning hands down from Udhampur and even changing the trend in Jammu. Our defeat in both the seats could finish us forever. With Azad sahab back home, we hope to win Udhampur and Leh. Even Jammu could spring a surprise in our favour,” said a senior Congress leader. “Even in the Assembly elections now, the Congress could emerge as the single largest party and stake its claim to the hot seat.”
But there are no indications of a cakewalk in this constituency of 13.63 lakh voters spread over 17 Assembly segments in six districts. Currently, the Congress has eight segments, the NC two, the BJP four and the NPP two. Also, the BJP’s nominee Jitendra Singh is a well-known physician-author with an influential family background and is known to have a clean image. Even without the ‘Modi wave,’ his victory against a candidate like the Congress incumbent Lal Singh is unanimously a foregone conclusion.
A potential game-changer, Mr. Azad’s entry into Jammu and Kashmir is also being seen in a larger perspective. While Farooq Abdullah is accused of harming “national interests” with his anti-separatist, anti-Pakistan ‘jingoism’, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Omar Abdullah have been on the same page in playing second fiddle to the Valley’s separatist leadership. They have thus reduced themselves to ‘night watchmen’ for Kashmir’s Generation Next and have perpetuated a political vacuum which manifested itself twice — in 2008 and 2010 — at a time when, for a host of reasons, Kashmiris were reconciling to the new realities in South Asia.
Nobody expects Azad to lend credence to the cacophony that has ruled Jammu and Kashmir in the last several years.
Correction and Clarification
>>The opening sentence of the Comment page article, “The second homecoming” (March 22, 2014), read: “When Rajiv Gandhi’s poster boy Ghulam Nabi Azad …” It is Sanjay Gandhi, not Rajiv Gandhi.