Ghulam Nabi Azad | A loyalist-turned-rebel

The former J&K CM had been a close associate of the Gandhis until recently

Updated - August 28, 2022 09:36 pm IST

Published - August 28, 2022 12:03 am IST

Illustration: SREEJITH R KUMAR

Illustration: SREEJITH R KUMAR

A Union Minister at the age of 33, a former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, a two-term Lok Sabha and five-term Rajya Sabha member, a former Leader of the Opposition (LoP) and a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) — Ghulam Nabi Azad’s decades-long political career has been distinctively eventful.

A leader with no real mass following, many of Mr. Azad’s friends-turned-detractors in the Congress now argue that his rise was as much a result of his proximity to the Gandhi family as it was about his ability to outsmart his rivals in the party. “Ghulam Nabi Azad Saab and I are contemporaries and came into politics around the same time. While I managed to win the Assembly elections in 1977, he lost his deposit from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K),” Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh said.

“He and I, even today, share a good relationship but I’m disappointed. When he couldn’t win from Kashmir, he was fielded from Maharashtra and became a Lok Sabha member for two terms. He was given five Rajya Sabha terms — that’s 30 years. The party made him Chief Minister and Union Minister. Today, he is talking about being hurt by Rahul Gandhiji‘s 2013 act of tearing up an ordinance before journalists,” Mr. Singh added.

Why did he not resign as a Minister immediately and why did he later accept the LoP position in 2014, asked Mr. Singh.

“Today, he is talking about sycophancy, but during Sanjay Gandhi’s day, he was known as one,” said Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, another contemporary of Mr. Azad.

Political skills

Originally known to be a member of the Sanjay brigade along with leaders like Kamal Nath and Jagdish Tytler, Mr. Azad’s remarkable political skills saw him not just survive but thrive in every Congress regime. He first came in contact with Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s, who then introduced him to his mother. After Indira Gandhi was voted out of power and arrested, he was part of the young brigade who hit the streets against the 1977-formed Janata government.

Following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi, who took over the Youth Congress’ leadership from Mr. Azad, retained him in his Council of Ministers.

When tragedy struck the Congress in 1991 with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and a leadership vacuum was created, he is said to have played a key role in propping up P.V. Narasimha Rao as the Congress chief and the Prime Minister. However, Mr. Azad shifted his allegiance to Sitaram Kesri by the time Rao was completing his term in the mid-90s.

He is said to be among the leaders who had ensured that Sonia Gandhi replaced Kesri in March 1999 in a coup-style takeover of the party. In a dramatic turn of events, loyalists of the Gandhi family are said to have locked up Kesri in a room while the CWC passed a resolution to elect Ms. Gandhi as the party chief and sacked the predecessor.

When the United Progressive Alliance came to power in 2004, Mr. Azad was made a Cabinet Minister in the Manmohan Singh government and then later appointed as the J&K Congress president. In 2005 as part of a post-poll power-sharing agreement with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), he was made the Chief Minister and remained in the post until 2008 when his government passed a controversial order to transfer 99 acres of forest land to the Shri Amarnathji shrine board.

The land was meant to be used during the annual Amarnath pilgrimage but the move triggered a violent agitation in J&K, following which the PDP withdrew its support for the Azad-led government.

But Mr. Azad was immediately drafted back into Delhi politics where he continued to be part of the Congress core group and a Minister in the Manmohan Singh government. To Mr. Azad’s credit, his interpersonal skills enabled him to be friends with leaders from across the political spectrum. It was due to these skills that he managed to win the Rajya Sabha elections from J&K in 2015 despite the Congress not having the requisite numbers.

However, with Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as party vice-president in 2013, the power matrix within the Congress shifted, prompting the veteran leader to turn a rebel and give shape to a ginger group, known as G-23. And now, he’s out of the party.

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