Ghulam Nabi Azad’s return keeps J&K parties on their toes

It could upset the electoral calculus, dent political ambitions of smaller parties from Kashmir Valley

August 27, 2022 10:20 pm | Updated August 28, 2022 12:03 am IST - SRINAGAR

Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. File

Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. File | Photo Credit: PTI

A day after former Congress leader and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said that he would launch a new party soon, local political players on Saturday were on the edge as the decision could change the electoral calculus in the Union Territory.

So far, the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have maintained silence over Mr. Azad’s decision to quit the Congress and his likely move to launch a new political party from Jammu and Kashmir.

National Conference (NC) president Dr. Farooq Abdullah was seen cosying up to Mr. Azad, in an apparent bid to blunt any further division of Muslim votes in Jammu and Kashmir. He even criticised the Congress leaders who attacked Mr. Azad for his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the latter’s tearful speech when Mr. Azad completed his term in Rajya Sabha. 

“Our doors are open for him. He has always been a nationalist and worked for the betterment of the country,” Dr. Abdullah said.

On the contrary, NC vice president Omar Abdullah sounded more sympathetic towards the Congress, as his personal relationship with Rahul Gandhi is well known. “Perhaps the senior-most leader to quit the party in recent times, his resignation letter makes for very painful reading. It’s sad, and quite scary, to see the grand old party of India implode,” the junior Abdullah tweeted.

Mr. Azad, who hails from the Chenab Valley’s Doda district, has mostly won his elections from this hilly region and has relatively less appeal in the Kashmir valley. The Chenab Valley comprises Ramban, Kishtwar and Doda districts, which has a mix of Hindu-Muslim population spread across eight Assembly constituencies. After the recent delimitation exercise, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly’s strength has risen to 90 seats. 

Mr. Azad could easily spoil the electoral arithmetic of the regional parties in the Chenab Valley, with Muslim votes likely to get split between the NC, PDP, Apni Party, Congress and Mr. Azad’s party. Any Hindu vote consolidation will benefit the BJP.

However, Mr. Azad will have to face a credibility test. He was the first national leader allowed to visit Jammu and Kashmir after the dilution of special provisions of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Even Rahul Gandhi was disallowed by the Jammu and Kashmir administration to visit Kashmir. He also became the first Congress leader to propose that “people need to see beyond Article 370” and “focus more on statehood”.  

“There seems to be a hidden hand behind his move. He (Mr. Azad) could even join the Peoples Alliance for the Gupkar Declaration (PAGD). If the task given is to break the PAGD, he will,” senior Congress leader and ex-Member of Parliament Tariq Hameed Karra said.

More than for the NC and the PDP, Mr. Azad’s entry is worrisome for smaller parties such as the Peoples Conference and the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party, which had been nursing ambitions to be kingmakers or even throw up Chief Minister-probables, if the BJP falls short of numbers in the Assembly election.

Mr. Azad is emerging as a more bankable Muslim Chief Ministerial-face the BJP, whose first attempt would be to have a Hindu Chief Minister by winning 50-plus seats. This could dent the political ambitions of the smaller parties from the Kashmir valley in its wake. The regional parties, especially the smaller ones, will also find it hard to keep their flock together. Mr. Azad will attract leaders from these parties to widen his base in the future in the Kashmir valley.

In fact, Peoples Conference leader and ex-MP Nazir Ahmad Laway was waxing eloquent about Mr. Azad on Saturday. “Mr. Azad was among the few who raised his voice when Article 370 was abrogated. Mr. Azad is a tall leader. Even Mahatma Gandhi did not fight elections but that does not lessen his importance,” Mr. Laway said. “Though I would like a Chief Minister from Sajad Lone’s party only,” he added.

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