Ghulam Nabi Azad’s decision to quit Congress party and apparently test his own political standing by forming his party has raised speculations in several political camps. Of course, Congress has a reason to be disturbed by a senior member parting ways and adding to doubts being circulated about this party’s leadership. Prospects of Azad’s “friendship” with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are also in the air and so are notions about his possible ties with Jammu & Kashmir National Conference. Azad has clearly announced his decision to launch his regional party and has also dismissed chances of his shaking hands with BJP.
One thing is clear, Azad is fairly confident about his political standing in J&K. This has been partly proved by many Kashmiris resigning from Congress to support him. Considering the political loss faced by Mehbooba Mufti (J&K People’s Democratic Party) after aligning with BJP, chances of Azad saying yes to BJP to face the same fire may be ruled out at present.
It would be perhaps relevant to analyse Azad’s strategy from the regional- Kashmiri- angle. Certainly, the noise made by him regarding leadership of Congress bears relevance at the national level, politically as well as media-wise. Negative shots hurled at Rahul Gandhi normally don’t take long in earning substantial media coverage. With respect to J&K, till he quit Congress, he was their key politician here. Even at national level, he has been prominently known as a Kashmiri leader. Prospects of Azad’s campaign ending laurels or votes for any party outside J&K may be viewed as virtually non-existent. In addition, his discomfort within Congress may be temporally linked with this party’s gradual loss of political base in J&K. This clearly suggests Azad being probably certain about further loss of his own political stature within his regional domain by remaining a member of Congress.
In fact, he is not the only former Congress member faced with this dilemma. This is reflected by the alacrity with which his resignation prompted others to join him. Clearly, they viewed his resignation as an open invitation for them to take the same step. The present timing has perhaps been viewed as appropriate by Azad and his supporters.
Given that Azad has pursued a political career from his younger days, it would be perhaps wrong to view his decision of quitting Congress as an unwise move. Rather, as mentioned earlier, decision to remain with his old party was viewed by him as dangerous for his own political future. Clearly, he has no intention to quit politics for quite some time. Having remained within the Congress as a political stalwart he has definitely gained ample experience and familiarity with ins and outs of politicking at the regional level as well as national.
Several developments during recent phase have apparently prompted him to try his luck at regional level. These are specifically linked to importance of several regional parties and their leaders. Of these, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal-United (JD-U)’s decision to re-align, pushing BJP to opposition in Bihar is recent example. Prior to that, failure of BJP to oust Mamata Bannerjee (Trinamool Congress) from West Bengal stands out. Political cards played by Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal) in Odisha to gain greater publicity in his home state on Draupadi Murmu becoming President seems to have been fairly unnerving for BJP’s regional wing. BJP’s limited appeal in Punjab as well as Delhi regionally cannot be ignored. Failure of voters to be swayed by Congress leaders recently in Punjab and in Delhi Assembly since 2014 cannot be missed.
BJP’s persistent strategy of creating divisions within its regional allies as well as rival parties to push them out of power in state governments has apparently begun being taken sharp note of by regional leaders. Udhav Thackeray (Shiv Sena)’s observance of this reality led him to align with his formal rivals. But this card helped him stay Maharashtra Chief Minister for a part of the term till June 29, 2022. BJP’s strategy, that of sowing dissension in Udhav’s camp, turning his former supporters against him and virtually snatch chief ministerial rank from him was put to use. Nitish Kumar apparently feared the use of the same strategy against him in Bihar.
Prior to BJP using this card, he decided to turn his back towards it. Against this backdrop, prospects of Azad even deliberating on an open alliance with BJP in J&K may be viewed as practically non-existent.
Evidently, what has been given more importance by Azad is the increasing importance of regional parties particularly in assembly elections. BJP’s agenda is that of expanding its own base across the country and pushing other parties- whether allies or rivals – to almost insignificance. Naveen Patnaik was certainly not oblivious of this strategy being tried in Odisha- that of making this state BJD-Mukt or free of his party’s hold. Nor was Nitish Kumar in Bihar. The fate of Mehbooba Mufti on being entrapped in this tangle by allying with BJP stands out.
It would be erroneous to assume that most parties are not conscious of this strategy of BJP. At the same time, their concern about not losing their own political strength in their regional domains bears its significance. Equally imperative are probable calculations about how far can BJP’s base spread beyond the Hindi belt in regional elections? In this context, J&K is not a part of Hindi belt. Delhi is, but as mentioned earlier, BJP has failed here repeatedly in assembly elections. In Bihar, it has been practically stumped. It prevails in Uttar Pradesh but voters here have not totally ruled out significance of Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Nothing needs to be said several states being specifically concerned about their regional identity. Besides, BJP’s national success has been primarily possible because of hype raised about this party’s “religious” card and image floated about Narendra Modi. These haven’t had the same impact beyond the Hindi belt in assembly polls. Besides, less than 40% votes gained by BJP in 2014 as well as 2019 parliamentary elections bears its importance. Political shrewdness exercised by Indian voters of giving greater importance to regional parties and/or regional leaders in assembly elections cannot be side-lined.
Azad has apparently shrewdly considered all these issues and then decided on forming an independent regional party. Undeniably, long association with Congress has helped him become a familiar political as well as popular figure in J&K. He has been working on this move for quite some time and has chosen to openly announce his plans now. Chances of Kashmiris choosing to support him as a leader from a new political platform may be viewed as fairly strong. J&K has been without an elected government since June 2018.
Now, it is to be watched as to when does Azad get the opportunity to test his political credentials and this shall remain pending till J&K assembly elections take place!