Veteran leader Ghulam Nabi Azad resigned from the Congress party on Friday, ending a five-decade-long association.
Azad’s resignation letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi was a scathing indictment of the party leadership. In the letter, he accused the Gandhis of sidelining senior leaders and applying the ‘remote control model’.
Targeting Rahul Gandhi, he described his manner of criticism of the government’s ordinance in 2013 as “immaturity” and “childish behaviour”. He also spoke about how a “coterie of inexperienced sycophants” started running the party soon after Rahul Gandhi took charge as the party’s vice-president in January 2013.
Azad’s resignation comes at a time when the Congress is gearing up for its organisational election and looking to elect a new party president, possibly a non-Gandhi. At this juncture, Azad called the elections a “sham” and a “farce”, accusing the party of propping up “proxies”. And that’s why Ghulam Nabi Azad is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
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Azad’s Congress tenure
Through his long tenure in the Congress, Ghulam Nabi Azad has been known more as an organisational man than a mass leader.
A native of Jammu, he joined the Congress in the mid 1970s and was made president of the Jammu and Kashmir Youth Congress in 1975, at the behest of Sanjay Gandhi.
In his letter, Azad writes how after Sanjay’s death, he inducted late Rajiv Gandhi (Rahul’s father) into the Indian Youth Congress (IYC).
He has served as a Union minister from 1982 to 2014, in Cabinets of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, and was in-charge of every state and union territory at some point of time in the last 35 years. He was Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister from 2005 to 2008.
In his letter, Azad wrote about how he has served as Congress’ general secretary under every party president since the 1980s. However, during his tenure, Azad has always been more of a national, Delhi-based leader as opposed to a regional leader with a mass following. For example, he became an MLA for the first time after taking on the chief ministership of J&K, for which he was relieved from his duty as Union minister.
Similarly, he won two consecutive Lok Sabha terms in the 1980s from Washim in Maharashtra and not from his home state of Kashmir.
Therefore, with Azad leaving, many might argue that the Congress will not be hurt electorally. But the loss in terms of public perception is real. Especially because he’s been known to have worn his loyalty to the Gandhis on his sleeve.
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Inexperienced vs experienced sycophants
Azad’s letter refers to people he called “inexperienced sycophants” who he claims are running the affairs of the party even as senior leaders like him were sidelined.
However, in the past, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power, Azad was known for his closeness to the Gandhi family. As Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh pointed out, Azad has been decorated with many laurels by the party, which Azad himself admitted in his resignation letter.
Having spent his entire political career on the back of positions handed out by the Gandhi family, why should other leaders’ proximity to the family trouble him?
The reason is that under Rahul Gandhi, the composition of the family’s coterie changed. Azad, and many like him, were replaced with younger leaders.
While the advice, judgements and competence of this new ‘coterie’ can be questioned, it is clear to most who have followed the party that the concept of the coterie is not new. Only those who form it have now changed.
Over the years, many within and outside the Congress, as well as in the media, have referred to this coterie of a select few, saying that they insulate the party’s top leadership from important critique. Instead, the detractors of the coterie say that they mislead the leadership into believing that all their decisions are correct.
On the other hand, a large section of younger leaders in the party, while also being somewhat critical of the coterie, strongly believe that many leaders who have passed their political prime are not making way for the youngsters. The reason, most often cited, is that they are unwilling to let go of power.
In the recent past, power seems to have played a role in Azad’s relationship with the Gandhis. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi bid him a tearful farewell on the floor of the Rajya Sabha last year, Azad did not return to the Upper House. Attempts at reconciliation by Sonia Gandhi by inviting him to the party’s Chintan Shivir and making him a part of her advisory committee all came to nought when Azad was denied a Rajya Sabha seat. He, thereafter, resigned as campaign committee head of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress – which he had finalised after four rounds of talks with the party.
In the youth circles of the Congress, the demand for a Rajya Sabha seat by leaders like Azad, his G-23 colleague Anand Sharma, or P. Chidambaram is not seen in the best light.
With the Congress’ diminishing political fortunes in India, there are not too many Rajya Sabha seats, or winnable assemblies or safe Lok Sabha seats to be given out anymore. And if the seniors who have been chief ministers and multiple-term Union ministers try to claim a share of the pie now, not much is left for those who’re spending their political prime in a party that seems to be losing election after election.
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The road to Azadi
Azad’s letter makes it clear that he’s not quitting politics for good. The speculation is that he will float a new party in J&K. Another speculation is that he may be headed to the BJP thanks to Modi’s tears and the Padma Bhushan that the government conferred on him.
If that happens, there’s one question that Azad will find difficult to evade—how far can the senior leaders of the party go without the Congress umbrella over their heads? Will he be able to mobilise enough people and clout to form a successful party? And if he goes to the BJP, will he be a Jyotiraditya Scindia who was made minister or an RPN Singh who’s been relegated to sidelines? At 73, Ghulam Nabi would have liked to be ‘Azad’ of such considerations. But old politicians are like old bankers—they never lose interest.
(Edited by Prashant)