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A New Defection Threatens India’s Congress Party

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A New Defection Threatens India’s Congress Party

Veteran leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s exit from the Indian National Congress poses a challenge to India’s battered opposition party.

A New Defection Threatens India’s Congress Party

Then-Congress party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad spoke to the media outside the office of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

After resigning from India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress, on August 26, former Rajya Sabha opposition leader Ghulam Nabi Azad is becoming a threat to the party. After his resignation, Azad became the first veteran leader of Congress to announce the creation of a new national-level political party.

Soon after Azad’s resignation, the Congress in Indian-administered Kashmir witnessed a series of joint resignations. More than 100 former ministers, including the former deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and a number of office bearers, left the Congress in support of Azad.

In Azad’s native region – Chenab valley, which includes Doda, Kishtwar, and Ramban districts – the block-level committees of the Congress, Block Development Council Chairpersons, District Development Council Councillors, Sarpanches, and hundreds of public representatives resigned jointly in support of Azad.

In addition to defections from the Congress, eight members of the municipal council in Baramulla, in north Kashmir, left the Apni Party to join the veteran leader’s new party, ahead of Ghulam Nabi Azad’s first Kashmir rally.

The G-23: A Rebellious Faction in the Congress

The Indian National Congress is not only damaged in Jammu and Kashmir but in various other states of India as well.

In recent years, the Congress party has suffered a string of losses in elections for local assemblies. In the most recent two Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) crushed it. The Congress has made repeated attempts to recover, but has not been successful.

A group of 23 party leaders called attention to these problems and demanded organizational-level adjustments. In August 2020, the group of top Congress leaders – named the G-23 – sent Sonia Gandhi, the party’s interim leader, their initial letter.

Now Ghulam Nabi Azad has become the highest-profile G-23 leader to resign from the Congress.

Azad said the party had come to a “point of no return” in a five-page resignation letter to Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress. When criticizing Rahul Gandhi, he was particularly scathing, adding, “After Rahul Gandhi entered politics, and especially after January 2013, when he was selected as vice president by you, he destroyed the consultative mechanism that had previously existed. The party’s affairs were taken over by a new coterie of inexperienced sycophants after all senior and experienced leaders were removed from their positions.”

What Azad’s Exit Means for Congress

Most of the other leaders who have left the Congress since 2019 – aside from Azad – joined another political party. Examples include Jitin Prasada and R.P.N. Singh joining the BJP or Sushmita Deb joining the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which the West Bengal chief minister leads. Azad is probably the only former leader to have declared the creation of a new political party.

In Jammu and Kashmir, Muslims make up 68.31 percent of the population, while Hindus make up 28.44 percent, according to the 2011 Census. All these years, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mehbooba Mufti, the Congress, and the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) led by Farooq Abdullah have shared power in Jammu and Kashmir. The Muslim votes have been divided among the NC, PDP, and the Congress. Hindu voters are the main constituency for the BJP.

However, following the 2014 assembly election, when the BJP won 25 out of a total of 87 seats and emerged as the second-largest party, it was elected to power for the first time, albeit as the junior partner in a coalition arrangement. With 28 seats, the PDP was the lone large party. The JKNC won 15 seats, while Congress got 12 seats. At that time, Ladakh was a part of the former state.

Due to a hung assembly, the BJP and the PDP formed a post-election alliance, and together they formed a government. However, that experiment was a failure, and now the former state is governed by the president after being remade into a union territory in 2019.

The announcement of Azad’s new party means there will be four players instead of the previous three who would court Muslim voters. This would hurt the Congress and could boost the BJP if all four parties fight the polls separately.

But the interesting point is that there has been no statement by the People’s Democratic Party or the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference against Ghulam Nabi Azad, even though these opposite political parties usually accuse new parties in Jammu and Kashmir of being the BJP’s proxy party. Abdullah, the JKNC president, only expressed regret at Azad’s resignation. He said, “I regret it. Ghulam Nabi gave his life to INC. He has worked for it since his college days. He rose to the highest levels in Congress – he was a minister in many governments, a member of the working committee, and general secretary. He was a pillar of the Congress party. He was like a family member to Indira, Rajiv, and Sanjay Gandhi.”

According to the spokesperson for the Congress, Jahanzaid Sirwal, the party’s high command is expected to soon announce a new team for the recently appointed president of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress, Vikar Rasool, and working president, Raman Bhalla, with at least half of them set to be under the age of 50, as decided at the party’s Udaipur Chintan Shivir. Giving young people an opportunity to work for the party locally is the aim, according to Sirwal.

Sirwal emphasized that in the one Assembly election Azad had run in Jammu and Kashmir, in 1977, he suffered a humiliating loss in his hometown, Doda, in the Inderwal Assembly constituency. He won a by-election in 2006 after taking the position of chief minister due to an arrangement with the PDP. This, according to Sirwal, demonstrated that Azad was neither a popular nor well-founded leader.

Azad’s New Political Party

Azad is currently engaged in a new political mission. He claims that the number of individuals supporting him has increased since his departure from the grand old party. A few weeks after declaring that he would be launching a new political party, the 73-year-old leader has been holding a number of open meetings.

At the last minute, Azad opted not to reveal the name of the new party, even though it had been decided that it would be called the Indian National Democratic Congress, according to a Jammu daily.

Azad, an established and experienced politician, has not shown his cards since he is awaiting some national developments. On his first visit to Jammu and Kashmir after his resignation from Congress, he said the people would decide the name and flag of his new party.

Azad is currently on a tour of Jammu and Kashmir, where he is meeting huge gatherings of his supporters ahead of announcing his new political party’s name.