Srinagar: The much-awaited organisational shake up in the faction-ridden unit of Congress in Jammu and Kashmir was expected to rejuvenate the party, which has suffered several electoral setbacks since 2014.
But the reshuffle affected on Tuesday, August 16, by the party high command boomeranged and plunged the J&K unit into further crisis. Veteran leader and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has declined the post of campaign chief and several other leaders have quit the newly constituted panels. A two-time MLA from Kashmir has also announced his decision to quit the party.
On Tuesday evening, the Congress high command announced a major reshuffle in the party’s J&K unit in a bid to put an end to the intra-party rivalry between loyalists of Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ghulam Ahmad Mir, who had stepped down as chief of J&K Congress in July this year to pave the way for the organisational reshuffle.
While two-time MLA from Banihal assembly segment, Vikar Rasool – who is considered a loyalist of Ghulam Nabi Azad – was named head of Congress in J&K, Raman Bhalla, a former minister, was appointed as working president of the party.
Azad, who has not exactly been warm with the party high command over the past two years, was appointed as head of the campaign committee for J&K. He was also made a member of the political affairs committee (PAC) to be headed by Tariq Hamid Karra, who joined the party in 2017.
But within hours of the announcement of a new party chief and constitution of the panels, Ghulam Nabi Azad declined both the posts, even as his loyalist was appointed head of the J&K unit.
While Azad was not available for comment, a few leaders close to him told The Wire that the party high command has insulted and demeaned Azad by appointing him in these two roles.
“Is it not an insult to appoint a veteran leader like Azad Sahib as a member of the political affairs committee of the party’s J&K unit and make him work under Karra? He feels humiliated. He was appointed as head of the campaign committee when elections are nowhere on the horizon,” said a leader who wished not to be named.
Senior journalist Zaffar Choudhary told The Wire that Azad’s resignation has put Congress in an even more difficult position in the UT.
“Azad is the only leader in today’s Congress who has some following across all parts of J&K. Azad had raised some hope about revival of the Congress party in Jammu & Kashmir by holding rallies last year and earlier this year but it looks like that phase is over now,” he said.
In his political career of four decades, Azad has held key ministerial portfolios and organisational responsibilities. He also served as chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir between 2005 and 2008, before the People’s Democratic Party withdrew support to his government in the wake of the Amarnath land agitation in which 60 civilians were killed in action by the security forces.
Not only Azad, three more former MLAs – Muhammad Amin Bhat, Gulzar Ahmed and Muhammad Akram Choudhary resigned from various committees hours after being named as their members. The trio, considered close to Azad, was upset over the appointment of Vikar as the party head and wanted someone like G.M. Saroori (a former MLA) to be appointed as the party’s chief.
Two time MLA from the separatist stronghold of Sopore, Abdur Rashid Dar, also announced his resignation from the party.
“I have resigned from the party,” he told The Wire.
Rashid, who was considered close to former PCC chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir, said that a junior like Vikar Rasool is not acceptable to him. “How can a three-decade old Congress worker like me work under a junior leader? The party leadership has insulted us,” he said.
Former MLA Surankote Muhammad Akram Choudhary, who has resigned from the election committee, similarly told The Wire that the party high command has humiliated them by giving key positions to junior leaders.
“They did not consult us. They tried to impose leaders on us,” he said.
Once considered as Congress’s key strategist, Azad has been sidelined in the party affairs and was shunted out as AICC general secretary in September 2020, after he and 22 other leaders – the group known as G-23 – wrote to Congress president Sonia Gandhi for a complete overhaul of the organisation.
Azad was also dropped from the party’s disciplinary committee in November 2021 after a group of leaders considered close to him resigned from party positions in J&K to seek Ghulam Ahmad Mir’s replacement as head of UT’s Congress unit.
Azad also held political rallies in J&K in last year, fuelling speculation that he is planning to float a regional political party in the UT.
It is learnt that in June this year, Congress president Sonia Gandhi reached out to him and tried to placate him by offering him the number two position but he refused to take it up. Azad is also upset over the denial of a Rajya Sabha berth to him by the party high command.
Weak Congress in J&K
Once considered as a significant political player in J&K, the Congress has suffered several electoral debacles since 2014 when Bharatiya Janata Party won 25 seats and became part of the government in the erstwhile state.
In the 2014 state elections, the Congress managed to win only 12 seats and failed to get a single seat from mainland Jammu, which was considered its stronghold. None of its Hindu candidates won the polls.
In 2020 district development council polls, the party failed to perform well as it only secured 26 seats. All its elected DDC members are Muslims from Chenab and Pir Panchal regions of Jammu and Kashmir Valley.
Three of its former MLAs – Usman Majeed, Aijaz Ahmad Khan and Mumtaz Ahmad Khan – have also deserted the party and joined Apni Party which was floated after the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019.