Reading Between the Lines of Narendra Modi's Tearful Farewell to Ghulam Nabi Azad

Azad too chose not to talk about his objections to the Centre's August 5, 2019 decisions on Jammu and Kashmir.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s teary-eyed farewell to senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad on his last day in the Rajya Sabha triggered speculations in political circles. At a time when civility between the ruling alliance and opposition members has become rare in the day-to-day functioning of the Parliament, Modi’s overture towards a Congress leader who belongs to Kashmir was rather unusual.

Given the prime minister’s reputation of being calculative in everything he says or does, his friendly overture towards Azad could be interpreted as a veiled attack on the divided Congress house. It may be remembered that Azad is also one of the leading members of the group of 23 rebel leaders, and had openly sought intra-party elections to challenge the hegemony of the Gandhi family in the Congress.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, spearheaded by the prime minister, hasn’t left an opportunity to take aim at the Gandhi family leadership in the Congress. The BJP views the Congress as a party that values dynasty politics over everything else that it represents. In that respect, Azad, who stands alienated in his own party even as he finishes his four-decade-long parliamentary stint, cuts a sorry figure.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the prime minister used this political opportunity to paint a poor picture of the Congress party, at a time when the BJP has been running an extensive campaign that anyone, just by the virtue of hard work, can work his/her way to the top in the saffron party. Modi himself represents the BJP’s most significant political leader who secured a leadership position without any social, economic or cultural capital.

It was Modi’s way of telling a Congress leader that commitment towards the Gandhi family – Azad had been an unwavering loyalist since 1973, until the last few months – doesn’t pay off.

“Do not feel like you are no longer in the House. My doors are always open for you. I will need your suggestions. I will not let you retire,” said the prime minister addressing Azad, as he held back tears. It is a distant possibility that Azad will switch his allegiance at this stage of his political career, but nonetheless he tactically chose not to speak about his objections about the Modi government bifurcating his own state, where he also served as the chief minister from November, 2005 to July, 2008.

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Senior journalist Rasheed Kidwai noted this conspicuous miss by Azad in his speech, in which he recounted his political journey over the last five decades. While writing about Modi’s farewell speech for Azad, he noted that the senior Congress leader’s “wise counsel was not sought in any matters of Kashmir policy after Jammu and Kashmir state was reduced to a Union Territory, and the state was bifurcated”.

“Azad, a former state chief minister, is known to have certain views on Article 370 and almost all the outstanding issues being faced in Jammu and Kashmir,” he further wrote.

Azad heaped praises on leaders like Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and also Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his emotional speech. He also felt compelled to say that he was proud to be a “Hindustani Muslim”, while feeling “fortunate” to have never visited “Pakistan”. In what must have come as a delight for the BJP leaders, who constantly negate the unprecedented pushback against Muslims under the Modi regime, the senior Congress leader said,  “…if any Muslim in the world should be proud, then it should be the Muslims of India.”

Modi, on the other hand, stuck to his rulebook of taking digs at the Congress directly or indirectly. He used his farewell speech for Azad to invoke Pranab Mukherjee, who is also seen as a dejected Congress leader who was denied the prime minister’s position despite being loyal to the party all his life.

“I will never forget Shri Azad’s efforts and Pranab Mukherjee’s efforts when people from Gujarat were stuck in Kashmir due to a terror attack. That night…Ghulam Nabi Ji called me…,” Modi recalled.

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For the BJP, Azad is an addition to the list of leaders like former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee or even Sardar Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose who, according to the saffron party, never got their dues in the Congress. The Azad-Modi bonhomie in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday clearly reflects that aspect of the BJP’s political campaign.

At the same time, Modi’s emotional speech for a “Muslim-Kashmiri” leader will now surely be projected as one to counter the rigid and aggressive image that he has attained during his prime ministerial tenure, and which has triggered a series of resistance movements over the last few years in India, the farmers’ protests being only the latest of them.