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Will Ghulam Nabi Azad's New Party Only End Up Fragmenting Anti-BJP Vote in Jammu?

With Azad set to float his own party, numerous Congress leaders have already pledged their support. Political observers say only time will tell if it emerges as a major force in J&K, but certain of its adverse impact on Congress.

Srinagar: Banking largely on his loyalists and possible defections from other political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, veteran politician and former chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who resigned from Congress on Friday, August 26, is all set to launch a new political party with an eye clearly set on J&K polls which could take place early next year. Whether it will be a regional outfit or a pan-India party is still unclear.

Azad’s exit from the grand old party has created political tremors in the J&K unit of Congress which has vertically split now with a wave of resignations by his loyalists in the party.

Azad’s plan to launch a new party may sound a death knell for Congress in J&K, but the only beneficiary of his move as of now seems to be the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which is desperately making moves to install a chief minister who is either a Hindu or someone from the majority Muslim community who could be pliable to the Narendra Modi government in Delhi.

Also read: Six J&K Congress Leaders Quit Party in Support of Ghulam Nabi Azad

While his loyalists and political opponents in the Union territory are closely watching his next moves, only time will tell if Azad’s new political party can emerge as a major force in J&K, or end up only dividing the anti-BJP vote in Jammu, especially in its Muslim-majority areas of Pir Panchal and Chenab regions.

A major political force or a ‘vote-cutter’?

Azad, who served as the chief minister of J&K between 2005 and 2008, commands respect from all communities and has friends across the political spectrum in the state. However, he doesn’t have much influence beyond Mu Chenab and Pir Panchal regions in Jammu.

There are fears that Azad’s outfit could divide the anti-BJP vote in the Pir Panchal and Chenab regions, where the right-wing party could have faced some challenges in the assembly election.

“It (Azad’s political party) would weaken anti-BJP forces in Jammu,” Rekha Choudhary, a former professor of political science at the Jammu University, told The Wire.

She said the BJP would gain from the emerging situation in the Jammu region as the new political party would fragment the Congress vote bank.

“It would certainly work in favour of Jammu. The only scenario in which the BJP could have faced some challenge in Jammu was that if Azad had remained with Congress and was made the face of the party in the assembly elections,” she said.

She said the new party could make an impact in the Doda belt, Poonch-Rajouri and a few seats in the Jammu mainland.

“It would make little impact in Kashmir due to the existence of strong regional parties there,” she said.

Senior journalist and political analyst Zaffar Choudhary said Azad’s new political party would have the potential to emerge as a major player in Jammu and Kashmir.

A political leader, wishing not to be named, said the success of Azad’s political party would depend upon desertions from the J&K unit of Congress and his ability to attract leaders from other political parties.

Also read: With Kashmir Not Yet a Safe Bet for BJP, Modi May Prefer to Drag His Feet Over Assembly Polls

“It is difficult to predict at this stage whether his political party would succeed in the J&K election. Its success would depend more on his capability to make leaders from other parties join the party,” he said.

Salman Nizami, who has resigned from Congress in support of Azad, told The Wire that “Azad Sahib is a pan-India leader and has acceptability in both regions of J&K.”

J&K Congress leaders outside the residence of former party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, after their resignation from the party in New Delhi, Friday, Aug. 26, 2022. Azad on Friday resigned from all party positions, including its primary membership. Photo: PTI.

On being asked if the new party could end up dividing the anti-BJP vote in Jammu, Nizami said that regional parties like National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party don’t have a support base in the region.

He said that the new political party will be launched within a week.

“It would be a pan-India party,” he said, adding that they would announce the convener of J&K’s unit today or tomorrow.

Azad announced his plans to launch the party at a time when cracks appeared in the Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an alliance of political parties seeking restoration of Article 370.

On August 24, National Conference hinted that it wouldn’t enter into a seat-sharing arrangement with other constituents of the PAGD for J&K assembly polls.

The next day, on August 25, Union home minister Amit Shah chaired a high-level meeting to review the security situation in J&K.

This was followed by Shah holding a meeting with core group leaders of the BJP’s J&K unit in New Delhi on Friday, August 26.

These developments indicate that Jammu & Kashmir, which has been without an elected government for the past four years, is heading for elections early next year.

This would be the first assembly election in J&K after August 5, 2019, when the BJP-led Union government read down Article 370 and reorganised J&K into two Union territories.

Death-knell for Congress

The Congress, which was a part of the ruling coalitions in Jammu and Kashmir from 2002 to 2012, would be further weakened by Azad’s exit from the party.

Azad’s decision has triggered a flurry of resignations of his loyalists from the party. So far, its 10 senior leaders, including three former ministers, have quit the party and are more likely to do so in the next few days.

Also read: How an Organisational Shake-Up Triggered Revolt and Resignations in J&K Congress

Those who have resigned include former ministers Ghulam Muhammad Saroori, Jugal Kishore Sharma and R.S. Chib, and former lawmakers Abdul Rashid Dar, Muhammad Amin Bhat, Choudhary Muhammad Akram, Gulzar Ahmad Wani, Naresh Gupta, Subhash Gupta and Salman Nizami

Former deputy chief minister Tara Chand and former minister Manohar Lal Sharma could also resign from Congress to join the Azad-led new party.

The Congress party has been on a downslide in J&K since the 2014 parliamentary elections when Azad himself lost to BJP’s Jatindra Singh by 60,976 votes from the Udhampur Lok Sabha seat.

It was the third election Azad had fought from his home state. In his first election in 1977, he secured 959 votes from the Inderwal assembly segment and forfeited his deposit.

In 2006 by-elections, when he was chief minister of J&K, he secured a landslide victory from the Bhaderwah assembly segment by defeating BJP by 58,015 votes.

BJP’s ambitious plan

After the delimitation exercise, the Union territory of J&K now has 90 assembly seats. While 43 of them fall in the Jammu region, 47 segments are in the Kashmir region.

In the BJP scheme of things, winning over 30 seats in the Jammu region will help it to form a government and to install a chief minister, who is a Hindu, or anyone from the majority Muslim community who could be slanting towards the ruling party at the Centre.

Allegations abound that the new electoral map of J&K drawn by a three-member delimitation panel “favours” the BJP, for it boosts the electoral influence of Hindus in Jammu and reduces the Muslim-majority character of seats.

Before the delimitation, out of 37 seats in the Jammu region, 24 were Hindu-majority seats and 13 were Muslim-majority. After the delimitation, 34 seats in Jammu are Hindu-majority seats and nine are Muslim-majority segments. Now the region has 43 seats.

Even the only three candidates, who could withstand the BJP wave in the 2014 J&K elections in mainland Jammu, have joined the right-wing party. Davinder Singh Rana (National Conference from Nagrota seat), Kamal Verma (National Conference from Bishnah seat) and Pawan Gupta (Independent from Udhampur seat) have joined the BJP.