New Delhi/March 1, 2021
Sonia Gandhi hides her true self, is it? Or is it Rahul Gandhi? Congress dissident Ghulam Nabi Azad was doing more than praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he said in Jammu on February 28 that the latter “does not hide his true self”. The barb the phrase contained was meant to hurt someone else.
Azad was unceremoniously side-lined by the Family when he was not re-nominated at the end of his Rajya Sabha tenure. Why? Because in the eyes of the Family he crossed the “laxman rekha” when he became a co-signatory to a letter signed by 23 senior Congress leaders teaching the Family things like pro-activism, responsible leadership and attempts to rejuvenate the party.
On the last day of Azad’s tenure in the upper house of parliament, the Prime Minister, as usual, diverted the attention to himself, breaking down as many times as he could, wiping tears that flowed profusely, his face set in deep anguish, as he recalled his long association with the retiring member. Poor Azad could only look at the Prime Minister in stewing silence, wondering who was retiring.
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The Prime Minister is by now known not to perform dramatic scenes for the sake of performance. There is a political intent behind them. The mindless social media and the clueless national media began a discourse: Is that an invite to Azad to join the BJP? Hampered by limited imagination, they could not take the question forward.
Why not spread the net of imagination wide? What about this scenario: Azad joins the BJP. Modi returns “state” status to Kashmir. Delimitation is completed. New assembly constituted and elections held. Azad is chief minister. The first saffron-Muslim chief minister. Looks good on paper. Settles the Kashmir issue domestically, once and for all. Azad is the ideal front man. The National Conference and the PDP can go figure what happened!
Those who know him closely will vouch for Azad’s shrewdness. He has sparred many a political rival to be what he is today. He did not survive the Family shenanigans by being soft. He made himself relevant everywhere, whenever the Family was in the throes of a problem, which was often. He knew Kashmir like the back of his hand — he himself comes from Doda in Jammu — and was chief minister too.
Why would he, or should he, join the BJP at this stage of his life? To become the CM of his home state once again but under a different flag? What will his own community thing of him and do to him? Being a Sikandar Bakht or a Shahnawaz Hussain is one thing. Being Ghulam Nabi Azad is another. What is the politician in Azad thinking?
Is he wondering who should emerge as the alternate to Rahul Gandhi as an acceptable leader to the entire opposition to take on Narendra Modi? He is not that old. He is ‘only’ 71. Just nine months older to Modi. He is a leader with a mass base. He is a Congressman, whatever the Family thinks of him. Sharad Pawar is 80. He has settled himself in the Rajya Sabha. No more Lok Sabha for him. He got the Padma Vibhushan. That literally means his retirement. There is no other leader among the current lot (we can’t say that; after all Chandrashekhar and HD Deve Gowda and even IK Gujral became PMs!).
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The senior regional satraps are all former Congress workers. Mamata Banerjee leads this camp. Sharad Pawar is another. In fact every Congress leader who left the party in a huff managed to shape a better future for himself or herself. Remember PA Sangma too. Digressing a bit, just consider this: The Modi-Shah duo has gone on a spree since 2014 to decimate the Congress. They did not wait to defeat the party in the elections. They began to woo Congress men and women over to the BJP. By hook or, er, hook. So much so, in the near future there will be more ex-Congress workers in the BJP hierarchies than genuine BJP leaders! It is already true for some north-eastern states. Back to the point, Azad will be acceptable across the board. And, the plus point is, he is a Muslim. As good a polariser as Modi is.
But there is a hitch. The 23-member dissent committee has lost touch with polity, politics and people since the party was trammelled by the BJP juggernaut in 2014. Some of them bravely contested the Lok Sabha elections, but lost badly. Cannot say much about them when their leader, Rahul Gandhi, himself tasted defeat in Amethi.
Most of them are safe, arm-chair Raja Sabha detenus. There was a time when the Congress and allies had a majority in the upper house and the BJP was wary of approaching the house with contentious bills. That is no longer the case today. The opposition has literally no work. The BJP passes bills at whim. But that is another issue.
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The point is, who among the 23 dissenters is a mass-based politician? You can say Azad is one. Bhupinder Hooda is another. Remember, he defeated Tau Devi Lala in Jat heartland Rohtak not once but thrice. That takes something. Kapil Sibal won twice from Delhi, but not because of himself but the party and political circumstances. Remember, he faced some charges of impropriety in the 2G scam. He became notorious for waving the draconian Section 66A of the IT Act that the Supreme Court struck down.
Anand Sharma is an unadulterated Rajya Sabha product. Nobody knows Vivek Tankha whose only claim to fame, apart from several accomplishments in the legal field at a young age, is, ironically, saying no to a judgeship of the Madhya Pradesh high court. Manish Tewari controls his anger better these days, is a good swimmer and proficient in playing water polo, but needs a lot of luck and much more to win another Lok Sabha election from Punjab. What about Raj Babbar who became famous as the one to defeat Dimple Yadav, Mulayam Yadav’s “bahu” and Akhilesh Yadav’s wife. He lost by nearly five lakh votes in 2019, largely due to the animosity towards Congress than him personally.
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The point, once again is, there are not many Congress leaders left who have mass bases and can swing their own seats, if not an election. They are pitted against Modi whom more people criticize than before for myriad issues but tend to vote for him by default at election time. We are talking of the national elections here. For the scenario to change, as the opposition vows to do in 2024, they just need to find a leader who can stand up to Modi. If Rahul Gandhi is busy swimming in a Kerala pond or lake or sea, there needs to be a search for an alternative.
Having said that, one should realise one thing. We Indians are creatures of habit. Why does the Family try to send the signal that it is the only alternative to Modi? One reason could be there is no other national party to match the Congress reach and depth. Secondly, the Congress is the only party apart from BJP with a national presence and the second-best vote share. Thirdly, possibly, despite 2014 and 2019, the people who vote for the Family vote by default. So, where does the Congress, the dissenters, the Family stand now? Azad might know. Whatever he and his group do will trigger the next round of Congress/opposition politics.
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–VVP Sharma is a journalist-academic, a contrarian and commentator on politics, democracy and society. The views are personal.