In or out? Padma Bhushan comes as Azad, Cong keep each other guessing

The curious case of Ghulam Nabi Azad keeps getting curiouser. Two months after the Congress dealt a snub to Azad, one of the Group of 23 leaders who had sought changes in the party, by dropping him from the disciplinary action committee, it named him as one of its star campaigners for Uttar Pradesh on Monday.

And on Tuesday, the BJP government announced the Padma Bhushan award for Azad, making him the first Congress leader to be honoured thus under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Pranab Mukherjee got the Bharat Ratna, but it was after having served as President, thus officially becoming above politics.)

The two developments come even as speculation brews over Azad’s plans since the Jammu and Kashmir leader set off on a series of rallies across the Union Territory, where his loyalists sought a change in the local party leadership. The rallies started after Azad’s removal from the disciplinary panel, which itself came a day after at least 20 J&K Congress leaders considered close to him resigned from party posts.

Along with Azad, another G-23 leader, former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, was included in the Congress star campaigners’ list for UP.

The grouping, that has been largely ignored by the leadership except for a few placatory gestures, is not sure what to make of the latest mixed signal. As former Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Azad was the seniormost leader in the group.

Azad’s selection is explained partly by the fact that he has held charge of UP many times as AICC general secretary. He knows the state like the back of his hand, shares a personal rapport with almost all senior UP leaders, and has campaigned for the party often in seats in the state with sizeable Muslim populations.

As the AICC’s pointsman during the last UP Assembly elections of 2017, Azad had bargained hard with the Samajwadi Party and secured a respectable deal where the Congress got 114 seats. It remains another matter that the Congress has been on an unchecked slide in the state.

Similarly, Hooda, the Congress’s most prominent Jat leader, is expected to help the party in western UP, known as the sugarcane belt, with its significant Jat population.

However, if Azad’s connect with the state or its Muslim population is the reason in UP, it made no such concession during the West Bengal Assembly elections last year. Azad did not figure in the star campaigners’ list then, after having featured thus in the 2016 Bengal elections as well as the Bihar 2020 polls.

Just last month, Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut indicated the top Congress leadership’s unhappiness with Azad, saying Rahul Gandhi had told him that he had asked Azad to go as J&K PCC president and that he could become the CM again, but he refused. In a Saamna column, Raut wrote: “Rahul said the party has given the seniors a lot. Today, the party needs them but they are taking a different stand. What can I do?… What disrespect have I shown to him (Azad)?”

Asked about the inclusion of Azad in the star campaigners’ list, a G-23 leader said: “It is all a farce. How does it matter? Who is going to campaign? Phase I of UP polls will be over without any rally. Do you think the AICC makes programmes for any of these star campaigners? You may have a list of 30 star campaigners but nobody goes anywhere, except the two — Rahul and Priyanka. Arrangements are made only for them.”

The leader added that the “understanding” reached on December 19, 2020, had “fallen to pieces because there was lack of sincerity”. He was referring to the five-hour-long meeting Congress president Sonia Gandhi had with the core team of G-23 leaders. “We can’t keep on writing a letter and petition every day,” the leader said.


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