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Fall of a Loyalist: When Ghulam Nabi Azad Twice Pleaded for 'Apolitical' Sonia Gandhi to Lead Congress

File photo of senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.

File photo of senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.

On August 9, 2019, when an informal headcount was held at 24, Akbar Road, 148 out of 150 leaders had favoured Gandhis to lead the Congress. Azad was ‘opening batman’ to congratulate and thank Sonia Gandhi for taking care of the party.

Sonia Gandhi has a reason to be hurt by the involvement of Ghulam Nabi Azad among the ‘dissenters’, who wrote a letter seeking sweeping changes in the Congress’ leadership.

Azad has been fiercely loyal to the Congress, and by extension, the Gandhis. His entry in politics dates back to Sanjay Gandhi era, and since then, there has been no looking back for him as he went on to become a union minister, a chief minister and an AICC functionary. In 24, Akbar Road main building, there would not be a single room that has not been occupied by Azad from 1980s till date.

In Monday's CWC, Azad drew flak virtually from everyone, including Priyanka Gandhi and Ambika Soni. Soni, often considered to be sympathetic to Azad, made a rather unkind cut pointing how throughout his political career, Azad has had national flag mounted on his official vehicle. Azad is currently leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha that grants him status at par with a cabinet minister. Another party leader looking after Goa wondered why a former chief minister of J&K was not put under house arrest after the abrogation of Article 370. Ahmed Patel, Azad's contemporary, also took potshots at him.

On 27 March, 2002, Sonia Gandhi had given him a “punishing assignment as chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress”, a unit that was virtually defunct in the violence-ridden state. Azad had earned the dubious distinction of being a ‘rootless wonder’ because he had no support base in his home state.

At that point of time, Azad was the AICC general secretary. His abrupt exit from the past had surprised many in the party. Barely five years later, he became the chief minister of his home state.

Rajiv Gandhi also had lot of faith in Azad and always kept him on his side. When PV Narasimha Rao was facing a leadership challenge from Arjun Singh, it was Azad who decided to take on the Thakur. In an incredible admission, Azad claimed that he had spent more than 1000 hours with Rajiv in private, implying that there was no one else who could boast of such proximity to the former PM.

Sitaram Kesri was the Congress president in December 1997 when Sonia Gandhi merely agreed to campaign for the party in February 1998 general elections. This was a time when many Congress leaders like Aslam Sher Khan, Mani Shankar Aiyar, PR Kumaramangalam, Suresh Kalmadi and Buta Singh had deserted the grand old party.

In despair, a number of middle rung leaders led by Ghulam Nabi Azad called on the then “apolitical” Sonia Gandhi with a plea: “how can you allow the collapse of the Congress before your eyes.” The tardy progress in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination probe, declining fortunes of the Congress and attack on the Nehru-Gandhi legacy had weighed heavily on Sonia’s decision to join active politics.

Sonia viewed the Congress as extension of her love for Rajiv and the country she had chosen to live. In an interview, she had told journalist Shekhar Gupta that she had a pang of guilt each time she passed by Rajiv Gandhi’s portrait hung at the living room of 10, Janpath, that she not doing enough to revive the Congress.

Sonia’s entry in politics reduced Kesri to a virtual nobody. He did not step out of 7, Purana Qila Marg, throughout the 1998 general elections. What was worse and more humiliating for him was that each day, V George or Oscar Fernandes would come to him with files and papers and AICC chief Kesri would sign on dotted lines.

Incidentally, this was the second time when Congress leaders of all hue and shades had appealed to Sonia to take over party leadership. This time too, the man in the lead was Ghulam Nabi Azad.

On May 22, 1991, when 18 hours after Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the Congress Working Committee had met at 24, Akbar Road, New Delhi, 18 CWC members, including four permanent members and two special invitees, sat cross legged on white sheet, reclining on masnads.

PV Narasimha Rao was chairing the meet and the place meant for the party president was kept vacant as a mark of respect for Rajiv Gandhi. Grim-faced K Karunakaran, Arjun Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Balram Jakhar, Meira Kumar, Jaganath Pahadia, Rajendra Kumari Bajpai, H K L Bhagat, Buta Singh, Ram Chandra Vikal, Sitaram Kesri, Sharad Pawar, Pranab Mukherjee, Jitendra Prasada, M L Fotedar, Janardhan Reddy and P Shiv Shankar chose Sonia as party chief even though Rajiv’s widow was not even a ‘char aana’ member of the Congress.

Pranab Mukherjee broke the news about Sonia’s selection to the media. The seasoned politician faced hostile press even though Mukherjee kept parroting, “she is the only person who will be able to provide leadership and this juncture and under her leadership, the future of the Congress is bright”.

When Mukherjee was asked how the CWC had chosen a leader who was not even an Indian citizen until 1983, Mukherjee had replied, “She is an Indian housewife who has been exercising franchise in the New Delhi constituency.”

On August 10, 2019, Sonia decided to take reigns of the party again when Rahul Gandhi tendered his resignation as 87th president of the AICC on May 25, 2019. Sonia kept mum and constantly declined to name a successor or constitute any party panel to look for Rahul’s replacement.

Decades of high command culture has made Congress so subservient, that nobody in the party could muster the courage to “bell the cat”. Inertia and drift followed even as Rahul remained adamant.

Finally on August 9, 2019, when an informal headcount was organised at 24, Akbar Road, 148 out of 150 leaders (consisting of Congress working Committee members, chief ministers of party-ruled states, CLP leaders, PCC chiefs etc) had favoured Gandhis to lead the Congress. Azad was ‘opening batman’ to congratulate and thank Sonia Gandhi for taking care of the party.