In a public life spanning over 45 years, veteran Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad has always steered away from controversy. But given the diminishing returns that the Congress is getting election after election, Azad feels it is time to speak up.
In an exclusive interview to News18 after addressing a rally in Jammu’s Ramban area, Azad touched upon party democracy, or the lack of it, in the current Congress leadership, with a veiled reference to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
“The present generation of the Congress is not open to suggestions. If some senior members give one, it is seen as a crime or rebellion," Azad said, adding that the advice of senior leaders should not be taken as an affront or challenge.
Azad is among 23 senior leaders, dubbed G23 or Group of 23 by the media, who had written to Congress president Sonia Gandhi last year, suggesting that the party must introspect on back-to-back electoral losses and come up with a new strategy. The group had also stressed on the need to democratise party processes, starting with organisational polls to elect a president.
Azad told News18 on Sunday that leaders have a good relation with Sonia Gandhi, but said the younger generation is not that keen on listening to seniors.
Asked about his recent comment that he does not see the Congress winning 300 seats in Lok Sabha elections, Azad sought to clarify that he was referring to the only time the party won 300+ seats under Indira Gandhi and the time it crossed 250 with Narasimha Rao as prime minister. “In the last few decades, we have won far fewer seats. It is for everyone to see," he said.
“It hurts when our advice is not heeded. We give suggestions for the overall improvement of the party. None of us wants any posts in the party. All we want is that the performance of the party should improve," he said. “This is a time when the ruling party is strong and the Opposition is weak. A weak Opposition benefits the ruling party."
Talking about pending organisational elections, Azad said the party initially used to hold elections every year for the president’s post, which was later extended to two and five years. “And these days, there is no time limit… Congress leadership is not as flexible as it was. It was known internationally,” he said candidly.
Asked if the Congress is on decline, Azad said, “It is for everyone to see."
“I am a staunch Congressi… The party needs to introspect, work together, devise strategies and pull itself up and be a force to reckon with."
Azad even admitted to infighting in the Jammu and Kashmir unit of the Congress, but sought to distance himself from it. “I have nothing to do with it. My rallies have no connection with this," he said, flanked by former state ministers and legislators from his party.
The Jammu and Kashmir unit has been in crisis mode with 20 senior and middle-rung leaders having resigned from the party positions. Last month, the leaders had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi, asking her to revamp the local Congress unit and replace current president Ghulam Ahmad Mir.
Asked if the leaders want him to head the J&K unit, Azad said he has no such ambitions. Many Congress leaders close to Mir, however, watch Azad’s sudden political activities in Jammu and Kashmir keenly. “Who is he batting for and what are his motives?" a leader questioned while speaking to News18 on condition of anonymity.
The former chief minister has held a series of rallies in Chenab, Pir Panjal and Kashmir recently and advocated for human rights and employment, besides being critical of the government for sacking employees. “Who is deadwood? The current dispensation or local employees? These are strange times," he said at the rally, followed by cheers from the gathering.
Azad had come under criticism from former chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, who without naming the Congress veteran, said some leaders had “given up” on their position on special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
In many of his rallies, Azad has urged the Centre to restore J&K’s statehood, hold elections and restore the Assembly so that welfare programmes can be taken to the people. Azad, however, has generally avoided speaking on restoration of special status, saying either the court or the current dispensation at the Centre can return it.
“Let us be pragmatic. The current regime had taken away the special articles and it will not return them. The courts can adjudicate on it, but there has not been any hearing for last many months," he told reporters when asked if he had reconciled to the fact that Article 370 is done and dusted.