"The people of Jammu and Kashmir will decide the name and the flag for the party. I'll give a Hindustani name to my party that everyone can understand," Ghulam Nabi Azad said addressing his supporters, at a rally in Sainik Ground in Jammu.
Just a week before the rally, the senior politician and a former Chief Minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir announced an end to his five-decade association with Congress. A dozen other Congress leaders from the Jammu and Kashmir unit followed him and quit the party too.
Now, preparations are underway with full rigour to launch a new political front in Jammu and Kashmir.
The senior politician had quit the Congress days after he rejected a post in the party's Jammu and Kashmir unit, saying his recommendations for appointments had been ignored.
Hours after he resigned from the party, the former Rajya Sabha MP said that he would start a new party soon and set up its first unit in Jammu and Kashmir. His return to the lull and slippery political turf of Jammu and Kashmir has created ripples among parties and politicians.
What is Ghulam Nabi Azad's plan? Who else is joining him? And what next for Kashmir politics? BOOM spoke to political experts and former Congress leaders to understand and explain.
"No Chance Of Coalition With BJP"
On Sunday, Ghulam Nabi Azad received a grand reception after he landed in Jammu, as hundreds of people gathered for his first rally since he parted ways with the Congress.
On August 26, Azad ended his five-decade association with the Congress, terming the party "comprehensively destroyed" and "confined to twitter only." He also lashed out at Rahul Gandhi for "demolishing" the party's entire consultative mechanism.
Salman Nizami, a former Congress leader told BOOM that Azad's resignation from the party was the "only way to safeguard Jammu and Kashmir and fight for the welfare of the people".
Nizami, who quit the party in support of Azad, revealed that around 95 per cent of the people who were part of the Jammu Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) have joined the senior leader — a big jolt for the Congress party in Jammu and Kashmir since its inception in 1885.
"Every day people from different groups are coming to meet him since Azad decided to form a new political front in Jammu and Kashmir," Nizami told BOOM. "They are ready to support his party in the next Assembly elections," he added.
The former Congress leader said that the party manifesto has not yet been chartered but many senior leaders including politicians from both the Congress and other parties are "ready to join" him. "It's a sign that people trust him and believe that his role in Jammu and Kashmir politics can yield positive changes," Nizami told BOOM.
Meanwhile, he also rejected the allegations levelled by Apni Party President Syed Altaf Bukhari that Azad is an "A team" of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). "There is no chance of joining hands or coalition with BJP. We will fight the same way as Mamta Banerji, Akhilesh Yadav and Lalu Prasad's party in Bihar fought against the BJP," he said.
On the day he resigned from the Congress, Nizami took to Twitter to say that he was disassociating himself from the party in support of Azad. He alleged that local leaders were not consulted when the Congress formed an election committee for Jammu and Kashmir. "I gave my blood, sweat & toil to Congress," Nizami said adding, "Faced slander and detention for standing up for ideals of the party. And how does Congress treat us? Humiliated & disrespected. We have ZERO say."
Did The Congress Leaders Leave Because Of Rahul Gandhi?
Former Congress MLA Mohammad Amin Bhat who represented the Devsar Constituency of southern Kashmir told BOOM that the talks with Azad about leaving the party were going between the political leaders for the last one year. He said that it started when they sensed that Rahul Gandhi is not paying attention to their woes.
"What is the point of remaining a member of this party?" he asked.
"Ten MLAs from Jammu and Kashmir once went to meet him. Only five were permitted; rest were made to sit outside. The Congress of Nehru, Indira, and Rajiv Gandhi are no longer there. I've been working for Congress since I was in high school. We worked hard for Congress, but they did not reciprocate. This began when Rahul Gandhi assumed leadership of the party," Bhat told BOOM.
He revealed that at least 25-30 former legislators are supporting Azad and his party.
Bhat along with the other former Congress leaders are making preparations to organise a political rally in North Kashmir on September 11 and on September 15 in South Kashmir.
"Azad sahab is a trustworthy leader. He listens to people and speaks clearly," Bhat said.
Like Bhat, former Minister and vice-president of state Congress, G.M Saroori's reasons for leaving the party is similar.
He told BOOM that in the last four years he, along with other stalwart leaders, have written 14 letters to Rahul Gandhi. In the letters, they have appealed the Gandhi scion to listen to the issues of party workers and people of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, he said that there was no response from Rahul Gandhi.
"He (Rahul Gandhi) assigned party positions in JKPCC to those who burnt the effigy of Azad," he alleged. "This is the reason Congress is losing every election because there is no one to listen in the party. This is the condition with every state leader. Mark my words, he (Rahul Gandhi) will never become the Prime Minister of India," the former Jammu and Kashmir MLA Saroori said.
While mocking Gandhi's political strategies and speeches he said, "What can you expect from a person who doesn't know the difference between litre and kilogram?"
Saroori believes that Azad's long political career, roadmap and vision have driven people to support him.
"He is the person who has laid the foundation for big projects in Jammu and Kashmir which generated jobs for the people. Tourists would earlier come only in May but he (Azad) inaugurated Asia's biggest Tulip garden in Kashmir where tourists across the world visit at the beginning of the year," Saroori said.
He said that by letting senior leaders go easily from the party, Congress has "zero scope of existence" in Jammu and Kashmir.
"Congress is a dead party in the region now," Saroori claimed.
What Is The Future Of J&K's New Political Party?
Since BJP pulled off support from a coalition government with the People's Democratic Party in 2018, the region is functioning without any popular government. All administrative decisions are governed by the LG of Jammu and Kashmir appointed by New Delhi.
Azad's new political front, with still no proper roadmap, name or flag, is the second new party that would emerge in the erstwhile state after the abrogation of Article 370.
Leaders who have joined the former senior Congress leader said the Azad-led party would give "tough competition" to the existing mainstream parties of Jammu and Kashmir in the next Assembly elections — which are likely to be held after the completion of the ongoing process of special summary revision of the electoral rolls on November 25.
"His acceptance is in all regions of Jammu and Kashmir and among all communities. This will be a secular party and I believe whoever follows the idea of a secular party should unite this time and come on a single platform to resolve all the issues that have engulfed Jammu and Kashmir at this juncture," Nizami told BOOM.
He said that for the last few years they noticed that the Congress party is "not serious in giving a tough fight to the opposition".
Nizami believes that Azad's new party would emerge as a strong party with support from across the state because of his work during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 2005 for about two and half years. "He has worked hard for the welfare of the state and people see him as a leader who can resolve their issues," he said.
He said around 12 members from the Apni Party have joined Azad. Most of the members are from Doda region of Jammu and Kashmir and were holding senior positions in the party.
Following Azad's five-page letter of resignation to Congress's Interim president Sonia Gandhi, a former deputy Chief Minister – Tara Chand, eight former Ministers, a former MP, and nine legislators have defected to the Azad camp.
Also, a large number of Panchayati Raj Institution (PRI) members and municipal corporators from Jammu and Kashmir have expressed their support for Azad.
The first rally in Jammu indicated that Azad's party, which had strong support from Chenab valley, is expanding its roots in Jammu region. However, it is yet to be seen whether his party can emerge as strong opposition to the old political parties like National Conference and PDP in the valley.
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