The inside man and the exit door- The New Indian Express


As Union health minister in UPA-II, Ghulam Nabi Azad used to keep three mobile phones. One was for calls from the Prime Minister, one for party president Sonia Gandhi, and one for his personal and official use—a triangle fairly reflective of the structure around which the UPA functioned. As a permanent fixture in the Congress’s diwan-e-khas and as an affable, all-seasons politician, that third phone would have been a busy one. But over a period of time, perhaps it came to get more calls than normal from a certain number.

The way things were unraveling in the last phase of the Manmohan Singh regime, Azad had chosen to align with the all-important minister of that time, Pranab Mukherjee. On the rare occasion that he met media personnel, he would not get past two sentences without mentioning ‘Pranabda’. As it turned out, he had bet on the wrong horse and, in a way, that phase confirmed his estrangement from the core 10, Janpath group. Azad has now enacted the natural denouement of that plot, becoming the latest high-profile refugee from a party that gives the impression of being in an advanced stage of dissolution. History has been repeating itself in the Congress—as both tragedy and farce at the same time—and the chapter Azad has written is a still-unfolding one.

Watching this picture of dissolution, one is struck by a kind of absence—of a mind that can apprehend the drift of play, of an eye that can spot movement in advance, and a hand that could control proceedings. Someone adept at political management, someone who can handle the friction and flux created by egos and resolve conflicts—smoothly, from the inside, fixing the loose nuts and bolts with a little conversation here, a little persuasion there.

Someone, in short, like Ghulam Nabi Azad.

These days, a lot of scorn is poured on a certain breed of Congress politician of the post-Indira phase: the durbaris, those who derive their sustenance from being in the inner circles, those who do not possess a mass base. But history mandates that we hold that derision—such leaders have a different kind of value.

Think only of how crucial the Narasimha Rao era was to India, of what Manmohan Singh wrought to its economic trajectory, of the supreme institutional mastery of a Pranab Mukherjee. These are leaders whose natural habitat can be thought of as the Rajya Sabha, the house of the wise.

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Now, Ghulam Nabi Azad was not quite cut of the same cloth as a Rao or Manmohan, but he was hardly without utility—in fact, he has played a crucial hand even in the realm of democratic politics. If Rao’s minority regime survived the famous no-trust vote in 1993, the behind-the-scenes footwork was mostly all Ghulam Nabi’s. He was an enabling factor, as the state in-charge for Andhra Pradesh, when YSR won his mammoth election victory in 2004. If he won kudos for that, managing KCR—his then cabinet colleague in the early days of UPA-I—was part of his unofficial letter. That deft hand was in play again here. Azad was key to the Telangana issue being kept in tacit deferment, ensuring KCR didn’t escalate it to a level that would become difficult for the Congress to manage.

For a party that does not know what to do with the vacuum at the top—forget the vacuum at the grassroots—it’s ironic that someone like Azad exits without even having come up for consideration. Put that down to two factors. One, an invisible glass ceiling in India—even in a party that professes to do secular politics—for those who do not tick the right boxes in the census columns. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have managed a show of fraternal feelings in Parliament, shedding tears as he recalled Azad’s phone call in the aftermath of the killing of Gujarati tourists in Kashmir—at a time when both were chief ministers. But in the current era in New Delhi, having a Muslim as a Congress president is an idea that perishes before birth—even if a second stint as J&K CM is not out of reach for Azad.

But the second factor is no less crucial: the emotional distance from the Congress nucleus. Even in UPA-I, a subtle marginalization had set in—he was given urban development, a lesser ministry. And in those days came a curious event, part of the pitfalls of being the quintessential politician. Azad had held an afternoon Diwali event in his Lutyens bungalow, and its lawns were filled with VVIPs, lesser beings from the political class, and the media. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, then Vice-President, had been invited—and he landed up with Subramanian Swamy in tow. When the news reached Sonia, she was livid. A disconcerted Azad, summoned to 10 Janpath, was told to issue a statement that Swamy had come uninvited! In fact, when he was sent to Jammu and Kashmir as CM not long thereafter, he was convinced it was a sidelining—engineered by a coterie close to Sonia.

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Once it took that chair, though, the importance of his office dawned on him. His 2005-08 stint as J&K CM was creative in a low-key way. He immersed himself in the task of reviving tourism—the famous tulip garden of Srinagar was his initiative—and small-scale industry. A semblance of normalcy was in the air—that is, until he overplayed his hand on the Amarnath Yatra land allocation issue, a moment that gave a downbeat BJP a chance to bounce back. Back in the saddle as Union health minister, he was again a good administrator with good ideas—but, despite his stint as leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha in 2014 or membership of core committees, a certain aloofness from the core marked the years.

Now, it may only happen in the Congress that a leader never walks into the sunset. A Jyoti Basu was even denied prime ministership by his party, but nobody could imagine him ditching the CPI(M) for it. It’s equally inconceivable that an LK Advani plays the fifth columnist upon his sidelining. But the times are so dire for the Congress, someone should be looking in the mirror and asking the question if it was worth the cost to deny someone like Azad another Rajya Sabha term and hand it instead to an Imran Pratapgarhi.

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