Factionalism and the Congress are synonymous. The more the party high command tries to cap the feud, the more it sprouts anew, with new vigour and in newer forms. The phenomenon was in full display during former party president Rahul Gandhi’s recent visit to Jammu on the pretext of a well-publicised Vaishno Devi Yatra, as also later in the neighbouring state of Punjab that saw a sudden change of guard.
Punjab and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir are both poll-bound. Removing chief minister “Captain” Amarinder Singh five months before the Assembly elections does not augur well for the Congress. It is unlikely that he would take his “humiliation” lying low, and that in itself should give the party sleepless nights.
Even before Mr Gandhi embarked on his trip to Vaishno Devi, parallels were being drawn between a similar visit to the hill shrine by Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister and his grandmother. Immediately after she bounced back to power in 1979, she had traversed the path to the shrine barefoot. Enthusiastic Congresspersons saw in the grandson’s visit the dream of history repeating itself, and hence the resultant euphoria.
The sparkle of euphoria was clearly visible when the rival factions in the UT Congress closed their ranks to present a united face before Mr Gandhi. Besides him, the other centre of attraction was the rebel Group 23 leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, who had, of late, been on a course of reconciliation at Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion.
No one knows how and in what form factionalism rears its head within the Congress. But that is what occurred when Mr Azad was assailed upon, in the presence of the Wayanad MP, by none other than the AICC in-charge of Jammu and Kashmir, Rajani Patil.
Sitting next to Mr Gandhi, both leaders initially appeared to be in a mood of bonhomie. Mr Gandhi was seen hearing out the former J&K chief minister on the significance of the Muslim practice of gazing at one’s hands during prayers. This, Mr Azad felt, was a sign of courage. He may have been drawing a tacit parallel of the gesture to his own party symbol.
It is surprising that the said atmosphere of bonhomie, the result of painstaking efforts at reconciliation by the Congress president — she accommodated Mr Azad in a few important committees and he duly accepted her offer — would be rent within moments and by one of Ms Gandhi’s own representatives at that.
Mr Gandhi’s twin visits to Jammu and Kashmir were being seen as an effort to bring the warring factions together ahead of the Assembly elections. However, the manner in which Ms Patil poured scorn on Mr Azad not only has the potential to increase the chasm between the AICC and the PCC, but is itself a bad omen.
Ms Patil’s address to the capacity crowd of Congresspersons left many flabbergasted. She launched a no-holds-barred attack against “those leaders” who were “managing a show of strength” with the help of the sloganeering of their supporters, so as to be noticed by Mr Gandhi, she alleged. She went on to detail on her own contributions towards strengthening the party during the last one year of her role as in-charge, mentioning that she even contracted the coronavirus in so doing. Her obvious target was Mr Azad as the show had his stamp.
Ms Patil used the presence of the former Congress president to emphasise that she had been drafted in J&K by no other than him and the Congress president, and that she was doing what was expected of her. Does that mean that her tirade against Mr Azad had the sanction of the party high command? This question will certainly haunt the top leadership in the times to come. It is certainly a mystery as to what prompted the AICC in-charge to undermine an initiative of unity that had blessings of the Congress president herself.
The Rahul Gandhi meeting was held in the backdrop of a significant development that went unnoticed, primarily due to the J&K Congress factionalism casting its long shadow. Despite all-out efforts by the ruling dispensation led by the BJP-RSS, a person with Congress affiliation, who contested on the basis of his own stature and became a focal point of all secular and progressive forces, won the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association election and became its president for the third time.
While Mr Azad felt it could have positive ramifications for the Congress in the days to come, local Congress leaders thought otherwise. Not only did they back another candidate with a Congress background who came last in the contest, but they also refused to acknowledge the victory of one of their own. This had left a bad taste in Mr Azad’s mouth. He felt that the party should have duly registered Mohinder Bhardwaj’s presence in the meeting with Mr Gandhi.
The incident has given a fresh trigger to the factional fighting as well as the old guard versus young leadership tug-of-war currently ongoing in the Congress.