As the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi-led ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ walks towards its culmination in Kashmir, a friend-turned-foe Ghulam Nabi Azad is staring at a troubled – and perhaps an isolated – future with his newly floated political ambitions.

The leader from Doda, in the Pir Panchal region, confronted the Nehru family in September last year and launched his own regional party, the ‘Democratic Progressive Azad Party’ (DAP).

He was joined by a battery of Congress leaders, some of them his loyalists, with the hope to achieve things that they felt were missing in Congress. The grand old party immediately hit back, calling out Azad’s front as a “B-Team of the BJP”.

Fast forward four months, many senior leaders deserted for their old party, leaving a big question on the survival of Azad’s party in the already saturated political space in Jammu and Kashmir. That too, before they even contest an election.

On 8 October 2022, an influential Gujjar leader Choudhary Muhammad Akram distanced himself from Azad’s camp. On 6 January, seventeen of the estranged Azad loyalists, including ex-deputy CM of J-K Tara Chand and ex-minister Peerzada Mohd Sayeed, formally returned to Congress in an event in New Delhi.

Speaking with The Kashmir Walla, Chand, who was expelled from the Azad party along with the two other senior leaders for “anti-party activities”, said it was more of an emotional decision to join Azad’s camp rather than a rational one.

“I was instrumental in gathering the crowd during his rallies in Jammu. So, when he launched the new party many of us joined because of our personal relationship with him,” Chand said.

However, Chand reserved his comments about the survival of Azad’s camp with a Dogra saying: “Jis gawo ko chod diya, us gawo ka kya naam lena”.

Earlier this week, former MLC Nizamuddin Khatana, who was general secretary of the DAP, resigned from the party with Gulzar Ahmad.

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, who had often been at loggerheads with Azad, took a swipe at his party calling it the “Disappearing Azad Party” over the exodus of leaders from the newly-formed outfit.

DAP spokesperson Salman Nizami told The Kashmir Walla that those who left or were expelled were resorting to “groupism” rather than working for the welfare of the party.

“Those who have re-joined the Congress had lost their constituencies in the delimitation process, and thus were having no relevance in the upcoming assembly elections,” Nizami said.

Following the delimitation process, six new constituencies in Jammu and one in the Kashmir Valley have been carved out and the parliamentary constituencies have been redrawn.

Nizami said the party had decided not to give the tickets to those who had lost their home constituency, which later became the main bone of contention.

“Azad sahib told them (people who rejoined the Congress) that they have to work for the party, and are not getting the tickets. But, they started bringing the same Congress culture of groupism in our party as well,” Nizami said.

Azad too termed the exit of its loyalists as “no setback” for his newly floated party.

“It is not a setback because those who left have no constituency. I wish them well and I will not say anything against them as they have been my old colleagues,” Azad told reporters in Srinagar.

In the past three years, seven new political parties from Jammu and Kashmir have been registered by the Election Commission of India (ECI).

According to the documents, the National Awami United Party, National Democratic Party (Indian), Aman Aur Shanti Tehreek-e-Jammu and Kashmir, Voice of Labour Party (Jammu and Kashmir), Haq Insaaf Party, were among the seven political parties that have been registered by the ECI after 2019.

Though very little is known about the five of these parties, the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Movement, floated by the bureaucrat-turned-politician-turned-bureaucrat Shah Faesal, and Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party – founded by former minister and Peoples Democratic Party leader Syed Altaf Bukhari – were the two political parties that made the headlines.

However, after the limited autonomy of J-K was scrapped in August 2019, Faesal, who was briefly detained, quit politics and returned to the administration. And whatever was left of the party merged with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Jammu.

On the other hand, Bukhari didn’t catch many eyes in their first test: the District Development Council (DDC) elections in 2020. The Apni Party only won twelve seats out of 172 seats in the erstwhile state.

Noor Baba, a prominent political analyst, told The Kashmir Walla that it would be difficult for any new political party to create its space in J-K, “given the history of this place”.

The National Conference and People’s Conference are among the oldest regional political parties that are currently part of the electoral process. While the NC came into existence in 1939, the People’s Conference was formed in 1978. Later, in 1999, the People’s Democratic Party came into existence.

Baba said though Azad has his own persona, his image won’t be enough for the party to churn electoral gains. Baba added that Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has changed the dynamics and many senior leaders, who had earlier left the Congress are now seeing a new hope in the party.

“The context has changed,” noted Baba. When Azad formed his own party, Congress was going down the drain, he said. “Now, the Yatra has somewhat revived the Congress.”

“You can’t win a state single-handedly no matter how big you are,” Baba said. “You need grassroots leaders in every constituency. And that is not the case with the DAP.”

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