THERE WAS NO acrimony that day in Parliament, a rare departure in itself. Ghulam Nabi Azad spoke and leaders across the political divide listened quietly, sometimes with a smile. Just the previous day, a visibly emotional Prime Minister Narendra Modi had praised Azad. It was a reminder that for all their hostility towards each other, even rival parliamentarians are at the end of the day colleagues. It also showed that there can be a politics without rancour. In Azad’s dignified voice on his own farewell, it found its full expression.
Azad—the outgoing leader of opposition who, it appears, will not be returning to Parliament again—has remained an influential player, both behind the scenes and on the stage, in much of India’s contemporary history. His speech touched all these aspects of public life. He spoke about the deaths and assassinations of Indira Gandhi and her two sons; of working in difficult places like Kashmir; terror attacks; and the idea of what it means to be a Muslim in India, their favourable state compared to the strife in Islamic nations, and yet, as he put it, the necessity for the majority community to take two steps towards it. The speech also revealed the toll public life must take on its leaders. Like the time he landed in Odisha during the super-cyclone of 1999, just hours after his own father had been diagnosed with cancer, wading through waters for three days to finally find hundreds of corpses floating near the sea. Or when, just two days after he had been sworn in as chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, young children whose parents had just been killed by militants to send him a message, clutched him by his legs and wailed. Those were two out of just five times, he said, when he cried aloud. (The other three being the sudden deaths of his leaders Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi.)
Azad was never a mass leader. He was the classic Congress durbar politician. His power came from his closeness to the power centre in the party. He was, of course, useful to the party in more ways than one. He was a skilled trouble-shooter and an organisational person, skillsets that were essential given Congress’ large organisational base and the emergence of coalition politics in India. As he put it during his farewell speech, through his nearly five decade-long stint in politics, he found himself diving in one spot and emerging at another, an allusion to the various roles he performed, from being member of the two Houses of Parliament, sometimes in power and sometimes outside of it, to being appointed chief minister and being despatched to distant places to bolster election campaigns and stitch alliances.
Azad arrived on the national scene as a fresh-faced politician in the mid-1970s, around the time of the emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, and rose rapidly through the ranks. He was a powerful Youth Congress leader and a Lok Sabha MP by 31; and a minister in Indira Gandhi’s Union Council of Ministers by 33. He went on to hold several important positions in the party and the Central Government because, in spite of whatever churn the party was going through, he continued to stay close to its true power centre, be that Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi—he was an important minister even under PV Narasimha Rao—and later, Sonia Gandhi.
In a strange twist of circumstance, it is Azad and a few others who have been demanding more internal democracy within the party. For this, they have been viewed with suspicion, something which no doubt has hurt him. And yet, it was in the late 1990s—when the last big opportunity arose for the Congress to free itself from the Gandhi family after Rajiv Gandhi’s death and the completion of the Rao Government’s term—that Azad and some others pleaded with a then reportedly reluctant Sonia Gandhi to take over the party.
At the end of the day, leaders like Azad had ensured that the party remained with the family.