Former Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad is not a candidate in the assembly elections underway in Jammu and Kashmir but he has been campaigning hectically in the state for over a month.

Azad, who led the Opposition charge against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in the budget session of Parliament, has been conspicuous by his absence in the ongoing winter session.

His total involvement in these state polls is understandable. This election is personally important for the senior Congress leader because his membership of the Rajya Sabha depends on its outcome.

Elected to the Upper House from Jammu and Kashmir in 2009, Azad’s term ends in February. It is not just his membership that is at stake. If Azad is unable to get re-elected, he will also lose the cabinet rank that he currently enjoys as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. He can only hope to return to the Upper House if the Congress wins sufficient seats in these elections.

Failed attempts

This appears to be a tall order in view of the prevailing anti-Congress sentiment in the state. The Congress is paying the price for the failures of the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre and for aligning with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s government, whose popularity has steadily plummeted over the years. The Congress got a taste of this in the May general election when it failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat from the state. Azad himself lost to a first-time Bharatiya Janata Party candidate in Udhampur. The BJP and the People’s Democratic Party are said to be leading the race in the Assembly polls.

Realising that the Congress was not going to fare well in these elections, Azad had pitched for a Rajya Sabha berth from Uttarakhand, when elections were held there last month to fill the seat vacated by BJP’s Bhagat Singh Koshiyari following his election to the Lok Sabha. But there was strong opposition from the Uttarakhand Congress, which insisted that a local candidate be nominated this time as outsiders had been given preference in the past. Azad again lost out when the Congress leadership picked PL Punia for the Rajya Sabha seat from Uttar Pradesh.

Stiff competition

Now that the results of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly polls are due to be declared on December 23, the Congress is currently in the grip of an animated discussion about the party’s performance and its possible impact on Azad’s future.

As is to be expected, a number of senior leaders have already started vying for Azad’s position. Former Union minister Anand Sharma, deputy leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party who has been officiating as Leader of Opposition in Azad’s absence, is obviously a strong contender. However, Sharma’s possible elevation has not gone down well with his detractors in his own party.

“I doubt Sharma will make the cut,” remarked a senior Congress Rajya Sabha member. “There are so many other senior leaders in the party. Anybody who is eyeing this post should have at least contested one Lok Sabha election.”

Last laugh

Besides Sharma, others whose names are doing the rounds include Satyavrat Chaturvedi, Ambika Soni and Madhusudan Mistry. Former Defence Minister A K Antony’s name is also being mentioned, but he is said to be too soft-spoken for this job.

However, senior Congress leaders maintained that all those lobbying for the post may be in for a disappointment as Azad could end up having the last laugh. “Please do not underestimate Azad,” said a Congress office-bearer. “He has friends across party lines.”

According to the Congress, the People’s Democratic Party is set to emerge as the single largest party and will need the support of the Congress to form the next government since it cannot join forces with the BJP. In such a situation, the People’s Democratic Party and the Congress will jointly have enough seats to ensure Azad’s re-nomination to the Upper House. But the moot question is: will Congress win enough seats to be in a position to strike such a bargain.