Recent speeches by senior Congress leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad in receptions organised by loyalists after his retirement from the Rajya Sabha have thrown party rank and file into a tailspin in Jammu and Kashmir.

For more than 45 years, Azad and the Congress party have been the two faces of the same coin in J&K. A Congress worker or supporter could not claim to support the Congress if he opposed Azad.

Azad’s stature in the Congress owed itself largely to his proximity to the Gandhi-Nehru parivar.

Rather than his popularity in the native Chenab Valley region, it was his reach, first to Sanjay Gandhi and later to the whole family, that catapulted him into politics.

Azad came to be widely known to the people of J&K when he won the Lok Sabha elections as a Congress candidate for the 7th Lok Sabha from Washim constituency of Maharashtra in 1980.

He was a middle rung Congress leader in J&K till then, but his victory with the highest margin in 7th Lok Sabha election para-dropped him into national politics.

After he was made the deputy minister for law, justice and company affairs in 1982, there was no looking back for this village lad, who was born in the remote Bhaderwah area of Jammu region in 1949.

His political career has been the envy of both his colleagues and critics. And yet, towards the sunset of his long innings in politics, Azad has stirred the Hornet’s nest in the party especially in his native J&K.

As a prominent leader of the G-23 group of dissidents, Azad has started questioning the wisdom of the topmost leadership of his party.

It was in this backdrop that during one of his receptions in Jammu recently, another senior Congress leader, Anand Sharma said the party was becoming weaker by the day as its senior leaders were getting older.

There is no doubt in the minds of both his supporters and opponents that Azad is questioning the handling of the party affairs by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and also the free hand Sonia Gandhi has allegedly given to them.

Whatever the implications of his dissent at the national level, there is no denying the fact that the J&K unit of the party is set for a vertical split.

It was because of this panic that G.A. Mir, president of J&K Congress rushed to Delhi two days back to discuss the development with the top bosses of the party.

If reports are to be believed, Azad would not desert the Congress, but form a dissident group of the party supporters that would fight the Assembly elections in J&K after seeking a new election symbol from the Election Commission of India.

This would be something like the repeat of 1978 development for the Congress when Congress-S was formed by Sharad Govindrao Pawar.

Azad supporters expect to win Assembly seats in the Chenab Valley districts of Doda, Kisthwar, Ramban and Reasi.

Azad can also exercise influence over victory and defeat in many other Assembly seats with Muslim votes especially in the Jammu region.

“That is the way, Azad Sahib would hold the key to political power in J&K once democracy is restored in the union territory,” said one of his supporters without agreeing to be named.

No marks for guessing which side would the Azad led ‘Congress’ support in future government formation in J&K.