Sidelined by the Gandhi family, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad was seen taking one more step in a direction that will bring him much closer to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
In what appeared to be a rare occasion, the Modi government on Saturday rolled out the red carpet for Azad while inviting him to a gala cultural event organised by the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs.
Colourful posters and banners of the Congress stalwart were put up all around the Ambedkar International Centre, the venue of the event, where Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Minister of State (Independent Charge) Jitendra Singh welcomed the veteran Congressman, who was recently praised for his statesmanship by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the farewell speech for the outgoing MPs in the Rajya Sabha.
Saturday’s event was the second such incident in a series when the Modi government showered praises on Azad, who up till now is seen as a dissenter by the Rahul Gandhi camp.
Once a diehard Rajiv Gandhi loyalist, Azad was not given another term in the Upper House. A few days back, Mallikarjun Kharge, considered to be close to the Gandhi family, was appointed as the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha in place of Azad.
Posters of a Congress leader at an event organised by the Modi government were seen for the first time in the national capital. The audience at the Ambedkar Centre were surprised to see Azad seated alongside Jitendra Singh and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi in the VVIP front row. Incidentally, Singh and Azad both hail from Jammu and Kashmir.
The event titled “Ek Bharat, Shresth Bharat”, a ‘Mushaira’ (Urdu poetry recital) organised by the government, officially acknowledged Azad as a guest of honour. Most of the Urdu poets, including Waseem Barelvi, a well-known personality in the Urdu literary world, also praised the Congress leader. Several other poets also mentioned Azad’s name from the dais and addressed their poetic recitals to him.
While the Congress has not given any important responsibility to Azad since he retired from the Rajya Sabha, Saturday’s Mushaira is now being seen as an event which seems to have brought Azad closer towards the BJP.
“Azad sahab is a real statesman, he could be the face of the BJP in the Valley in near future. A person like him commands respect across party lines,” said a BJP functionary present at the auditorium.
Earlier on February 9, Prime Minister Modi bid a tearful farewell to the Congress veteran, saying that he respected Azadji as a “true friend” and will not let him retire, and will continue taking his advice.
Modi said it would be difficult for Azad’s successor in the Rajya Sabha to match him as he has set very high standards as an MP and as the Leader of the Opposition.
Vice-president M Venkaiah Naidu also described Azad as a “voice of sanity in the nation’s public life”, and someone who “speaks softly but conveys his point of view effectively”.
Modi’s emotional speech for Azad had led to speculation that the veteran Congress leader, sidelined by his party high command, might join the ruling party in days to come.