In Ghulam Nabi Azad's exit, Congress sees the entry of a tight race: Who's going to win?

Senior Congress leader and Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad is all set to exit the Upper House of the Parliament as he is five days ahead of marking the end of his tenure as Rajya Sabha MP representing his home state Jammu and Kashmir. Being a veteran leader of the grand old party, he is demitting the office of the Leader of Opposition that he held for over six years, which naturally stirs a fresh race within the Congress bigshots to replace him in the Upper House. 

Putting the Congress High command into a delicate situation where the platter of replacement carries at least four big shots from four different background with the equal pattern of experience that no one can be written off without an agreeable conviction, the Congress leadership has been pushed to pick the replacement for Azad by ensuring that the pick won't stimulate any fresh intra-party furor and dispute amid being filled with plenty of them. 

Azad will be demitting the Upper House and the entry of tight race triggered by his exit has four contenders currently to replace him - Former Union Minister of Commerce Anand Sharma, who is also the current Deputy Leader of Opposition, former Union Minister of Finance P Chidambaram, Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh, and Senior Congress MP from Karnataka, Mallikarjun Kharge and all these four have been maintaining close ties with the Gandhis in some way or the other. 

While considering picking the four big shots on the platter, Congress is not ready to keep Azad away from the active politics at a high time when the party needs to build a stable opposition both inside and outside the Parliament. According to reports, the grand old party mulls to use his vast political experience and sound knowledge to counter the BJP and the leadership has been considering to re-elect him to the upper house. 

Azad has been serving as the Rajya Sabha MP from Jammu and Kashmir and as the Central government had revoked the special status from Kashmir, withdrawn legislature, and bifurcated the region into two Union Territories, the Congress party is considering electing him from the deep south - Kerala. The Southern state is one of the key states for Congress as it is bounding for the assembly polls and what more special is that Rahul Gandhi is currently serving as Lok Sabha MP from Kerala. However, Kerala currently doesn't have any vacant seats for Rajya Sabha, and the southern state will offer three vacant seats to the Upper House in April, and going with its consideration, Azad could be re-elected to Rajya Sabha from Kerala in April. 

The Congress party leaders said an official announcement on Azad's replacement is likely to come from Sonia Gandhi only after February 15. If there is any possibility that the Congress high command could stay off from Azad in re-electing him would be Azad's play in the Group of 23 (G-23) Congress leaders who staunchly written against Sonia Gandhi and demanded to pump in a fresh and young leadership for the party's revival. Azad was one of the leaders in the club of dissent against the leadership that erupted months after Sonia Gandhi's comeback as the party's interim president. 

If Congress decides to keep Azad away from active politics under the grounds that he was a part of G-23, then it should also remove Anand Sharma's name from the consideration of Azad's replacement as Sharma is also one of the 23 signatories who wrote the letter demanding a change in the leadership. However, if Congress faces a backlash from across the nation over not appointing the Hindi speakers in the top party posts in the Parliament, the party would less likely remove the names of Anand Sharma, Digvijaya Singh, and Mallikarjun Kharge. 

In Lok Sabha, the Congress party has been led by West Bengal MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who is a Bengalese, and the party has appointed Assamese MP Gaurav Gogoi as his deputy in the Lok Sabha. With giving no space for Hindi speakers to lead the party in the lower house, the Congress party is in the situation to balance it by appointing Hindi speakers in the Upper House, which will put P Chidambaram behind the race. There is another reason why Anand Sharma is a lead contender beyond the Hindi agenda, he is the deputy leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha and he traveled with Azad for the past six years, and Sharma exercises good coordination with the other parties in the house. 

These factors have brought Sharma to the next level while Digvijaya Singh and Chidambaram are looking to clear the first level of winning the race. If the party looks to equally balance the seniority and oratory skills, Chidambaram and Digvijaya Singh will join the race, and if the party looks beyond regional balance, the race will also accommodate Mallikarjun Kharge, a senior leader of Congress from Karnataka who also speaks Hindi fluently. All these four contenders would push the party's leadership to brace up the challenge as they have been observing ties with the Gandhis either as the close advisers or as the trusted confidantes. 

The party is in the obvious state that it can't immediately re-elect Azad for Rajya Sabha from Jammu and Kashmir due to the absence of state legislature and unless there is no vacant seat for the Upper house from the other Congress ruling states, Azad's re-entry is not possible. Azad had served Congress for more than two decades. He first became a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1990 from Maharashtra. However, he shifted to his home state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1996.  He also served as Congress representative in Rajya Sabha till 2006 when he became the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. 

In 2014, Azad became the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and has been serving in the post since then. He will be exiting the Upper House on February 15 by having no immediate re-entry in the sight and the Congress party would be naming his successor from the available members. As the party gears up for the tight race for the replacement with four bigshots on the track, the party's leadership can neither ignore any of them without a valid reason nor would skip them and hunt for the fifth person. Azad will be leaving the house by gifting a legacy and while four senior leaders are in the race to fill the seat, we can possibly say that the race will less likely witness the fifth candidate on the track. 

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