Srinagar, June 28: Did Congress president Sonia Gandhi praise union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad's 2005-2008 tenure as Jammu and Kashmir chief minister for a reason? Her comments have drawn much attention in the state.
There is speculation that the Congress chief wishes to install Azad as the chief minister, in case the party wins the assembly elections, scheduled for the end of 2014.
Addressing a public rally in Kishtwar town of the Jammu region after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone of the 850-MW hydro electric power project on the Chenab river in Azad's political bastion, Sonia Gandhi said the state was governed well during his tenure as the chief minister.
The Congress president said it was because of Azad's commitment to development that eight new districts were created in the state during his chief ministership.
The three districts of Doda, Bhaderwah and Kishtwar in the Jammu division of the state, also known as Chenab Valley, are believed to be political bastions of Azad, who hails from Bhaderwah district.
The Congress party is eyeing a number of seats from these three districts during the 2014 elections, which party sources say, would improve the party's tally from the present 17 seats in the 87-member legislative assembly.
"The BJP got 11 seats from the Jammu region during the 2008 elections. This was the first time in the state's political history that BJP had won so many seats. This happened primarily because of the backlash to the Amarnath land row agitation in the valley. We will definitely win a good number of seats from these 11 assembly constituencies," a senior Congress leader said.
The leader rejected the notion that the elevation of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the star campaigner for the BJP during the next general elections would improve the BJP's lot in the Hindu-majority Jammu region.
"Their party is faction-ridden and in disarray. Modi would not become a game changer for them during the elections in the Jammu region," the Congress leader said.
Asked whether the Congress and the regional National Conference (NC), whose coalition government is at present headed by Omar Abdullah, would be fighting the 2014 elections in alliance in the Jammu and Kashmir, Azad said: "It is too early to comment on this".
Given the extraordinary interest Azad has been taking in the political affairs of the state in the past months, there is rampant speculation that the union health minister is eying the post of chief minister.
The People's Democratic Party (PDP) headed by Mufti Muhammad Sayeed ruled the state in coalition with the Congress after the 2002 elections till 2008 (The Jammu and Kashmir assembly has a six-year term).
The PDP pulled out of the coalition in 2008, bringing down the government at a time Azad was the chief minister.
The PDP withdrawal from the coalition came as a rude shock to the Congress in 2008, although PDP leaders said they had no alternative, in light of the massive public outcry in Kashmir over the allotment of forest land in north Kashmir Baltal area to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which manages the affairs of the annual pilgrimage to the cave shrine.
Azad, despite being known as an adept floor manager in parliamentary affairs, could not face a confidence vote in the assembly in 2008 after the PDP pullout. He was forced to resign to avoid a show of strength on the floor of the assembly.
Since then, there has been complete estrangement between Azad and the PDP leadership.
It is believed that Azad played a pivotal role in working out the nuts and bolts for the Congress-NC alliance that brought the present dispensation to power in 2009.
So what happens to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah if Azad succeeds him?
Given that the NC sees itself as a bitter political rival of the PDP, that opposition to the PDP is widely seen to define the NC more than its alliance with the Congress.
It is generally believed that if the NC does not get enough seats to stake its claim to the post of chief minister after the 2014 elections, the party would prefer Azad at the helm of government, rather than allow rivals in the PDP to cobble up an arrangement with the Congress.