The Congress’ woes in Rajasthan are far from over as the two camps of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot button up to resume their fight for the top post after a brief ceasefire during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. With less than a year to go for the state elections, the party is still grappling with the issue of whether to face the electorate with Gehlot as Chief Minister, or install Pilot instead. This is where the party known for maintaining the status quo is dithering to take a call.
Pilot is the future of the party in Rajasthan. However, in two bouts with Gehlot, one in 2020 where Pilot led a revolt and another in September 2022 where the Gandhis attempted to force a change, Pilot has shown that he lacks the numbers. Democracy is a numbers game. The fact that he is young (45-years-old) leads to resistance from senior leaders who fear the end of their careers/ambition if he becomes Chief Minister.
The party high command no longer enjoys the moral power to unseat Gehlot without his will. Gehlot who has called Pilot as ‘gaddar’ for trying to destabilise his government in 2020 allegedly with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in no mood to give up. The trend of alternate governments in Rajasthan shows that it is the turn of the BJP to win the elections and form government. In such a scenario, whether it's Pilot or Gehlot, it is unlikely to yield any result.
One line of thought is why put Pilot at the forefront in a lost cause. Strategists believing in this theory are out there to convince Pilot and see this point. They feel Pilot should be used as a star campaigner in other states with big elections coming up in 2023. His rallies received good support in Himachal Pradesh, where Pilot along with Priyanka Gandhi led the successful campaign. He is popular in other parts of India as well.
This group feels that the party should let Gehlot lead a lost cause, and play an emotional pitch of the last elections to the voters. If he fails, Gehlot will be forced to give baton to Pilot in the state taking moral responsibility for the defeat. Unlike Amarinder Singh in Punjab, which the high command could easily replace, in Rajasthan it will be difficult to replace Gehlot. He may stir trouble, as was witnessed in September. If the party tries to impose its decision, the Congress runs the risk of losing power which the party cannot afford. It needs resources to fight state polls in 2023.
The Pilot camp argues that with Gehlot at the helm, the party could receive its biggest drubbing in the state. However, many among them admit the ground reality that Pilot would just be able to reduce the margin of BJP’s victory. Pilot desperately wants to become Chief Minister now, else his next shot would be in 2028, and six years is a long time in politics.
Pilot’s political options are limited. After being Deputy Chief Minister as well as PCC chief in the Congress, he cannot settle for a lower post in the BJP. The rampant factionalism in the Rajasthan BJP has meant that he cannot be offered the Chief Minister’s post. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is not a lucrative option as the party will take time to establish and grow in the desert state.
If the Congress top brass wishes to change face then it would need to adopt the Punjab model and somehow take Gehlot’s resignation before any CLP meeting. With Gehlot as CM in a CLP meeting to decide on leadership, most MLAs are likely to back him due to obligation for favours received for constituency development.
The party could return to the old formula of Gehlot as Chief Minister and Pilot as PCC chief, egos of both satisfied, continuity of government ensured. This way it doesn’t run the risk of rubbing the old warhorse the wrong way and placating Pilot to some extent.
Gehlot recently said that he would open a training institute for politicians after he retires. While Rahul Gandhi has said that one can expect ‘good news soon’ in Rajasthan, a tricky and nervous period ensues in the Rajasthan Congress.