Unlike Jyotiraditya Scindia who decided the timing to pull down Kamal Nath, Sachin Pilot feels Ashok Gehlot has limited his options, knowing well that the numbers in the Rajasthan Assembly favour Gehlot and do not allow a repeat of the Madhya Pradesh-style revolt
Political uncertainty best describes Congress governments across India, especially in the northwest Rajasthan. The old guard vs GenNext battle in the grand old party is clearly visible in Jaipur. The recent developments in Rajasthan have further exacerbated the differences between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot.
After he led the Congress — as its Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee chief — to victory in the 2018 assembly polls, Pilot thought he would be rewarded with the Chief Minister’s post because then Congress President Rahul Gandhi had promised that he would usher in a generational change for ending the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule in the state.
However, once the Congress won the elections and despite Rahul Gandhi’s inclination for a fresh leadership, Sonia Gandhi and her close aides decided that the claims made by former Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot could not be ignored. Besides, his ‘administrative experience and acumen’ would go a long way in ‘unfixing’ a lot of issues, including the land-acquisition cases filed against Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, by the Vasundhara Raje regime. In addition to this, in Rajasthan’s caste-ridden politics, Gehlot, who belonged to the Mali (gardener) caste, augured better than Pilot, who is a Gujjar leader.
An upset Pilot was asked to settle for the post of Deputy Chief Minister with an assurance that his band of young MLAs would be rewarded.
However, as months rolled by, Gehlot did not accommodate Pilot in his scheme of things. Gehlot not only started to clip Pilot’s wings but also refused to appoint officials of his choice to run departments under him. Pilot began airing his views on issues of governance, which were seen at variance with Gehlot’s approach. Meanwhile, the Congress High Command found the veteran CM more useful than a young deputy CM, and ignored the pleas of the latter.
The Gehlot-Pilot equation further deteriorated in 2019, when the CM’s son, Vaibhav Gehlot, lost the election from the Jodhpur seat. Ashok Gehlot blamed Pilot for the defeat, saying that the PCC chief should take the responsibility. It did not matter that as Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot could not ensure the victory of his son on home turf.
The Congress High Command finally woke up to the problem when it decided to set up a ‘coordination committee’ for Rajasthan in January. It is perhaps a reflection of how keen it is to solve the imbroglio that the panel has held just one meeting so far.
The Last Straw
Things went further south after the Rajya Sabha polls last month. Following a difference in choice of candidates between Gehlot and Pilot, the CM, for the first time, openly expressed fear that Pilot would topple his government with the help of the BJP by ensuring cross-voting. The results proved that there was no cross-voting as both Congress candidates won.
Nevertheless, Gehlot got the Congress chief whip to file a police complaint that the BJP was out to destabilise his government with the help of some Congress MLAs. His objective was to escalate his battle with Pilot to a level unheard of in any Congress dispensation. An FIR was filed and being in charge of home department, Gehlot got the Rajasthan Police to set up a ‘special operations group’.
A Congress government setting up a police investigation to thwart the dissidents may seem to be an outlandish solution for any political observer, but not for the Congress High Command, riled by the loss of the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh after the revolt by Jyotiraditya Scindia.
The proverbial last straw on the camel’s back for Pilot was the police summons on July 10 for an investigation into a plot to destabilise the state government. For the sake of optics, Gehlot too was issued a notice. However, the writing is on the wall — Ashok Gehlot is now all out to fix Pilot and his loyalists.
Pilot is left with a Hobson’s Choice: either quit or submit to Ashok Gehlot’s diktat. Annoyed by the extremes to which things are moving, Pilot yet again sought the intervention of the high command — but was told that there was ‘no harm’ in co-operating with the police probe to ‘prevent’ the BJP from ‘destabilising’ a Congress government.
Unlike Scindia who decided the timing to pull down Nath, Pilot feels Ashok Gehlot has driven him to the wall, knowing well that the numbers in the Rajasthan Assembly favour Gehlot and do not allow a repeat of the Madhya Pradesh-style revolt.
Besides, the BJP’s Raje and her supporters are in no mood to oblige Pilot who worked to unseat her rule. Yes, Pilot may command 20 to 30 MLAs on his side, but no MLA would want to face the risk of re-election. They can be ministers for six months under a BJP rule — but who will guarantee that they will be all made ministers.
In all this, the question that remains unanswered is: Will Rahul Gandhi step in?(Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. The views are personal.)