Cong brass backs CM in latest flare-up in Gehlot-Pilot saga

Miffed over Sachin Pilot’s move to stage fast-cum-protest on April 11 against Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot’s ‘inaction’ in corruption cases against former BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje, the Congress high command has decided to back the veteran, writes Amit Agnihotri

Rajasthan is a crucial state for the Congress which is hopeful of retaining power in 2023 but faces a stiff challenge from the opposition BJP. The AAP, which had dented the Congress votes in the last year’s Gujarat assembly polls, is also trying to find a foothold in Rajasthan.

The Pilot-Gehlot rivalry actually goes back to 2018 when the grand old party had wrested power from the BJP. Pilot was then the state unit chief and had worked hard since 2014 to revive the party. Gehlot too had played a key role behind the party’s win and through his deft moves was able to get the chief minister’s post for a third time.

Pilot, who had been deployed by Rahul Gandhi after the party lost power in 2013 under Gehlot as chief minister, had expected to become the chief minister in 2018 as he had delivered on a key promise made to the party high command but the young leader was miffed when he had to settle down for the post of deputy chief minister.

Though Pilot was allowed to remain the state unit chief, the young leader continued to live in the hope that he would get a fair share in the state power structure in due time. However, as status quo continued, Pilot got impatient in 2020 and led a rebellion of over a dozen MLAs loyal to him.

Gehlot, the wily politician, used the occasion to brand Pilot as a rebel who played into the hands of the BJP to topple his elected government. Pilot, who was cornered, tried hard to explain to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra that he was only trying to raise the concerns of the party workers who had been neglected by Gehlot and was in no way playing the BJP’s game.

As confusion continued, Gehlot quickly managed to remove Pilot both as deputy chief minister and state unit chief, bringing in his loyalist Govind Singh Dotasara as the new head of Rajasthan Congress.

On his part, Rahul did try to get justice for Pilot and deployed state in charge Ajay Maken to ensure that the young leader’s concerns were addressed. Rahul’s push worked and Gehlot agreed for a cabinet reshuffle in which some of the Pilot loyalists were accommodated but the young leader’s aspirations for a greater say in the state and party affairs could not be met.

Gehlot as party chief

Chances of Pilot getting the chief minister’s post brightened up ahead of the Congress presidential polls in October 2022 when then party chief Sonia Gandhi asked Ashok Gehlot to take up the top party job.

She then deployed AICC observers Mallikarjun Kharge and state in charge Ajay Maken in September to bring about a change of leadership in Rajasthan. As per the formula, Pilot was to be elected the new chief minister. However, the plan went horribly wrong when over 90 MLAs loyal to Gehlot revolted against the high command’s directive and held a parallel meeting where they slammed Pilot. These lawmakers were led by Gehlot’s aide Shanti Dhariwal who wanted the AICC observers to appoint someone from their own camp as the new chief minister, if Gehlot was to be removed.

Maken returned to Delhi without meeting the chief minister but Gehlot did get a chance to explain his position to Kharge. A miffed Sonia then sent show cause notices to three of Gehlot’s aides, Shanti Dhariwal, Mahesh Joshi and Dharmendra Rathore for instigating the lawmakers forcing Gehlot to say sorry and withdraw from the presidential race.

Sonia then asked Kharge to file his nomination against rival Shashi Tharoor. Kharge defeated Tharoor with a big margin and took charge as Congress president on October 26, 2022.

Soon, the entire party got busy with the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat assembly polls and the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra.

In November 2022, the Congress had opted for a status quo in Rajasthan till the Plenary Session in February 2023 was over. Maken was miffed that though the three state rebels had submitted their replies to the AICC disciplinary committee headed by veteran AK Antony, the new party chief had not taken any action in the matter. What further upset the Maken camp was that instead of facing any disciplinary action, the three state leaders were given the responsibility to manage the Bharat Jodo yatra, which entered Rajasthan in December 2022. This provoked Maken to resign, expressing his unwillingness to continue as state in charge.

Before Maken, Pilot too had flagged the issue saying any delay in deciding the case of indiscipline would not convey a good message across the party. However, no action could be taken as Gehlot was supervising the Gujarat polls.

When the yatra was still in Rajasthan, Kharge appointed Punjab leader Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa as the new AICC in charge of the state. Rahul, who had a separate two-hour long meeting with both Gehlot and Pilot before leaving the state, had also pointed out that if the party was able to empower the local leaders and workers, winning the 2023 polls would be easy for the Congress.

Days before the yatra had entered Rajasthan, the Gehlot-Pilot tussle had been out in the open with the chief minister making some disparaging remarks against the young leader during a TV interview. He later played down the charges saying such things happened in politics.

On his part, Pilot remained patient during the yatra but did not give up his ambitions.

Pilot’s show of strength

In January, the Congress played down a series of rallies conducted by Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan saying they were not a show of strength but to strengthen the Congress.

Before that, Pilot briefly joined the yatra in Punjab and informed Rahul that he was embarking on a mass contact program. Subsequently, he conducted a series of rallies in Nagaur Jan 16, Hanumangarh Jan 17, Jhunjhunu Jan 18, Pali Jan 19 and Jaipur Jan 20.

The rallies, which were received well by the voters, were seen by many within the party as a show of strength by the former state unit chief and a projection of Pilot as a farmer leader who had a pan-state appeal.

When Congress communications in charge Jairam Ramesh was asked about Pilot’s rallies, he had noted that both Kharge and Randhawa were trying to work out a solution in Rajasthan. Ramesh had also said that the organization was the supreme for the Congress and not people while pointing out that both Gehlot and Pilot were assets for the grand old party.

With the Plenary Session over in February and no signs of any resolution of the leadership issue, Pilot staged a rebellion against Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot on April 9 saying he would sit on a day long fast-cum-protest on April 11 to demand action in the corruption cases against former BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje. Pilot said he had written letters to Gehlot over the same but the chief minister had not replied to him.

The Congress high command was miffed over Pilot’s move and decided to back the veteran saying the party will go to the polls this year over the achievements of the state government and the strength of the organization.

As Pilot aired his views during a press conference in Jaipur, Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge called a meeting of senior leaders to discuss the Rajasthan leadership which has been hanging fire for long. According to party insiders, Kharge discussed the pros and cons of Pilot’s move before deciding to side with Gehlot.

The official statement from the party was a clear hint to Pilot that no such act of indiscipline would be tolerated by the high command but he went ahead with the fast. The Congress managers then said they were trying to work out a peace formula which would emerge in due course of time.