The political storm to hit Rajasthan draws heavily from prototypical themes of a Shakespearean classic as the crisis drives into a cul de sac. Multitude shades of betrayal, appearance and reality, conflict, corruption, deception, order and disorder pervade the snafu, with vaulting ambition being the recurring language device. Only here, it has not yet proven to be a fatal flaw for either of the two protagonists — a go-getter young leader hungry for lion’s share of the pie, and a war horse overridden by possession of his position and identity.
Demanding that he be elevated to the post of chief minister, former deputy CM Sachin Pilot has rebelled. CM Ashok Gehlot clutching hard onto his government, meanwhile, is countering this wresting away of power with vociferous attacks, whether they are Constitutional, legal or personal. There have also been charges of treachery, coup, and treason followed by not-so-kind barbs. And now a seemingly protracted legal battle has taken this faceoff to a feverish crescendo coupled with a constant clamour by Gehlot for trial of strength, which is yet to be approved by Governor Kalraj Mishra.
Caught in the crossfire is a party ailing with leadership bankruptcy for which infighting, revolts and exits are no longer an oddity. Congress is still smarting from Jyotiraditya Scindia’s crossover four months ago when its young and popular face announced mutiny, toppling the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh. Pilot’s uprising bugle couldn’t be more ill-timed as it exposes the chinks in Congress’ armour and its insatiable proclivity towards autothysis. The fierce frontline underlines young order vs old guard, and a critical leadership vacuum since Rahul Gandhi left the top post last year. Stakes are higher for Congress this time as because unlike in MP, there is no external trigger in Rajasthan; only internal dynamics are at play since the drama started unfolding.
Pilot and Gehlot have been crossing swords ever since the former was sidelined by the party, pipping the veteran for the top billing after Congress won the 2018 state assembly elections. A CM hopeful, Pilot had avenged his party’s humiliating defeat in 2013 where it could manage only 21 seats and lost miserably to its saffron rival. He was, however, dealt an unfair hand as Congress was eyeballing Lok Sabha elections that were round the corner. There was no love lost between them since then. Much to Gehlot’s chagrin, Pilot had been asserting himself as CM-in-waiting, and the dismal debacle in LS polls where the party could not secure a single seat under Gehlot’s command only emboldened Pilot to further push for his claim on the CM post.
Once Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president last year, Gehlot cornered Pilot further, truncating his say in administrative matters. Both started taking potshots without directly naming each other and the few public appearances they made together left to imagination about their tumultuous relationship.
The immediate provocation, however, was the notice sent by Rajasthan Police to Pilot on charges of sedition and conspiracy. Disgruntled and pushed against the wall, the second-generation leader refused to take this “humiliation” lying down, scripting a very public showdown that left the Congress red-faced. He along with 19 MLAs left for Delhi, fanning speculation of overthrowing the Gehlot government though he steadfastly maintained that all he wanted was the central leadership to resolve the issue.
Gehlot, meanwhile, used his proximity to coerce 10, Janpath to strip Pilot off his charge as Pradesh Congress Committee(PCC) after getting him sacked from deputy’s post by the governor. He also accused Pilot of planning to overthrow his state along with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, even claiming of having of Pilot hobnobbing with the right-wing party. The 42-year-old has vehemently denied the allegations. “I have worked so hard for Congress’ victory in the state. Why will I work against my own party? This is just a conspiracy to malign my image,” says the dissenting leader. Contrarily, multiple tapes have emerged on social media where MLAs from his camp are purportedly discussing monetary paybacks with BJP leaders for coup against Gehlot. The tapes allegedly have voices of Rajasthan tourism minister(now sacked) Vishwendra Singh and MLA Bhanwar Lal Sharma hatching the plan with union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. They also claim on the tape that Pilot has support of 30 MLAs.
The Congress has demanded arrest of Shekhawat and Gehlot continues to vilify Pilot publicly. In the most sharpened and recent attack, he has called him ‘nikamma aur nakara’(useless and worthless), to which Pilot has maintained a dignified silence.
Even while “upholding” his self-respect, the young rebel made his political ambitions explicitly clear. Persistently asserting his stance of not joining the BJP, he wants the high command to keep its end of the bargain and publicly announce his chief ministership in the remaining period of Rajasthan government. Sources claim that this was a promise made by the party and lies at the heart of the negotiation as also public acknowledgement that the Congress will go to polls under Pilot’s leadership.
Over the days, he has also been vocal about not being on the same page as Gehlot. In a recent interview, he did not hold back. “All I wanted was a respectable working environment. Instead, the CM made it an agenda to humiliate me and prevent me from delivering my commitments to my people. It is not about power, position or privilege. It is about dignity and the freedom to work.”
Pilot loyalists echo the sentiment. “There has been a series of deliberate attempts to insult and undermine Pilot’s leadership and stature in the state. Gehlot has taken it way too far this time. The party must not forget that it has rode home to victory under Pilot’s command and it has not recognised his efforts till now,” says a close aide. They also claim that he has been undercut several times by Gehlot who does not want to extend the authority that comes with being his deputy. “We have worked selflessly for the party and the state. He is not power hungry. It is fight to protect our dignity and self-respect at a time when our leader is threatened with notices from the SOG under charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy,” senior state leader Vishwendra Singh said. As a show of solidarity, the Pilot camp even boycotted the CLP meeting called by the CM, hence setting stage for litigation as Rajasthan Speaker CP Joshi sent disqualification notice to 19 rebel Congress MLAs, Pilot included.
Pilot’s rise in the Congress and ladders of political power is verbalised as meteoric. In a career spanning 17 years, the two-time MP has held an independent charge, became PCC chief at 36 followed by deputy CM — a fete unmatched by his contemporaries including Scindia. This can be attributed to a balancing act of being close to Rahul Gandhi, forthright political hunger and a keen willingness to get his feet wet. He has not shied away from toiling and shouldering responsibilities whenever offered. It also explains why he has kept communication channels open with AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi. “He does not want to rush in and jump the ship. Where else would he be given such stellar portfolio at such a young age? I am sure he is looking at some reprieve instead of just throwing everything away,” says a senior Congress person.
At the same time, Gehlot who has been thrice CM, and risen up the ranks, has sizeable clout in the state. Having been around for more than three decades now, he first became CM in 1998 at the age of 47, crushing the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat government that was in power since 1990. Despite Pilot being the Rajasthan party chief, the old hand commanded greater influence in General Elections 2018 ticket distribution.
The power tussle in Rajasthan is a close call for Gehlot who is maneuvering for a floor test ever since the crisis broke out. He raised the pitch further after the Speaker sent disqualification notices to 19 rebel MLAs. Although the CM is confident of proving majority in the House, he might hit choppy waters given the way numbers are stacked up.
The Congress had won 100 seats in the 2018 Assembly polls. The count was brought to 101 by winning the one seat later in Ramgarh by-election. It touched 107 after six MLAs from Bahujan Samaj Party joined the INC. With the notice to 19 legislators, the Congress strength stands at 88 in the Assembly. Gehlot claims to have support of independent MLAs and those from smaller parties, and says he enjoys majority in the 200-member house. But given the 19 MLAs siding with Pilot, the scales are tipped slightly unevenly for him. Should the majority test happens, Gehlot will have to rely greatly on the 13 independents and MLAs of smaller players—Bharatiya Tribal Party and CPI(M) to win. The two parties have two seats each. It is still unclear which side the BTP will swing. It also remains to be seen whether the CPI(M) will vote for Gehlot or abstain itself from the floor test.
The BJP, on the other hand, has 72 seats of its own, coupled with the support of the three MLAs of Hanuman Beniwal-led Rashtriya Loktantrik Party(RLP). This computes the total to 75. The BJP, if confident of achieving the numbers, will seize the opportunity, going all out to unseat Gehlot.
Moreover, if the court puts a stay on the disqualification process, proving majority will be a tightrope for Gehlot because the rebels may join hands with the right-wing ideologue, plus the three RLP MLAs. The BJP will then have 94 votes in its favour.
Courtroom Drama: The disqualification notice served to the dissidents by Speaker Joshi seemed like a crafty move by Gehlot to cut Pilot to size. Instead, the young Congressman crossed the Rubicon and challenged the notices in Rajasthan High Court. The notice was given on the request of Congress chief whip after team Pilot skipped two CLP meetings. The leader, however, argued that a party whip applies only when the session is on.
Providing temporary relief to Pilot, the court ordered status quo to be maintained in the disqualification case. It meant that the court has barred the Speaker from acting on his disqualification notice dates July 14. The orders came after the court agreed to Pilot’s plea to make Centre a party to the case. The former deputy CM had submitted that Tenth Schedule’s constitutional validity was under challenge and therefore, the Union of India was a necessary party.
Even as in a previous hearing, the HC asked him to wait for its verdict on July 25, the Rajasthan Speaker sought Supreme Court’s intervention, a move that eventually backfired for Congress. The Speaker had challenged the HC’s order asking him to pause any action against the rebels until its decision on July 25. The sudden move indicated Congress’ worry of losing Rajasthan if rebels scored a legal victory. Its fear did come true as the top court refused to stop the HC from announcing its decision(July 25) on Pilot’s petition challenging the disqualification.
In a hypothetical world, if Pilot indeed crosses over to the BJP, he will not settle for anything less than the CM position, something highly unlikely to be acceptable to Vasundhra Raje. This would also churn the pot of caste cauldron that has long governed the politics of Rajasthan. Pilot belongs to the Gujjar community, which was another major factor against his elevation to the CM’s post as it would have antagonised the powerful Meenas. Gehlot, on the other hand, is a Mali (Backward caste) and is not seen as a threat to Jats, Rajputs and Meenas. The Congress could not have afforded to alienate Jats by appointing a Gujjar CM, especially in a time when the community is irked with the party for failing to give them its due. Some of the tall leaders in state Congress have been Jats including Sis Ram Ola, Ramniwas Mirdha, and Parsaram Maderna.
So is it paradise lost for Pilot? The faultlines have run deeper this time, beyond redemption. Add to this the smear of phone tapping, public swipes by senior partymen like Randeep Singh Surjewala, it has also widened the rift between him and Gehlot. With an FIR and further allegations of horsetrading, it is not easy going back as number 2 since the mutual distrust has only heightened.
For Congress, in the meanwhile, it is a wakeup call to clean its backyard. The terrible optics of the Rajasthan potboiler has put additional pressure on the party that is ailing from leadership vacuum for a long time now. Trusted party members are also out in the open about the path of self-destruction the grand old party is on, prophesying an uncertain and dark future if not arrested in time. As former HRD minister Kapil Sibal foreboded last week in his tweet, “Worried for our party. Will we wake up only after the horses have bolted from our stables?”
VOICES FOR PILOT
Sad to see my erstwhile colleague, Sachin Pilot too being sidelined and persecuted by Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot. Shows that talent and capability find little credence in INC.
Rajya Sabha MP
For five years Sachin Pilot gave his blood, tears, toil and sweat for the Congress party between 2013-18. The Congress came back from a wretched 21 seats to 100. We just gave him a performance bonus. We are so meritocratic. We are so transparent.
Former national spokesperson, INC.
Sachin Pilot is not just a colleague but my friend. No one can take away the fact that all these years, he has worked with dedication for the party. Sincerely hope that the situation can still be salvaged. Sad it has come to this.
Former minister of state
Another friend leaves the party both Sachin and Jyotirajya were colleagues & good friends unfortunately our party has lost 2 stalwart young leaders with great potential. I don’t believe being ambitious is wrong. They have worked hard through the most difficult times.
Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot are very good friends and their leaving the party is hurting the Congress a lot. The treatment meted out to them by the party, there is a sense of despair among the party workers.
Haryana Cong leader
ATTACK ON PILOT
Where did you want to reach in such a hurry? Whether you wanted to become the chief minister at 43 and prime minister at 45 by joining the BJP.”
Former Rajasthan governor
We heard Sachin Pilot’s statement on not joining the BJP through the media. If you don’t want to go to the BJP, then immediately reject the hospitality of the Haryana BJP government, free our MLAs from the BJP security ring at two hotels. Stop discussions with the BJP.”
The party is intrigued at your actions. You can’t make party a tamasha before the public. I am sure that is not your intention.”
Veteran Congress leader
THE NUMBER GAME
Total Assembly Strength—200
Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)—72
Rashtriya Loktantrik Party(RLP)— 3
Bharatiya Tribal Party(BTP)—2
Rashtriya Lok Dal(RLD)—1
Of these, BTP, CPI(M) and RLD are Congress allies
“Ek chhoti khabar bhi nahin padhi hogi kisine ki (Sachin) Pilot saahab ko Congress pradesh adhyaksh ke pad se hatana chahiye. Hum jaante the ki woh (Sachin Pilot) nikamma hai, nakaara hai, kuch kaam nahin kar raha hai, khali logon ko ladwa raha hai.”
Being Handsome, speaking good English is not enough.
“This is intolerable and condemnable. Those betraying the party will not be able to show their faces.”
Truth can be rattled but not defeated.
Not joining BJP. The propaganda is false. Only to
Self-esteem hurt due to notice of treason.
I am not angry with Ashok Gehlot nor did I demand any special rights or facilities.
Those saying that I am joining the BJP are trying to tarnish my image. I have not said a single word against the party despite provocations and being stripped of posts.
After Rahul Gandhi quit last year as Congress president, Gehlot ji and his friends in AICC ganged up against me. Since then it became a struggle for protecting my self-respect.
CALL FROM WITHIN FOR CONGRESS INTROSPECTION
“Why is Google a successful company? Because it lets talent to become entrepreneurial within the organisation. Lessons to be learnt here.”
“The party would not die if one person leaves. But if everyone leaves who will be there in the party?.”
“I passionately believe that our country needs a genuinely liberal party headed by centrist professionals committed to inclusive politics and respectful of India’s pluralism. All who believe in the founding values of the Republic must work to strengthen INC, not undermine it.”
“I think the Congress must not dissipate, must not scatter. There is a limit to which any leadership can accommodate diversity, ambition etc but it’s a two-way thing, right? If people consider themselves I think we should try to keep the party together.”
Senior Congress leader