Rajasthan's Game of Thrones: Will peace between Gehlot and Pilot last?
The Congress party would neither want to do away with Gehlot’s astute leadership nor with Pilot’s mass ground appeal.
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“The curtain falls, the players take their bow; And wander off the stage, at least for now”
The phrase seems appropriate now as the month-long stand-off between Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy — Sachin Pilot — was sealed with a stiff handshake by both parties on August 13. But the standoff — claimed to have been started by the Rajasthan Police Special Operations Group (SOG) responding to a complaint by the Chief whip Mahesh Joshi, sending a notice to Sachin Pilot under charges of sedition — actually goes back a long way. The animosity and acrimony did not start with charges. This, in fact, was the last straw.
Rewinding to December 2018, a nationally routed-out Congress, under the leadership of its Pradesh Congress Committee chief Sachin Pilot, had managed to win a comfortable 99 seats in the 200-member house with a magic figure of 101. The support of the BSP made the government sit comfortably. Yet, the top leadership faced a crisis of choosing between the young and dynamic Pilot who was being credited for the win, and the experienced two-time Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot for the top job in the state. A stalemate began with the two leaders refusing to bargain for anything less than the CM’s post. After two days of marathon meetings and intense political drama, the deal was sealed with a picture showcasing the ‘united colours of Rajasthan’. Gehlot was to be the pilot with Sachin as his co-pilot.
After marathon meetings and intense political drama, the deal was sealed with a picture showcasing the ‘united colours of Rajasthan’ in December 2018. (Photo: ANI)
The colours, however, seemed to fade as the two leaders took charge of their responsibilities. As claimed by CM Gehlot, he and his deputy were not on talking terms, an act detrimental for development and governance of the state. Pilot too, on several occasions, hit out at the Gehlot government and its functioning in the last one-and-half years, most starkly at the infant deaths tragedy in Kota. He also claimed that he wasn’t allowed to function independently even in matters concerning his own ministry. Later, it was also revealed that the state’s Finance Ministry under CM Gehlot had not discharged funds for the Panchayati Raj Ministry under Deputy CM Pilot.
The difference between the two leaders was stark, only to worsen on July 11 when Sachin Pilot decided to dig in his heels and camp with 18 other MLAs loyal to him at a hotel in BJP-ruled Haryana. His motive, as he always claimed, was not to topple the government in Rajasthan, but to approach the party high command with grievances. Conspiracy theories began to float thick and fast. Some claimed he would join the BJP in a matter of hours, while others said that BJP leaders talking to and meeting Pilot and his MLAs. Some even seemed convinced with his choice of lawyers to defend his membership to the house. The SOG team were up against the Haryana Police trying to get hold of two MLAs — Vishvendra Singh and Bhanwarlal Sharma — accused of plotting to topple the Gehlot government in an alleged audio recording of a call.
Amidst all this, Pilot firmly maintained he was going nowhere and remained a loyal Congressman — a calculated statement that had given him an edge in the legal battle of fighting the anti-defection law and saving his membership of the house. This month-long stalemate had all the masala one could ask for — an open rebellion, publicly sacking Pilot from his posts as PCC chief and Deputy CM, audiotapes, personal attacks and name-calling, political allegiance of constitutional bodies, court battle. The political drama seemed to have finally concluded with Sachin Pilot’s ghar wapsi.
This brings me back to the quote I began with. How long till we see a sequel to this drama? How long will this peace last? Though the government has managed to win a trust vote on the floor of the house, will we see the trust between the two leaders? While the masks successfully covered the emotional undercurrents when the leaders met for the first time since the rebellion, can the party really broker peace and bring together the hearts and minds of Gehlot and Pilot?
The road ahead doesn’t look easy for either of the leaders. The party and its top leadership — especially Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi — have scored extra points by brokering peace and forming a three-member committee to look into Pilot’s grievances and also fulfilling one of his prime demands of removing Avinash Pande as the General Secretary in charge of the state, but several challenges lie ahead. Among these, the most pressing challenge is to accommodate the rebel MLAs in key positions in the government and organisation.
A cabinet expansion has long been on the cards. In Rajasthan, there can be 30 ministerial posts, out of which nine are vacant, including the recent sacking of Pilot and his two loyalists — Vishvendra Singh and Ramesh Meena. Pilot would want a reasonable number of his loyalists to be given important ministerial berths to make sure he still holds some clout over the government. As for the Gehlot camp, many of whom were ferried to hotels, supported him throughout the 35-day stalemate and were vocal in attacking Pilot and his team, would too want a raise from their present stature.
While the masks successfully covered the emotional undercurrents when the leaders met for the first time since the rebellion, can the party really broker peace and bring together the hearts and minds of Gehlot (L) and Pilot (R)? (Photo: PTI)
As for Pilot, who seems to be on the losing end after having to wash his hands off key posts, enjoys considerable support in the Gujjar community to which he belongs. It forms a considerable chunk of the population and also plays a key role in electoral politics in several regions of Rajasthan — most importantly in eastern Rajasthan. Sachin Pilot has time and again asserted that Rajasthan is and will remain his karmabhoomi, clearly indicating that he doesn’t wish to be given a consolatory post in the party in New Delhi. However, dark clouds loom large over his political future in the state. Will he be made Chief Minister, now that he has no commanding position in the state? The post of the PCC chief gave him enough authority to decide on matters of organisation and ticket distribution. But after his sacking, the control he wielded and his credibility has been reduced manifold. What is primary for Sachin Pilot now is to remain in Rajasthan and win over his lost credibility by working on the ground.
Ashok Gehlot, who seems to have proved his leadership in these trying times, would definitely benefit from Pilot’s induction in New Delhi. Pilot’s absence would give Gehlot a chance to sideline him — a move that would eventually lead to his political significance being completely wiped out from Rajasthan’s political scenario and would make way for a smooth succession of his son Vaibhav Gehlot, who debuted in politics in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If Pilot remains firm in Rajasthan, then it could spell trouble for Gehlot time and again. Pilot will keep a hawk-eye on Gehlot and will continue to have a say in matters pertaining to the organisation and its functioning. Gehlot has previously not been able to win elections for the party, having been routed by Vasundhara Raje in previous assembly elections.
The two leaders continue to take potshots at each other as was seen in the state assembly. Sachin Pilot cryptically suggested that he still remains the strongest warrior of the party in the state. Gehlot too, on the other hand, spoke about his many achievements as a three-time PCC President and Chief Minister. All eyes will now be on the three-member committee and its mitigation efforts. But the party would neither want to do away with Gehlot’s astute leadership nor with Pilot’s mass ground appeal.