RIGHT Foot Forward
How Rajasthan horse-trading in Covid times is politically damaging
The developments in Rajasthan are particularly disturbing, and reveal a frightening callousness of our political class.
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We are living in interesting times indeed. While for the fifth month running, the country is grappling with a pandemic and a hegemonic dragon is breathing down across the border, our politicians are busy battling for the control of a state and settling old scores. Floods in the Northeast and Bihar find fewer column centimetres in newspapers and airtime on TV than the untimely, and of course tragic, death of a film star in Bollywood.
The developments in Rajasthan are particularly disturbing, and reveal a frightening callousness of our political class. And, let us not blame one party or politician for the sorry state of affairs. It reflects a larger and deeper malaise that can be more corrosive for the political system than the coronavirus. But, more on that later.
In Rajasthan, we have the Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot (R) and Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot (L) waging a virtual Dharmyudh.
Rajasthan was one of the states to face the early surge of Covid-19. The story of Bhilwara is well-known and it became a case study on how to contain community spread through ruthless isolation. Its success was replicated in other cities of the state. Along with some other decisive measures, such as temporary closure of borders and ramping up quarantine and hospitalisation facilities by co-opting private hospitals early in the day, Gehlot administration appeared to have done better than its peers. Good enough for Rahul Gandhi to claim credit for it. But, recent trends, with confirmed cases going past the 30,000-mark, show clear signs of slippage.
#CoronaVirusUpdates #Rajasthan Today’s #COVID19 Cases: 886Cumulative Positive: 33220Patients Recovered: 23815Patients Discharged: 22905Active Cases: 8811Migrants Positive: 6975Total Deaths: 594District wise break up:👇 pic.twitter.com/4DhwEEJjdX— PIB in Rajasthan (@PIBJaipur) July 23, 2020
This is not surprising in the least. With the top leaders missing in action, the best self-governed teams are bound to falter if not flounder. Here we have the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister waging a virtual Dharmyudh, as it were, with ministers and legislators held hostage in posh resorts. It is no secret that the bureaucracy across the country has been irredeemably politicised. Rajasthan cannot be an exception. Thus, it would be unrealistic to believe the political flux has left the administration unaffected. This would have ramifications not just in the management of Covid-19, but the entire process of governance down to the district level at a time when the economy itself is on a ventilator.
It is not for me to get into the merits of the showdown between the veteran Ashok Gehlot and his young challenger Sachin Pilot. The questions of legality are also in the domain of the courts and the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who are seized of the matter. But, what bothers an independent observer is the timing of precipitation that reveals the skewed priorities of players both on and off the field.
At the same time, the ‘Magician vs Pilot’ showdown cannot be dismissed as a local skirmish that does not affect the rest of the country. One is already sensing mild reverberations of the Rajasthan turmoil in distant Chhattisgarh. Bhupesh Baghel, the Congress CM of Chhattisgarh, joined the issue by some out-of-turn statements – particularly one gratuitous comment about the family of Sachin Pilot’s wife – the Abdullahs of Kashmir. Taking umbrage, Sachin’s brother-in-law Omar Abdullah threatened legal action against Baghel in a tweet.
I am fed up of the downright malicious and false allegation that what Sachin Pilot is doing is somehow linked to my or my father’s release from detention earlier this year. Enough is enough. Mr @bhupeshbaghel will be hearing from my lawyers. Cc @RahulGandhi @INCIndia @rssurjewala https://t.co/Gojb7vN1V3— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) July 20, 2020
Hence, as many suspect, the drama in Jaipur is, in fact, a Rajasthani puppet show – with strings being controlled by master puppeteers in Delhi. Well-known commentators have written at length on the larger plot being scripted in Delhi, so it does not bear repetition here. What clearly stands to reason is that both Gehlot and Pilot would not have such staying power without the support of other sponsors.
While the internecine wars within the Congress – at multiple levels and between various camps (the old and new guard, dynasts and non-dynasts, brother and sister) have been debated at length – similar attention has not been paid to the internal dynamics of the BJP. The latter could be attributed to the greater discipline and central control in BJP and also the political maturity of Vasundhara Raje Scindia – a key stakeholder who has maintained a studied silence so far.
Again, that is not the main concern of this discussion. What intrigues me is that nagging question of ‘why now?’. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress had upset the ruling BJP by a whisker. Although Kamal Nath had tried to consolidate his position through subsequent defections from the BJP, it was known all along that the BJP can pull the rug anytime if it so chose. Getting Jyotiraditya Scindia on its camp was an added bonus for Modi and Amit Shah. But, in Rajasthan, the numbers were differently stacked. The gap between the two sides was a little too wide to try the Scindia-formula with Sachin Pilot in front. So far Pilot has neither displayed the numerical strength required to dislodge Gehlot nor done anything to inspire the confidence of mass exodus from his rival camp.
It has been reported in sections of the media, that Sachin Pilot had planned to revolt in tandem with Scindia. But, the Covid-19 surge in Rajasthan ahead of Madhya Pradesh forced him to hold back. Then, having waited for four months, what was the urgency now? One possible explanation is that he wished to play his card before Rahul Gandhi’s reinstatement as Congress President, which as per the grapevine should happen by early August.
In such a scenario, one would have expected Congress to try and diffuse the crisis rather than a headlong confrontation. But instead, the emissaries of the Congress President who travelled to Jaipur from Delhi endorsed taking a hardline against the young rebel and his cohorts. It is possible that Ashok Gehlot forced their hands. If there was any chance of retreat and rapprochement that has been effectively quashed by Ashok Gehlot’s latest vituperative outburst against Pilot. Knowing Ashok Gehlot, it was not an impulsive reaction but a calculated move. It is also doubtful if he would have taken such an extreme step without the blessings of his benefactors in Delhi to whom he remains fiercely loyal.
On the other hand, BJP under Modi and Amit Shah is known to stick by a timetable. If turning the tables in Rajasthan was indeed a part of their agenda, they would do it before the Assembly Elections in Bihar and by-elections in Madhya Pradesh. This may also be the reason for Bhupesh Baghel’s premonitions of being next in line. Without applying any value judgment, this would be a masterstroke of BJP as it would throw not just the Congress but the entire opposition in total disarray. Undoubtedly, that would be a lethal blow to Congress cutting off its lifeline — namely, the remaining sources of funding. Any new formation with or without the Gandhis will take time to get its own act together.
However, the gambit on part of the Congress is still fuzzy. Ashok Gehlot may be going out on a limb to protect his political legacy. But what do the Gandhis gain by removing potential challengers like Pilot and Scindia from the equation apart from preventing a non-Gandhi from laying claim to the throne? Gehlot may still have hopes of a second coming either by floating his own regional outfit or claiming a pivotal role in whatever new configuration that may emerge from the ashes. But the dynasty may risk both the monarchy and empire if this last big state slips out their control.
There is a saying in Bengali that a small-time trader of ginger need not lose sleep over the schedule of cargo ships. Normally, ordinary citizens remain indifferent to palace intrigues and chess games of political masters. Like corruption, switching political affiliations is now par for the course in India. The masses have turned indifferent to promiscuity in public life. So, the politicians also have shed inhibitions and are no longer coy about changing political jerseys in the full public gaze, like lounging with strangers in modern five-star spas in place of ancient Hamams.
However, this time there is an unknown variable in the mix – the Covid-19 pandemic. Politicians may be prepared to live with the virus and continue business as usual. But if the pandemic gets worse, the people may not be as forgiving to those who abdicated responsibility after being elected. That will be a huge price to pay, many times more than the crores of rupees that are allegedly being spent to buy and keep horses bolted in luxury stables.