The action within the Rajasthan Congress has started resembling Quentin Tarrantino’s cult classic Reservoir Dogs.
In that film, members of a gang turn against each other after a failed heist. All of them suspect one of them is a snitch and blame the failure on his betrayal. Within a few hours, after heated arguments that turn violent, they kill each other one by one.
In Rajasthan, members of the Congress have turned against each other after the party’s 0-25 loss in the recent elections. Blaming each other for the failure, they have started an ugly war within the party.
One minister, considered close to chief minister Ashok Gehlot, has reportedly resigned and then become incommunicado. Two ministers, considered close to state party chief Sachin Pilot, are demanding accountability be fixed. In statement after statement, some attributed to Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Gehlot is being savaged for “focusing too much attention” on his son Vaibhav, who lost from Jodhpur, the CM’s home turf, by a huge margin.
The bloodbath in the Congress house is the result of a rivalry that has been brewing in the state for the past four years. To use Arundhati Roy’s idiom from the “God of Small Things,” history’s twisted chicken have come home to settle old scores.
In Rajasthan, there is a phrase for functional anarchy under a weak leader, it is called ‘Popa Bai ka raj.’ The symptoms of this type of raj (reign) is the leader’s inability to impose his imprimatur on the party, get rid of darbaris, address raging ambition, contain infighting, leave personal rivalries smouldering and watch the mayhem helplessly. This pitiable anarchy is currently on display in Rajasthan as an exemplar of all that is wrong with Rahul’s Congress.
The immediate trigger for resumption of the war and cessation of cease fire between Gehlot and Pilot, both colleagues by the day but bitter rivals by the night, is the reported move –later changed– to shift Gehlot to Delhi as Congress working president. Past week, just before Rahul announced his decision to quit the top post during the Congress Working Committee post mortem of the results, it was hinted in party circles that Gehlot would be the stop-gap chief.
Initially, the idea thrilled Pilot’s supporters who have been dreaming of seeing their leader as Rajasthan CM for four years. In 2013, when the Congress was routed in Assembly polls, Pilot took charge of the Congress and was credited for the turnaround in 2018. But, the top post went to Gehlot.
Enthused by speculation about Gehlot’s possible transfer to Delhi, Pilot’s supporters assumed their leader would be the natural replacement. But, two factors ended their euphoria. One, the old guard in the Congress didn’t like the idea of Gehlot being their boss. Wary of Gehlot’s backroom manoeuvres—he is blamed for marginalisation of loyalists like Janardhan Dwivedi and Motilal Vohra when he was general secretary (organisation)— they lobbied for Rahul’s continuation. Two, instead of Pilot, the Gehlot lobby put forward the name of a Brahmin legislator for the CM’s post.
Since then, the rivalry is playing out in public. To checkmate Pilot, the Gehlot camp is suggesting turmoil within the party that the BJP may take advantage of. The resignation drama staged by Lalchand Kataria, the minister who quit on social media and then went underground, is part of Gehlot camp’s strategy to keep the high command on tenterhooks. The Pilot camp, believing that it’s now or never, is underlining Gehlot’s failure as a leader and his fatal obsession with getting his son elected from Jodhpur.
To think Gehlot could have changed the outcome in Rajasthan if he had campaigned more is too simplistic. Gehlot isn’t a mass leader who can energise the cadre with his oratory, he is just a backroom strategist. His campaign on the ground would have made no difference to the result, especially when the difference in the BJP and Congress votes in most places was in excess of 3,00,000.
Pilot’s presence didn’t make any difference either. In his own constituency Tonk, where Muslims are in large numbers, the Congress candidate trailed by nearly one lakh votes. Across the state, there was also a clear shift of Gurjars—Pilot is one of them—towards the BJP.
Much as Pilot is eager to be the next CM, a section of the Congress doesn’t trust him. In December 2018, when a tussle was on between him and Gehlot for the CM’s job, some of Pilot’s statements and actions had suggested to party leaders that he puts his own ambition above everything else. This image of an impatient man jockeying for power undermined Pilot’s chances.
The BJP’s clean sweep has opened up the leadership question again in the state. Fired by individual insecurities, rivalries and ambitions, different factions have started shooting down each other. The party, to carry forward the Tarrantino analogy, is going to reservoir dogs.