The irony of the Congress herding its legislators because of fear of M/s Shah & Poachers in a resort owned by a lieutenant of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have been lost on many. But, this is Rajasthan politics for you. Here, friends are actually hidden foes, and foes are backroom friends. And Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is almost everybody’s frenemy.
Earlier this week, Gehlot ordered all his legislators to revive India’s favourite political drama — rush to the resort. Alleging that the BJP is out to poach its flock ahead of the Rajya Sabha polls, his tour and travel managers immediately arranged transport and accommodation for party legislators for being quarantined at a resort on the Jaipur-Delhi highway. On cue, the chief whip complained to the state’s anti-corruption bureau that horse-traders are out with moneybags. Some of the horses of this purported trade said they had been offered money north of ₹5 crore to vote for the BJP.
Some of this is pure theatrics. But, it has been cued in by the BJP’s antics. In the 200-member assembly, the BJP has the declared support of 75 legislators. Since at least 51 votes (first preference) are required to send a candidate to the Rajya Sabha, the BJP is in a position to win one seat out of the three at stake in this round of polls. But, the BJP has two candidates in the fray, turning a no-contest into a game of shadows.
The Congress has 108 of its legislators and the support of a few more. Rajasthan isn’t Gujarat, Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh where a handful of turncoats can swing it for the BJP. So, the Congress is almost certain of mobilising 102 votes required for sending both its candidates to the upper house just as the BJP is certain to not mobilise the additional 26 required for its second candidate. The scoreline, barring some spectacular moves by Shah, reads 2-1 for the Congress. Yet, Gehlot has given a call for all horses in resorts.
As they ask in every whodunit, cui bono, who benefits? To answer this question, we need to understand the state of the game in Rajasthan, and the mindset of its reigning Kasparov, grandmaster Ashok Gehlot, and his challenger, aspiring grandmaster Sachin Pilot.
Since he was named as chief minister, against the expectations of everyone except his own, Gehlot has been harried by Pilot’s overt and covert moves. Unable to come to terms with the facts that he was denied the top job even after leading the party on the ground as the state chief for almost four years, a sulking Pilot has been impatiently waiting to checkmate ‘Ashok Kasparov’. So far, he has just managed to sulk.
Gehlot is one of India’s wiliest politicians. He is Machiavelli meets Chanakya meets Bhairon Singh Shekhawat of Indian polity, a man who plots and plans moves all the time, even when he is sleeping. His favourite question before every move to himself and his followers is this: Is se message kya jayega (what will this convey)? So, it is quite likely that he is using the BJP this time to plot his own moves to show his strength and deliver several messages— Rajasthan is not Madhya Pradesh; Gehlot is not Kamal Nath, Pilot is not a Scindia; and the future of the Congress is safe only in his hands.
By herding the legislators in a resort, Gehlot has shown he has the backing of not just the Congress legislators, but also of some independent members of the House. On Thursday night, he personally walked in with two members of a regional party, showcasing his strength to everyone who was watching, not just in Jaipur but also at 10 Janpath and 12 Tughlaq Lane. To his rivals both in and outside the BJP, he conveyed that the Congress is safe under his watch.
An interesting aspect of Gehlot’s politics is that he has modelled himself on his arch-rival, the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the doyen of Rajasthan BJP. Gehlot’s evolution is like the Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty relationship, where the rivals study each other so much that they almost become the mirror image of each other.
Gehlot has learnt from Shekhawat the art of having friends in the rival camp — a strategy perfected by making the right noises in public, but being diplomatic when the cameras are off and mics are muted. By being a practitioner of this art, he has managed to have direct lines to people who matter in the BJP, both in Rajasthan and Delhi. So, it won’t be a big surprise if a bit of this drama is being staged with the help of the BJP with the objective of strengthening Gehlot’s hands.
The short point is this: Gehlot, like Mike Myers, is the writer, actor, producer and director of this fresh episode of resort politics. Those who know that Gehlot is the international man of mystery, would understand that he is trying what he tries best—aiming at all his rivals with one shot.