Can Gandhis replace Gehlot with Pilot without replaying Punjab in Rajasthan?
Among the several reasons that seemingly pivoted Ashok Gehlot as a likely candidate for the October 17 Congress presidential poll was the political need of the Gandhi family to make way for his intra-party rival Sachin Pilot’s ascension as the Rajasthan Chief Minister. With Gehlot expected to file his nomination, on Monday (September 26), it now remains to be seen whether the script that the Gandhis had in mind for effecting a seamless transition of power in Jaipur will actually play out as intended.
Gehlot’s resistance to leave CM post
The Federal had reported on September 11 that Gehlot was reluctant to give up his chief ministerial seat for Pilot and wanted to either continue leading the Congress’s Rajasthan government till the assembly polls due in the state at the end of 2023 or make way for a colleague loyal to him. On September 21, as he arrived in Delhi to meet interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to discuss the presidential polls, Gehlot made no attempt to hide his desire of continuing as Rajasthan chief minister should he indeed enter and win the party’s presidential contest against his likely challenger – three-term Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor.
“Posts are not important to me but fulfilling responsibilities given to me is… Today I am the chief minister and I am fulfilling that responsibility and I will keep fulfilling it,” Gehlot told reporters in Delhi even as he asserted that he would try, yet again, to convince Rahul Gandhi to take over the Congress presidency.
In a statement that would not have exactly pleased the Congress high command, Gehlot also made light of the ‘one man, one post’ rule that his party had promised to strive for after its Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir at Udaipur this May. Although asserting that he did not hanker for posts, Gehlot said the ‘one man, one post’ rule is meant to apply only for nominated positions within the Congress organisation and not elected ones and so, a person can hold even three posts if he was elected to them. Gehlot’s liberal interpretation of the intra-party rule met with a near immediate rebuttal from party veteran Digvijaya Singh who said Gehlot will have to “obviously” step down as Rajasthan chief minister once elected as the party chief.
Will Pilot land his dream job?
Gehlot is expected to reach Kochi late Wednesday evening to meet Rahul, who is currently on the 14th day of the Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra and will be walking towards Karukutty in Ernakulam district on Thursday. Pilot, who had skipped a meeting of Rajasthan Congress MLAs called by Gehlot on Tuesday (September 20) night, had also joined Rahul on the Yatra earlier on Wednesday. It is unclear though whether Rahul will call Gehlot and Pilot together for a discussion on the implications that the Rajasthan chief minister’s likely elevation as Congress chief would have on the party’s internal power dynamics in the western state.
The 45-year-old Pilot, who had led an unsuccessful coup against Gehlot two years ago and lost his posts of deputy chief minister and Rajasthan Congress chief in the process, has been awaiting a ‘suitable reward’ by the Gandhis for not deserting the party like former Rahul-aides Jyotiraditya Scindia, RPN Singh and Jitin Prasada. A few months back, Rahul had publicly applauded Pilot’s “patience”.
Though Pilot has been cautious in reacting to queries on whether he would replace Gehlot as chief minister after October 17, it is no secret that he sees himself as the rightful successor to his bête noir in Jaipur. “Appointing the chief minister is the prerogative of the leadership, our job is to strengthen the party and ensure that the Congress wins Rajasthan next year,” has been Pilot’s standard response to all queries on the likelihood of him being made chief minister if Gehlot is elevated as Congress president.
Whether Pilot indeed gets his dream job in Jaipur or continues to be on ‘flight mode’ is a question that will only be answered next month, say party sources, though he is, for all practical purposes, the frontrunner to replace Gehlot as CM. It is, however, important to understand why the Gandhis and a significant section of the party, both at the central level and in Rajasthan, want the 45-year-old to take the reins of the Congress government from Gehlot.
‘Cong faces rout with Gehlot at helm’
Gehlot’s critics within the Congress claim that while he may have proved himself as a savvy organisation man, experienced administrator and shrewd troubleshooter in times of crisis, the Rajasthan chief minister has never succeeded in leading his party to a consecutive assembly poll victory in his home state. Though it is true that Rajasthan has not returned an incumbent government to power for a second consecutive term since 1993, Gehlot’s rivals argue that the party’s worst electoral performances have been registered each time it went into polls following Gehlot’s chief ministerial tenure.
In the 2003 assembly polls, held after Gehlot’s first stint as Rajasthan chief minister, the Congress had secured 56 seats in the 200-member assembly against the 120 seats won by the BJP, led by Vasundhara Raje. For the Congress, this was a loss of 97 seats against its 1998 winning tally of 153 seats; the BJP had won 33 seats. Gehlot had returned as chief minister in 2008 with the Congress emerging as the single-largest party with 96 seats and securing the support of over a dozen independent and BSP legislators while the BJP was reduced to 78 seats in the assembly.
Five years later, with Gehlot completing his second stint as chief minister and leading his party in the polls, the Congress suffered its worst electoral rout in the state in 2013 when it was reduced to just 21 seats against the BJP’s staggering majority of 163 seats.
Gehlot’s detractors, including Pilot, have been warning the Congress high command that if he continues to be the chief minister till the assembly polls due next year, the party will face a rout similar to the one it registered in 2013.
‘Inflated stories of success’
There is another element to Gehlot’s chequered success in Rajasthan’s electoral politics that often goes unnoticed, but is important to understand why several leaders are uneasy at the prospect of the 71-year-old leading the Congress’s assembly poll campaign.
In 1998, when Gehlot first became the chief minister, it was widely acknowledged that the Congress won because of the leadership of the late Parasram Maderna and the massive mobilization of electorally formidable Jats by him for the Congress. Maderna, a nine-term MLA was later elected as Rajasthan Assembly Speaker in early 1999 and served in that capacity till 2003. Gehlot, a five-term Lok Sabha MP at the time, had not contested the 1998 assembly election but was made chief minister apparently because he had the blessings of Sonia Gandhi, who had become Congress president earlier that year.
The Congress lost the 2003 elections in which Gehlot led the campaign but in 2008 it returned to power when CP Joshi, a Gehlot prodigy who, at the time, was leading his own faction and was seen as Gehlot’s rival, was leading the campaign. Incidentally, Joshi lost his own seat by one vote. Congress insiders claim several of Gehlot’s loyalists were denied tickets in 2008, but he backed them to contest as independents and many of them won. These independents later backed Gehlot and he returned as chief minister. Five years later, when Gehlot was again leading the party’s campaign in the 2013 polls, the Congress lost.
Then in 2018, with Sachin Pilot leading the Congress as its state unit chief, the party returned to power with 100 seats. Rahul, then the party president, backed Gehlot for chief ministership as a number of his loyalists had won as party MLAs as well as independents, whose support was crucial for the government’s survival. Pilot had to contend with being Gehlot’s deputy.
A senior Rajasthan Congress leader who has been a frequent mediator to both the pro and anti Gehlot factions of the party told The Federal that there is “no doubt that Gehlot is a wily politician who knows how to checkmate his rivals and also run a government as well as the party organisation effectively but stories about his electoral success rate are highly exaggerated… this is not because he lacks mass support but perhaps because, unlike Vasundhara Raje or the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat or even Pilot, he does not command the support of any formidable caste group. Raje has had the Rajputs and Jats supporting her while the BJP has its own loyal vote base, Pilot too has some command over the Gujjar vote bank and an appeal among younger voters but Gehlot can’t boast of such consolidation and the Congress’s own vote base is not as unwavering as that of the BJP to assure him victory.”
Does a Punjab fate await Rajasthan?
The Congress high command, sources say, had factored in these ground realities when it proposed the party’s leadership role to Gehlot. Rahul and Priyanka, it is learnt, had promised Pilot the chief ministerial chair when he had decided to end his rebellion against Gehlot two years ago but the Tonk MLA was told that the throne would be his only closer to the Rajasthan assembly polls. Those close to Pilot claim that he wanted the Gandhis to elevate him to the chief minister’s chair at least a year before the polls so that he could “work hard to neutralise any anti-incumbency against the Gehlot administration” and also have time to rebuild his team that had grown weary due to four years of Gehlot’s domination over the Congress organisation in Rajasthan.
The Congress’s gambit of replacing Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Channi just six months ahead of the Punjab assembly polls to beat anti-incumbency had yielded disastrous results earlier this year. Presumably, the Gandhis had learnt some lessons from the Punjab misadventure and did not want a repeat in Rajasthan.
However, with Gehlot now acting truant on the question of relinquishing his hot seat in Jaipur, the Gandhis will need to work quickly to avert another crisis. Party leaders in Rajasthan have already been uneasy about the ramifications that Gehlot’s Delhi departure could have for the politics of his home state.
“Even if the Gandhis force him to accept Pilot as the chief minister, it is difficult to imagine Gehlot, as Congress president, giving Pilot a free hand. As Congress president, he will wield much more influence in candidate selection and finalising poll strategy even if the Gandhis play peacemakers between him and Pilot. I really don’t see this arrangement working to our advantage in Rajasthan and one can only hope we don’t go the Punjab way,” a minister in the Gehlot cabinet told The Federal.