Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot may have chosen politics over his family’s craft – his father was a local magician in Jodhpur – but has clearly employed well that one trick integral to any jaadugar’s arsenal of parlour tricks; the ability to create elaborate illusions.
Nothing else explains better why the recasting of Gehlot’s council of ministers, on November 21, is widely being dubbed a “balancing act” that would bury factional feuds in Rajasthan’s ruling Congress party and make it battle ready for the assembly polls due in 2023.
Gehlot got 15 new ministerial colleagues on November 21. The recasting of his council of ministers comes some 15 months after Sachin Pilot, Gehlot’s main rival in Rajasthan Congress, raised a banner of revolt and dashed off to Delhi with 18 party legislators triggering rumours of imminent fall of the state government.
Gehlot, however, deftly held on to power with the help of some 88 remaining Congress MLAs, over a dozen independents and legislators poached from the BSP who continued to pledge their fealty to him. Ultimately, Pilot was grounded, losing both the deputy chief minister and state Congress chief’s posts while ministers loyal to him in the Gehlot cabinet were sacked too.
It took the Congress’ central leadership 15 months to persuade Gehlot for a rapprochement and convince Pilot that his future politics will be served better if he remains within the Grand Old Party’s fold. All this while, Gehlot continued to consolidate his position in the Rajasthan Congress, as was evident in the recent bypoll results to the Vallabhnagar and Dhariawad assembly segments where BJP candidates failed to even finish as immediate runner-ups. During these months, the central high command oversaw several rounds of conciliatory meetings and its emissaries hurtled back and forth between Jaipur and Delhi in a bid to convince Gehlot to accommodate Pilot and his loyalists within the state government and party unit.
As Gehlot finally recast his cabinet, only five of Pilot’s loyalists made the cut while the remaining 10 ministerial berths went to Gehlot’s nominees, even if at least three of these 10 may not be strictly branded as loyalists of the chief minister.
Yet, the cabinet formation exercise is being projected as a “balancing act” that has “united the party” and even Pilot has been forced to concede that his grievances have been addressed by the high command and Gehlot.
Much has been commented on how Gehlot failed to induct more legislators from the block of independents and six others from the BSP who had merged with the Congress.
Curiously, these commentaries have overlooked the fact that with two more years to go before Rajasthan elects a new government, the scope for future expansions and rejigs of the cabinet – technically the exclusive prerogative of the chief minister, who continues to be Gehlot and not Pilot – is vast.
Besides, a whole lot of other consolation appointments – advisers to the CM, parliamentary secretaries, heads of various boards and corporations, etc. – can still be made by Gehlot to accommodate those legislators he wishes to award for their loyalty to him, as also others loyal to Pilot who the CM may want to win over.
Pilot’s future role in the Congress remains unclear as of now. He has stayed out of the cabinet, choosing instead to be happy with the return of loyalists Vishvendra Singh and Ramesh Meena to the cabinet and induction of three others – Hemaram Chaudhary, Murarilal Meena and Brijendra Ola – as ministers.
Of course, Congress sources, particularly those close to Pilot, claim that the Gujjar leader and MLA from Tonk may still replace Gehlot as CM ahead of the 2023 assembly polls and lead the party’s next election campaign but that’s a matter that will need to be settled by the high command at a later date.
These Congress sources point to the undeniable fact that despite his popularity and tall political stature across Rajasthan, Gehlot’s ability to score consecutive assembly victories for the Congress are non-existent. The party was routed by the BJP in 2003 and 2013 – it failed to even secure two dozen seats in the 200-member assembly in the latter – after Gehlot finished his chief ministerial stints.
These results were also frequently referred to by Pilot during his interactions with the high command, say sources, when he was lobbying to replace Gehlot. However, the high command – Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (also the principal troubleshooter in the Gehlot-Pilot feud) – has evidently decided to back Gehlot’s claim to the top executive’s chair for now.
The real ‘balancing act’ in the cabinet reshuffle, if any, was in terms of caste representation in the Gehlot government and bringing it up to notch with Rahul Gandhi’s recently acquired penchant for “empowering” traditionally oppressed and deprived castes. As such four Dalits have been inducted into the new cabinet – to amplify the message, the Congress also ensured that its new Dalit face, Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, was in Rajasthan for the swearing-in ceremony even though he continues to face an uphill battle in poll-bound Punjab.
The cabinet also saw the induction of four Jat faces – a community often at loggerheads with the one that Pilot represents (Gujjars) – and also tried to tick another box, of gender empowerment, with the induction of three women ministers.
The Opposition BJP was predictably unimpressed and claimed women were under-represented while there were some signs of disaffection within the Congress too with some MLAs who failed to make the cut claiming that “undeserving” or even “corrupt” legislators were made ministers.
Gehlot’s continuing dominance over the Rajasthan Congress, and Pilot’s limited rehabilitation, can also be gauged from the fact that the party has, for now, refused to replace its current Rajasthan unit chief, Govind Singh Dotasra. Though out of the cabinet now, Dotasra, a staunch Gehlot loyalist, was an unlikely beneficiary of the Gehlot-Pilot feud. A Jat leader and two-term MLA, Dotasra was suddenly elevated as the Rajasthan Congress chief last August after the party sacked Pilot from the post.
Similarly, legislator Raghu Sharma, once a Pilot loyalist but now firmly in the Gehlot camp, has also quit the cabinet but was given a much more important role recently when he was appointed the party’s in-charge of Gujarat, a role that Gehlot had served in during the 2017 Gujarat polls.
Interestingly, Pilot was reportedly being considered for by the high command for the responsibility in Gujarat before he told the Gandhis that he would prefer to work in Rajasthan. Another Gehlot acolyte and now a key confidante of Rahul Gandhi, Harish Chaudhary, too has stepped down from the Rajasthan cabinet but, like Sharma, has the bigger task of ensuring the Congress’ return to power in poll-bound Punjab as the party in-charge of the state.
None of these appointments – those made recently in the party organisation or the recent cabinet revamp – signal any immediate erosion in Gehlot’s standing within the party. The Congress’ ‘jaadugar’ from Jodhpur has, however, succeeded in creating the illusion of giving in to his rival and Pilot, who clearly would be able to see through this mirage, has been left with no option but to express happiness and satisfaction at the ‘change’.
It is true that Gehlot has the ominous task ahead of placating those loyalists who stood behind him during Pilot’s rebellion last August but failed to be rewarded with ministerial berths, he still has the job that he covets. As for Pilot, the wait for a just reward for loyalty to the party and refusal to the BJP’s open invite for a saffron waltz continues for now.