The absence of Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot from Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s delegation that visited Lakhimpur Kheri has triggered speculations on whether, like Amarinder Singh, Gehlot too is on his way out of office.
The delegation led by Rahul that visited families of farmers, allegedly mowed down by the cavalcade of Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son, included Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Gehlot’s counterparts from Punjab and Chhattisgarh – Charanjit Singh Channi and Bhupesh Baghel.
While the defiant and combative posturing by the Gandhi siblings against the BJP and Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath government was obvious fodder for national news, what has sent the political grapevine in Jaipur in a tizzy is Gehlot’s conspicuous absence. Also, unlike the Punjab and Chhattisgarh chief ministers, who announced a ₹50 lakh ex gratia each for families of the victim farmers, Gehlot limited his intervention in the Lakhimpur tragedy to lengthy platitudes on Twitter.
Gehlot’s absence from the party delegation comes at a time when his intra-party rival Sachin Pilot has been having regular meetings with the Gandhi siblings in Delhi. Incidentally, Pilot along with hundreds of his supporters had also left for Lakhimpur Kheri on Wednesday — but couldn’t join the delegation as he was detained by the Uttar Pradesh Police in Moradabad.
“Pilot has been meeting both Rahul and Priyanka, but there is no clarity yet on how the high-command plans to address his concerns. The fact that Rahul left Gehlot out of the Lakhimpur delegation while taking along the other two Congress CMs seems to be a message to him (the Rajasthan chief minister) that he no longer enjoys the same confidence he once did with the high-command,” a Congress functionary told The Federal. The leader, however, added that it would be wrong to assume that because the party removed Amarinder Singh in Punjab, it would do the same to Gehlot. “In Punjab, Amarinder had lost the confidence of a majority of our MLAs, but this is not true for Gehlot. Though Pilot is the obvious face to succeed Gehlot, discussions (between Pilot and the Gandhis) as of now are largely on inducting Pilot’s loyalists in the cabinet and the Pradesh Congress Committee.”
Gehlot and Pilot have been engaged in a bitter turf war in Rajasthan ever since the Congress won the state in 2018. Last August, Pilot marshalled a group of about 20 Congress MLAs loyal to him to Delhi triggering speculation that he could walk out of the party in a bid to topple the Gehlot-led government. Pilot’s mutiny, which came months after Jyotiraditya Scindia helped the BJP topple Kamal Nath’s Congress-led government in MP, however, failed to destabilise Gehlot. While Gehlot and over 90 Congress MLAs and independent legislators supporting the government shuttled between resorts in Jaipur and Jaisalmer for nearly a month, Pilot was sacked as deputy CM and Rajasthan Congress chief. Later, Priyanka Vadra and the late Ahmed Patel pacified Pilot, assuring him that his grievances would be addressed.
However, in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also claimed Patel’s life, and the Congress’ continuing internal turmoil, both nationally and across various state units, there was no visible effort by the party high-command to alleviate Pilot’s concerns, barring appointment of some of his loyalists to various posts in the Rajasthan Congress. The status quo changed in September when Pilot had two meetings with the Gandhis in Delhi within a week. In the same month, when the Gandhis ousted Amarinder Singh as the Punjab chief minister, Pilot’s supporters in Rajasthan felt that the much-awaited rejig in Rajasthan Congress and the Gehlot government was finally on the cards.
Congress sources say a combination of various factors has prevented the Gandhis from effecting a change of guard in Rajasthan despite “definite signs” of them warming up to Pilot. “There is a certain trust deficit that seems to be building with regard to Gehlot. He has been stalling the high-command’s directions to reshuffle the state cabinet and give representation to Pilot’s camp. There have also been complaints over his working style in recent months as he hasn’t been accessible due to recurring health problems,” says a Congress leader who has been involved in the party’s troubleshooting efforts in Rajasthan.
Gehlot’s increasing defiance of their writs has irked the Gandhis, say Congress insiders. “During the assembly elections that happened earlier in the year, the party made him a senior observer for Kerala but barring a handful of meetings, he did nothing… Rahul is an MP from Kerala, and he had thought Gehlot was a good choice because he had done an excellent job as the party’s in-charge for Gujarat during the 2017 polls, but this time he was a huge disappointment,” says a confidante of Rahul Gandhi.
The leader adds that 70-year-old Gehlot’s health has also been an issue lately: “Earlier this year, Gehlot was missing in action for almost three months because he was recovering from COVID. Last month, he had to undergo an angioplasty and was again indisposed for a few weeks. When he recovered, his first public statement was that he will stay in power for 15-20 years, and people who want to feel sad about this can feel sad. It was clearly a swipe at Pilot and was totally unwarranted.”
Gehlot’s loyalists, of course, dismiss all suggestions of him being defiant or the Gandhis being unhappy with his work. They also claim that not much should be read into Gehlot’s absence from Gandhi’s Lakhimpur delegation. “Gehlot is a hardcore organisation man and his loyalty to the high-command cannot be questioned. When the high-command told him to forget Pilot’s rebellion, he welcomed Pilot back with open arms,” says a Rajasthan minister who was among Gehlot’s most vocal supporters during Pilot’s mutiny.
The minister adds, “Gehlot has recently undergone a heart procedure, and that may be why he could not go to Lakhimpur. There may also have been other reasons for our Punjab and Chhattisgarh chief ministers going there – the violence was against farmers, the victims were Sikhs… Punjab has been the epicentre of farmer protests, so it is natural for the Punjab CM to go there and express solidarity. The Chhattisgarh CM is our party’s observer for the UP polls that will happen next year, so he may have gone in that capacity. Gehlot has strongly condemned the violence and the arrest of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. There is no question of the high-command being upset with him. He will complete five years as CM and will lead us to victory again in 2023.”
Gehlot loyalists also point out that interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, on Thursday, appointed Rajasthan health minister Raghu Sharma – once a loyalist of Pilot and now a staunch Gehlot supporter – as the party’s in-charge for Gujarat. There had been some speculation earlier this year that the high-command wanted to appoint Pilot as the party’s in-charge for Gujarat but gave up on the idea after the former deputy chief minister told Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra that he wanted to work for the party in Rajasthan.
Sources say the Gandhis have also been discussing ways of breaking the Rajasthan stalemate with a senior party leader from the state who was once a Gehlot-protégé and another veteran who is a minister in the state cabinet. Though an immediate change of guard in Rajasthan is “unlikely”, considering Gehlot’s continuing popularity among a majority of the party’s MLAs, these leaders told The Federal, that the high-command is keen to give Pilot a greater say in the party’s Rajasthan unit and wants Gehlot to accommodate Pilot’s loyalists in the cabinet “at the earliest”.
Rahul Gandhi’s decision to keep Gehlot away from the Lakhimpur delegation while letting Pilot rally his supporters to the UP town, say these leaders, was a not-so-subtle hint to the Rajasthan CM to fall in line with the high-command’s plan to keep his young rival in good humour or face the indignation that Amarinder Singh had to suffer when he refused to act on the Congress’ administrative agenda for Punjab while also consistently opposing the Gandhis’ on appointing Navjot Sidhu as the state’s party chief. The ball is now in Gehlot’s court.