With hunger strike against Gehlot govt, Pilot flies Congress into another storm

Party insiders say it is unlikely the Congress high command will effect a change of guard just ahead of the Assembly elections, especially after the party has officially said that it would seek a renewed mandate on the strength of the performance of the Gehlot government

Congress, Sachin Pilot's hunger strike, Ashok Gehlot
Sachin Pilot has decided to go ahead with his day-long fast even though the Congress has called it an anti-party activity | File Photo: PTI

Last week, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot earned plaudits for making Rajasthan the first Indian state to accord statutory guarantee to the Right to Health. Yet, before Gehlot could truly savour all the applause coming his way, his party, the Congress, was hit by a pulsating migraine that the ₹25 lakh safety net of his populist health scheme offers no protection against.

Tonk MLA Sachin Pilot, Gehlot’s leader of opposition within the Congress, is back on the warpath. Three months after he addressed a series of Kisan Sammelans across Rajasthan during which he repeatedly took potshots at the chief minister on various issues, Pilot will now be on a daylong hunger strike on Tuesday (on April 11) against his party’s government.

Anti-party activity, warns Congress

Predictably, the Congress is livid. In a statement issued at 10.55 pm on Monday (April 10), Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, the Congress’s in-charge of Rajasthan, dubbed Pilot’s protest as an “anti-party activity”. Party sources told The Federal that Randhawa’s statement came after his efforts, and those of other emissaries, to mollify Pilot and convince him to call off the fast were met with a “blunt rejection”.

Though Randhawa did hail Pilot as an “indisputable asset to the Congress” and implored the 45 year old to come for a “calm dialogue”, sources said both sides were now “past the stage of dialogue”. A senior leader said the Congress high command had “had enough of Pilot’s tantrums” and that the Tonk MLA was “baiting the party to act against him and make him a martyr before the Rajasthan polls”.

Also read: Sachin Pilot firm on fast against graft; will amount to anti-party activity, warns Congress

Pilot, who was sacked as deputy chief minister in July 2020 for leading a failed coup and has since been frequently dubbed by Gehlot as a gaddar (traitor) in cahoots with the BJP, has chosen the justification for his latest ‘revolt’ carefully. Pilot says he repeatedly requested the chief minister for coming good on the Congress’s 2018 poll promise of investigating alleged acts of corruption during the previous Vasundhara Raje-led BJP regime but to no avail.

Hence, his protest; even though Randhawa maintained that in the five months since he was given charge of the party’s Rajasthan desk Pilot had “never discussed this issue with me”.

 Rough phase for Congress

Politically, Pilot’s strike against Gehlot couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Congress. The party is already besieged by the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Lok Sabha following his conviction in a criminal defamation case. It’s tirade against the Modi regime on the Adani issue is yet to trigger public consciousness against the BJP.

With the exit of former Andhra chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy, Anil K. Antony, son of veteran Congress leader AK Antony and CR Kesavan, great-grandson of the legendary C. Rajagopalachari, there has been a fresh wave of attrition from the Congress to the BJP. All this at a time when the party is gearing up for a scorching electoral contest in Karnataka and when assembly polls in MP, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Pilot’s home turf of Rajasthan are just seven months away.

Yet, the political savvy in Pilot’s latest move cannot be denied. Even if it’s obvious that his strike is driven by an insatiate hunger for being made chief minister, it would be difficult for the 71-yearold Gehlot to accuse his 45-year-old bête noire of conspiring with the BJP when Pilot’s demand is to probe the BJP’s Rajasthan leadership. Moreover, Pilot’s broadside on the issue of the BJP’s alleged corruption coincides with Rahul’s pitched battle against the Prime Minister on the issue of alleged financial impropriety of the Gautam Adani Group.

Tough balancing job for Congress

Besides, having learnt hard lessons from his 2020 misadventure, when he led over 20 party MLAs to openly revolt against Gehlot and was de-rostered both as deputy chief minister and PCC chief, sources say Pilot has told his supporters within the Congress Legislature Party to stay away from his hunger strike. Pilot has maintained that the hunger strike is merely his way of reminding Gehlot that the Congress, as a party, had promised the electorate ahead of the 2018 assembly polls that if voted to power, it would crackdown on the various “mafia” that looted Rajasthan during the Vasundhara Raje regime.

Also read: Rajasthan: Sachin Pilot to go ahead with fast

The Congress, thus, finds itself confronted with a difficult balancing act. It has to keep faith with Gehlot, the only chief minister in recent years with the distinction of saving a Congress government from being toppled by defections. Gehlot is also the senior-most OBC face of the Congress and at a time when the BJP is aggressively wooing the backward classes, asking one of its two OBC chief ministers – the other being Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh who has also been fending off a competing claim to the chief minister’s chair by veteran MLA TS Singh Deo – to step down would make for very poor optics.

More importantly, over the past four months, Rahul and the Congress’s central leadership have lavished praise on the Gehlot government’s pro-people schemes – the Chiranjeevi Yojana, Urban Employment Guarantee and now the Right to Health. So, what can possibly justify benching the chief minister seven months before elections?

 Gehlot in no mood to give up CM’s seat

The Congress high command also knows that Gehlot, though a self-confessed loyalist of the party and the Gandhi family, will, under no circumstances, cede the chief minister’s chair to Pilot. Gehlot has already shown a teaser of this last September when then party president Sonia Gandhi dispatched current party chief Mallikarjun Kharge, along with Ajay Maken, to Jaipur ostensibly to secure a transition of power from Gehlot to Pilot. Though Gehlot was tipped to get the Congress presidency in the bargain, he chose his hot seat in Jaipur.

But Gehlot has firmed up his flanks since that one misstep of September last year. He is amongst the first leaders to be summoned by the Congress’s central leadership in Delhi whenever a member of the Gandhi family is “targeted” by the BJP regime. Though a section of party leaders maintain that the Gandhi family, particularly Rahul and Priyanka, still wish to see Pilot anointed chief minister before the Rajasthan polls, they also concede that Gehlot, the shrewd politician that he is, has made it virtually impossible for such a change of guard to take place.

‘No change of guard anytime soon’

Many in the Congress claim that the statement issued by Jairam Ramesh, the party’s communication chief, after Pilot announced his hunger strike, was an “unambiguous endorsement” of the leadership’s decision to continue with Gehlot as chief minister till the assembly polls. Ramesh had applauded the Gehlot government for implementing “a large number of schemes and… new initiatives that have impacted the people profoundly” and added, “later in the year, the Congress will seek a renewed mandate from the people on the strength of these landmark achievements and the collective efforts of our organisation”.

Also read: Rajasthan: Pilot targets Gehlot again; asks why no action against Raje in ‘corruption cases’

A party leader close to both Kharge and Rahul told The Federal, “I think the statement is very clear. How can you expect a change of guard after the party has officially said that it would seek a renewed mandate on the strength of the performance of the Gehlot government?”

The leader recalled how the Congress had suffered disastrous electoral consequences in Punjab last year after replacing chief minister Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Channi six months before the polls. The party wouldn’t want a repeat of that misadventure in Rajasthan, a state that already has a three-decade old tradition of voting out incumbent governments every five years. Though Gehlot has had the ignominy of leading the Congress to two such routs following his previous stints as chief minister – in 2003 and 2013 – he has, party sources said, convinced the high command that “our best chance to break this cyclical voting pattern is with him leading the campaign”.

What’s next for Pilot?

Does this suggest that the Congress has finally decided to let Pilot choose his own path – even if it’s one that leads out of the party?

A member of the Congress Steering Committee who belongs to Rajasthan said this was “for Pilot to decide but I think we have left him with no choice”.

The steering committee member added, “if Pilot stays, he will face more humiliation from Gehlot and still have no guarantee of becoming chief minister post the election even if we miraculously return to power… the other option is for Pilot to quit and join the BJP, which looks unlikely given his current attack at the previous Vasundhara government, or form his own party but that won’t be a cakewalk because historically, no third party has managed to break the dominance of the BJP and Congress in Rajasthan”.

Pilot’s presence at the birthday celebrations of Hanuman Beniwal, chief of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party and Lok Sabha MP from Rajasthan’s Nagaur, has already set tongues wagging. As AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and Bhagwant Mann were also present at Beniwal’s birthday party, Pilot’s attendance instantly triggered rumours of a Third Front taking shape.

Also read: Gehlot-Pilot tussle pushing Rajasthan backwards: Vasundhara Raje

Theoretically, this may be a safe bet for Pilot if he could simultaneously build a formidable Jat-Gujjar caste alliance and an anti-corruption, pro-farmer poll pitch. Beniwal, a Jat leader, has said he would welcome an alliance with Pilot, a Gujjar, if the latter forms his own party.

The Jats and Gujjars collectively form nearly 25 per cent of Rajasthan’s electorate and Pilot, for some time now, has been courting the Jat community. His Kisan Sammelans were carefully planned in Jat-dominated districts while his failed rebellion against Gehlot in 2020 included Congress’s influential Jat MLAs such as Bharatpur royal Vishvendra Singh, Hemaram Chaudhary, Mukesh Bhakar, Birjendra Ola and Ramniwas Gawadiya.

Incidentally, the tallest Jat leader in Rajasthan remains Vasundhara Raje, by virtue of her short-lived marriage to Hemant Singh, scion of the Dholpur royal family. However, given that Modi has practically sidelined her in the party, Vasundhara’s ability (or willingness) to swing the Jat votes to the BJP in the coming polls remains questionable.

As son of Congress stalwart, the late Rajesh Pilot, who fashioned himself as a votary of farmer rights, Pilot also has the pedigree for claiming to represent farmer interests. A tie up with AAP, a party born out of the India Against Corruption Movement – though the party’s leading lights, including Arvind Kejriwal and the jailed Manish Sisodia and Satyender Jain, are currently embroiled in a slew of corruption cases themselves – coupled with a strong pitch for investigating alleged corruption under both Vasundhara and Gehlot governments, could give Pilot a saleable anti-graft poll pitch.

Whether Pilot decides to actually walk down this road is still largely speculative. Pilot’s hunger strike may or may not give definite indications of his ultimate destination. It would be equally interesting to see if Rahul, Priyanka Gandhi or Kharge decide to humour Pilot despite these recurring transgressions.

More importantly, will Gehlot, despite his contempt for the Tonk MLA, choose to ignore this fresh diatribe or lash out with invectives at his arch rival that may allow Pilot to further build his political brand. Either way, this desert storm has just begun to gather momentum and caught in its swirling vortex, yet again, is the Congress Party.