An uneasy truce worked out by Congress central leadership in Rajasthan

Published : August 13, 2020 17:28 IST

Congress leader Sachin Pilot, along with party MLAs, addressing a press conference at his residence in Jaipur on August 11. Photo: PTI

Following the intervention of the Congress’ central leadership, the more-than-a-month-long political tussle between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his former Deputy, Sachin Pilot, in Rajasthan appears to be heading towards a settlement. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi has constituted a three-member committee to hear “all sides”. K.C. Venugopal, Congress general secretary (Organisation), also announced that Pilot would work in the “interests of the party”. There is little clarity about Pilot’s organisational role now after he was removed as Pradesh Congress Committee president and as Deputy Chief Minister following his rebellion. The AICC had removed him from the posts after he abstained from two Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meetings. Two Ministers close to him were also dropped from the Cabinet.

The contours of the truce between the warring factions will unfold in the coming days. Gehlot had accused Pilot and 18 other legislators of being in league with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to topple the government.

Things took a turn for the worse with the two factions taking the matter to court as well, filing petitions challenging the Speaker’s right to issue disqualification notices to the rebel MLAs and the constitutionality of the anti-defection law itself. The Speaker had issued disqualification notice under the anti-defection law (Tenth Schedule of the Constitution) to the rebel MLAs after they stayed away from two CLP meetings called by the party whip on July 13 and 14 to discuss an alleged conspiracy to topple the government.

Gehlot, meanwhile, pressed for convening an Assembly session where, he claimed, he would prove his majority. The Rajasthan Governor Kalraj Mishra raising questions on procedural issues for the finalisation of a date for the Assembly session itself threatened to snowball into a controversy involving the powers of the Governor. Finally, it was decided that the Assembly session would be held on August 14.

On August 10, four days before the Assembly session, Sachin Pilot met former party president Rahul Gandhi, apparently to air his grievances. He also met Rahul’s sister and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. It had become clear with every passing day that Pilot would not be able to muster support other than he already had. Besides, some of the 18 MLAs who backed him, as Frontline had reported, were uneasy about any tie-up with the BJP. As such, time was running out for Pilot given the crucial Assembly session which would have decided both his fate and that of the Congress government in the State.

On his part Pilot consistently denied having any truck with the BJP. In an interview to a television channel following the truce, he let out perhaps inadvertently that he did not want to lose his seat in the Assembly, which he would have had to forfeit had he continued with his rebellion.

Gehlot also was not entirely confident of holding on to the 80-odd legislators on his side. His uneasiness was perhaps compounded by the party central leadership’s inert role in the episode.

Addressing the media, Pilot spoke about his deep involvement with the Congress and how he had helped the party come to power in Rajasthan. In a climbdown from his stance a month ago, where he had declared the Congress government was in a minority and brought into the open the conflict between him and Gehlot, he abstained from attacking the Chief Minister. However, in several interviews, he said that he was “hurt” over the personal barbs hurled at him and that at no time had he contemplated leaving the Congress or “hankered” after any “post”. His main objective, he said, was to highlight the grievances many legislators had about the functioning of the government and the steps he had taken were in the interests of the people of Rajasthan.

It is not entirely true that Pilot did not aspire to be Chief Minister after the Congress received the people’s mandate in the 2018 Assembly election. As party president, he had steered the party and enthused the young voters. The Gujjar community, too, which had favoured the BJP in the past few elections, was less hostile to the Congress as Pilot was projected as a probable candidate for Chief Minister. After it became clear that it would be Gehlot who would head the government, supporters from the Gujjar community even went on a protest for almost a fortnight. A truce was finally worked out and Pilot had to be satisfied with being Deputy Chief Minister. While the arrangement seemed to work, there was simmering discontent within.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, when the Congress drew a blank in the State, it was clear that the rift between Gehlot and Pilot had reached serious proportions. That the Congress was vertically divided was a matter of discussion everywhere, but the central leadership of the party did little to address it. The events of July 2020, in that sense, were waiting to happen.