On July 17, the All India Congress Committee suspended two rebel legislators, both confidantes of ousted Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, thereby intensifying the crisis within the State unit.
Pilot and 18 Members of the Legislative Assembly who support him also petitioned the Rajasthan High Court challenging a showcause notice issued by the Speaker of the Assembly.
On July 17, the Congress suspended Vishwendra Singh and Bhanwar Lal Sharma from primary membership of the party following allegations that they were involved in a conspiracy to topple the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan.
The suspension followed the leak of audio clips with conversations allegedly between Bhanwar Lal Sharma, Sanjay Jain, an intermediary suspected to be a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary, and Union Minister of Jal Shakti Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, which hinted at a conspiracy to bring down the government.
Congress party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala told the media in Jaipur that the two MLAs would remain suspended until the veracity of the clips was ascertained. Pilot has been asked to clarify about the claims pertaining to a “list of 30 MLAs” that was refereed to in the alleged conversation.
The BJP State unit chief, Satish Poonia, has rubbished the clips and accused the Chief Minister’s Office of engaging in “character assassination”.
On July 16, Sachin Pilot along with the 18 MLAs moved the Rajasthan High Court challenging the Speaker’s show-cause notice, which accused him and his supporters of anti-party activities and warned them of disqualification under relevant statutes.
The Speaker issued the notice after Pilot and his supporters did not attend two Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meetings that were convened to discuss attempts to destabilise the government. The deadline for replying to the notice was July 17.
The notice for the second CLP meeting on July 13 mentioned that failure to attend it “would be deemed to be clear and categorical evidence” of their dissociation “from the Indian National Congress and its ideology and will invite action as per Statute and the Constitution”.
However, the Congress so far has taken a lenient view of Pilot’s actions. The leadership made repeated overtures to him to leave the hotel in Haryana where he and his supporters were staying.
The 19 MLAs have not yet replied to the show-cause notice. The hearing in the court will resume on July 20. The court is likely to take a decision on the show-cause notice on July 21.
In the court, the Pilot camp is represented by a team of top lawyers known for their proximity to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime. Pilot’s advocates have argued that acts outside the House were not a violation of the anti-defection law.
The rebels argued that they had not quit the party or voted against it or defected to another party; in fact, they claimed that they continued to be members of the Congress party. They had also not withdrawn support to the government. In short, they said they had not engaged in any anti-party activity and had merely exercised their dissent with Gehlot’s leadership. Disqualification under Paragraph 2 (a) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution (the anti-defection law) was, therefore, questionable, according to them.
On July 15 Gehlot had even alleged that Pilot was part of a “deal” to bring down his government and that he had taken money to do so. Prior to the latest round of Rajya Sabha elections, the Congress had alleged that there was an attempt by the BJP to buy its legislators. Yet, both the candidates put up by the party—K.C. Venugopal and Neeraj Dangi—were elected comfortably. The BJP put up two candidates, despite not having the numbers, and one of them was elected.
Meanwhile, Rajasthan Loktantrik Party president Hanuman Beniwal tweeted that he had evidence that former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia had convinced Congress legislators from Sikar to back Ashok Gehlot. Sources told Frontline that the Congress legislators in the Shekhawati belt who were with the Pilot faction were not comfortable with the idea of joining the BJP, unlike the legislators from eastern Rajasthan.