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Congress crisis in Rajasthan as Ashok Gehlot supporters rally to keep Sachin Pilot at bay

Print edition : Nov 14, 2022 T+T-

Congress crisis in Rajasthan as Ashok Gehlot supporters rally to keep Sachin Pilot at bay

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot before a party meeting, in Jaipur on September 17, 2022.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot before a party meeting, in Jaipur on September 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

The party faces a new internal crisis soon after the launch of its nationwide yatra.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is known to be a seasoned politician. A three-time Chief Minister, he is not known to take impulsive decisions. He is one of the probables for the post of Congress president which means that he enjoys the confidence of the Gandhi family. Yet, trouble seems to be brewing in Rajasthan as the majority of legislators owing allegiance to Gehlot have threatened to resign if anyone other than a Gehlot confidante is appointed as Chief Minister. All this posturing is mainly to keep the ambitions of former PCC president Sachin Pilot at bay.

Pilot, it is understood, enjoys the confidence of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. But Gehlot has the numbers within the Congress Legislature Party (CLP). In the 200-member Assembly, the Congress has 108 MLAs and the BJP 71. Despite the speculation surrounding the fate of the Congress government, there was no sign of a crisis as legislators close to Gehlot were seen enjoying a game of polo at the Polo Grounds in Jaipur. 

It is apparent that Ashok Gehlot wants three things. One, to continue as Rajasthan Chief Minister; two, to be Congress president if he is elected; and three, to ensure that someone close to him is appointed Chief Minister in case he has to quit given the rule of one person, one post. A CLP meeting was called on September 25 evening to decide on his successor, a meeting that even Gehlot did not attend. Two central observers, Ajay Maken and Mallikarjun Kharge, reached Jaipur ostensibly to sense the mood among Congress legislators but returned empty-handed as the CLP meeting did not take place. Instead, a parallel meeting was held by Gehlot’s supporters.

Ajay Maken told reporters that the time and venue for the CLP meeting were decided in consultation with Ashok Gehlot. “We were told by the party president to meet the legislators one on one and give a report to the party president,” he said after meeting senior leader Sonia Gandhi. Some legislators, he said, demanded that a CLP resolution appointing a new Chief Minister be passed after October 19, no one-to-one meeting should be held, and that a Gehlot loyalist be appointed as Chief Minister. Maken said it was unfortunate that the meeting with the legislators could not take place.

The sense that both the observers got was that Gehlot’s supporters were determined that anyone but Sachin Pilot could be considered as the chief minister. The observers will be submitting a written report to party president Sonia Gandhi.

Pilot’s ambitions

Congress leader Sachin Pilot, in Jaipur on September 6, 2022.
Congress leader Sachin Pilot, in Jaipur on September 6, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Sachin Pilot, on the other hand, has been waiting in the wings with the understanding that if ever Gehlot moves to New Delhi, he would be the natural choice for Chief Minister. After all, as PCC chief for five years, he mobilised Congress workers in a number of protests. He also took part credit for the victory of the Congress in 2018. Yet, despite the victory, it took the Central leadership almost a week to decide who would be Chief Minister. Pilot’s supporters took to the streets to demand the post for their leader. 

In 2020, Pilot and his supporters threatened to quit the party after an inquiry was initiated to identify persons who had allegedly attempted to destabilise the government in cahoots with the BJP, a charge the BJP denied. Pilot and some of his confidantes were among those who faced the inquiry. A CLP meeting was held but Pilot and his supporters refused to attend it. They ensconced themselves in a resort in BJP-ruled Haryana, which made things worse for Pilot. That was the ultimate trigger which led to Pilot being divested of the twin posts he held of Deputy Chief Minister and PCC chief. Later, he was placated by the central leadership, which assured him that a solution would be found. But he was not reinstated. Meanwhile, Govind Singh Dotasara, a Gehlot loyalist, was appointed PCC chief.

For the Congress, all this spells trouble apart from casting a shadow on its ambitious five-month-long Bharat Jodo Yatra that was launched in September. Organisational elections are also due in October and questions are now being raised whether Ashok Gehlot will still be considered a serious candidate for the top post.

Opposition holds joint rally

In another development, opposition parties held a joint rally in Fatehabad, Haryana. The initiative was taken by former Chief Minister O.P. Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal to mark. An anti-BJP platform, the rally brought together the top leadership of the NCP, the CPI (M), the JD(U), the RJD and the Shiromani Akali Dal. Some Opposition party leaders sent messages of support while the TMC and the TRS did not attend. The Congress and the AAP also were conspicuous by their absence.

However, making it clear that the Congress could not be kept out of an anti-BJP formation, RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar met Sonia Gandhi and told her that the Congress needed to take the lead in forging opposition unity in order to take on the BJP.

Any further momentum for an anti-BJP front is likely to develop only after the Congress organisational elections are held, although, given the developments in Rajasthan, the election of the party president seems guaranteed to be turbulent.