The rift in the Rajasthan Congress, which had surfaced unmistakably in 2020 and made itself felt again last year, is out in the open once again. Former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot observed a one-day fast on April 11 against his own government, having declared his intention to do so at a press conference two days earlier on April 9. His protest was against his government’s failure to take action on corruption charges against BJP leaders when that party was in power from 2013 to 2018 under the chief ministership of Vasundhara Raje Scindia.
At the press conference, he spoke of how he and other leaders of the Congress party had campaigned against the BJP and had resolved to take action against its leaders for their acts of omission and commission if the Congress was voted to power. But the government’s inaction had disappointed him. After the fast he told the media that he had repeatedly written to Gehlot to take action but received no reply.
Interacting with reporters in Jaipur on April 25, Gehlot appealed to the media to stick to facts and not make Congress leaders fight with each other, adding that the party would go to the people in the Assembly election in December on the basis of its work. He was quite clearly referring to media reports indicating a rift in the state unit of the party.
Gehlot is not happy with the way Pilot, an elected legislator (from Tonk), has gone public with his grievances. But Pilot does not see himself as having done anything out of the party rule book. He said that while the BJP-run Central government was using its agencies against Congress leaders, the Rajasthan government was highly reluctant to do the same thing against the BJP. These issues ought to be discussed in the public domain because the Congress made certain promises in 2018 and the people have a right to know, he said.
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Notwithstanding Pilot’s public flouting of party discipline, the Congress, curiously, does not seem to be contemplating any disciplinary action against him. Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, MLA from Punjab and in charge of the party in Rajasthan, has not said much about Pilot’s action apart from pointing out that it was wrong to sit on a fast and that issues could be resolved within the party. It is learnt that he met Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge on the matter. In what is being seen as a message that the Congress central command is in no mood to patronise Pilot’s campaign, the party’s communications in charge and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh came out with praise for Gehlot over the Rajasthan government’s welfare schemes.
Pilot himself has been demanding action against MLAs who held a parallel Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meeting when organisational elections were to be conducted in September last year and Gehlot was a frontrunner for the top post. Pilot’s detractors in the party claim that he has hinted at an understanding between Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Gehlot, but Pilot denies this. The rift is clear, but the party’s focus is on the Karnataka election and nothing much is expected to happen before May 10.
Hanuman Beniwal, Member of Parliament from Nagaur and founder president of the Rajasthan Loktantrik Party (RLP), has also hinted at a collusion between Gehlot and Scindia. Beniwal, who was formerly with the BJP, has been critical of Scindia, but observers think he be a front of the BJP.
- Sachin Pilot’s fast against his own government on April 11 brings the rift in the Rajasthan Congress out into the open again.
- Pilot’s stated grievance is that the Ashok Gehlot government has not lived up to the party’s election promise of investigating corruption allegations against leaders of the previous government run by the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje Scindia.
- The Congress high command has not condoned Pilot’s action but it has also not taken any disciplinary action against him.
- The rift in the Rajasthan Congress is likely to impact its election prospects, especially with anti-incumbency working against half the legislators of the ruling party.
The leadership tussle began in 2020 when Pilot, defying a party whip, refused to attend a CLP meeting and ensconced himself and his supporters in a resort in Gurgaon, Haryana. The Congress promised disciplinary action and assured everyone that the grievances would be addressed. Pilot had already been stripped of his posts of Deputy Chief Minister and party president. From there relations between Pilot and Gehlot went downhill.
In 2022, the Congress began looking for a Chief Minister candidate in the event of Gehlot being elected Congress president. The AICC constitution would not allow him to hold two posts at the same time. Gehlot had the support of the majority of his party’s MLAs, including State Congress president Govind Dotasra, and they came out against the idea of anyone replacing Gehlot as Chief Minister. Their apprehension was that Pilot would be the replacement.
Gehlot was believed to be responsible for the fiasco that took place when party observers Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Maken arrived in Jaipur to effect a smooth transition of leadership. The observers’ meeting was boycotted and a parallel CLP meeting was held at Gehlot’s residence. Maken later told the media that party indiscipline would not be tolerated. Gehlot did the smart thing by issuing a public apology for his inadvertent transgressions and offered himself to be disciplined by the party. Nothing, of course, happened, but Pilot persists with his demand for disciplinary action against those who organised the parallel meeting.
The rift has got worse. Pilot has held a few rallies in the State. In his own constituency, Tonk, there were communal disturbances in late April. The government, meanwhile, flush with the recent passage of the Right to Health Act and the health insurance scheme Chiranjeevi, launched inflation relief (Mehngai Rahat)camps all over the State. Raghu Sharma, vice-president of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee and former Health Minister, told Frontline that such camps were a “huge success” and one panchayat in his constituency of Kekri in Ajmer had recorded 100 per cent registration for the welfare schemes. He denied that the schemes were launched in view of the election.
Urban job scheme
“We are organising camps in all the panchayats and in each municipal ward from April 23 to June 30 and registering every beneficiary,” he said. He claimed that Rajasthan was the only State that had launched an urban employment guarantee scheme. He said that health insurance to the tune of Rs.5 lakh was already there, as was minimum pension, the rates of which had been enhanced. “Free check-ups and universal health coverage was already there. We are doing all that we can and if people vote for us, it is their choice,” said Sharma. Incidentally, Sharma was the AICC in charge for Gujarat, Daman and Diu. Taking moral responsibility for the party’s debacle in the Gujarat election last year, he resigned from his post.
One MLA told Frontline that there never was any open “power struggle” in the Congress before. The rift would affect the party’s prospects, particularly because some 60 odd legislators, roughly half of the Congress’s strength in the Assembly, faced anti-incumbency. The MLA said the high command had been apprised of this.
“Whenever the Congress is in power and contests elections, anti-incumbency is very strong. In 1998, we lost around 100 seats. In 1999, we shrunk to 21. Whenever we contest as a ruling party, the defeat for us has been humiliating. The BJP comes with a thumping majority and even when they lose, they win around 75 seats. The Congress’ history has been such that anti-incumbency is much stronger. Coupled with the present power struggle, things might not look good for the Congress eventually.” the MLA said. “But then there is a divided house in the BJP as well. Vasundhara Raje Scindia is not the face of the party. She is neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the State president. Neither has she launched her parivartan yatras yet. But she will lobby for her loyalists. In the Congress, there will not be a change of leadership as was done in Punjab. So, what will Pilot do? He certainly won’t campaign for the party. But elections in Rajasthan are very caste-based. I don’t think any government has been returned to power because of its good work.”
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In the 200-member Assembly, the Congress has 108 MLAs; the BJP, 71; the RLP, three; the CPI(M) and the Bharatiya Tribal party, two each; the Rashtriya Lok Dal, one. There are 13 independent MLAs. The lone MLA from the RLD is a Minister.
The Congress at present is not exactly on a strong wicket for reasons that go beyond anti-incumbency. Things can only get worse if the present rift is not addressed in time. Given the general trend of not returning the ruling party to power, the BJP may well have the upper hand.
By making seven-time legislator Rajendra Singh Rathore the Leader of the Opposition, Satish Poonia the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and C.P. Joshi the party president, and with Vasundhara Raje Scindia on its side, the BJP is once again using its oft-tested recipe of winning elections through social engineering and getting the socially and economically dominant castes on its side. Contrary to its usual style, however, the party has been wary of projecting a chief ministerial face because of factionalism within its ranks.