Rajasthan: Truce for now

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with Sachin Pilot at a CLP meeting at the former’s residence in Jaipur on August 13. Photo: PTI

The Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot camps of the Rajasthan Congress arrive at an understanding that saves the Congress government from falling, at least for the time being.

A few days before a crucial Assembly session that was expected to determine the fate of the Congress government in Rajasthan, the warring factions led by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his sacked deputy, Sachin Pilot, arrived at an unexpected truce, ending for the moment a month-long battle of attrition. The truce helped the Congress government win a voice vote on a confidence motion moved by it on August 14. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the main opposition party, refrained from moving a no-confidence motion even though it had declared its intent to do so.

The Congress government now seems to be in a secure position, at least for the next six months. A no-confidence motion cannot be moved before the expiry of that period. This victory has given Ashok Gehlot ample time to iron out the differences within his government and the party.

That is welcome relief after almost a month of uncertainty when speculation was rife that the government might go the way of Congress governments in Madhya Pradesh, Goa and Karnataka, and more recently in Manipur. The truce was brokered by the party’s central leadership, which intervened belatedly but decisively. Both factions were told that their issues would be addressed.

Party president Sonia Gandhi set up a three-member committee after a meeting with Sachin Pilot and his faction of 18 legislators. The rebels were assured that their grievances relating to the government’s functioning would be heard and that they would be accommodated in the State Cabinet and given positions in corporations as well. The suspension of the primary membership of the party of two ministers, both Sachin Pilot loyalists, was revoked. It was agreed that disqualification notices sent by the Speaker to the rebel legislators would not be pursued. Avinash Pande, the All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) appointee in charge of Rajasthan, was replaced by Ajay Maken, former Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee president, reportedly at Sachin Pilot’s behest. Ajay Maken was a member of the three-member committee that the AICC had set up to look into the grievances.

Sachin Pilot, who had spoken to the media about “self-respect” and how he was hurt by personal barbs made by Ashok Gehlot, reportedly wants to be reinstated as Deputy Chief Minister. Gehlot, who had described Sachin Pilot as “incompetent” and “useless”, also changed tack and made a public display of welcoming him back. In a Congress Legislative Party meeting held at his house before the Assembly session, which Sachin Pilot attended, he made it a point to say his government could have proved its majority even without the 19 legislators but it would not have given him “happiness”.

The crisis in the Rajasthan Congress started after Sachin Pilot along with 18 other legislators went public with their criticism of the Chief Minister and the government’s functioning. Tensions between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot started soon after the Assembly elections of 2018, which the Congress won by a thin but clear majority. The central leadership dithered on the choice of Chief Minister. Ashok Gehlot had an edge within the Congress, but Sachin Pilot, who was party president, had over time built substantial support for himself within the party. He had the backing of Rahul Gandhi and the advantage of being the late Rajesh Pilot’s son. For almost a fortnight, both factions lobbied hard, their supporters were out on the streets, and the factionalism was out in the open.

The earlier truce

A truce was hurriedly brokered then with the understanding that Ashok Gehlot would the Chief Minister and Sachin Pilot, the Deputy Chief Minister. Neither faction liked the arrangement. The 67-year-old Ashok Gehlot had never had to work with a deputy. Sachin Pilot, on the other hand, felt that the party owed its numbers to his leadership as party president and not Ashok Gehlot, who had been deputed out of the State as party-in-charge of affairs in Gujarat.

The Congress in fact did not do as well as it should have in the Assembly election because it was vertically divided even then. Most of the 13 independents who won were Congress rebels (owing allegiance to one faction or the other) who had been denied the party ticket. They got elected at the expense of the party’s official candidates, some of whom were close to Sachin Pilot. The Congress did not win a single seat in the Lok Sabha election in 2019, a result that once again drew attention to the factionalism in the party. Ashok Gehlot’s son lost from Jodhpur, although the Chief Minister had reportedly focussed all his energies on getting him elected. There were strong rumours about the lack of unity in the Congress. The Gujjar community, which has a presence all over the State, had voted for the Congress in the 2018. It was rumoured that Gujjars voted for the BJP in 2019 because Sachin Pilot, their “community man”, was deprived of the post of Chief Minister.

Run-up to Rajya Sabha election

Speculation about infighting in the Congress was rife also in the run-up to the Rajya Sabha election in June. The Congress put up three candidates, all of whom got elected. The BJP also put up three candidates despite not having the numbers. Two of the three got elected.

Prior to the Rajya Sabha elections, the Rajasthan Congress sequestered all its legislators fearing that they might be poached by the BJP and that some of its own legislators were in cahoots with the BJP to destabilise the government. Under the directions of the Chief Minister, the State police initiated an inquiry in which notices were sent to Sachin Pilot as well as Ashok Gehlot himself, who, incidentally, held the Home portfolio. Sachin Pilot protested, but Ashok Gehlot and his loyalists maintained that this was a routine investigation and that it was important that a conspiracy against the government should be investigated and exposed. The emergence of some audio tapes allegedly featuring the voice of a Union minister, a middleman and a Congress legislator close to Sachin Pilot surfaced. The audio tapes contained alleged references to deals which hinted at plans being made to destabilise the government.

In recent weeks, the rebels made public statements that the government had been reduced to a “minority”, all of which fuelled rumours that dissension was slowly heading towards a point of no return. Criticism of the government coming from Sachin Pilot was serious because he was also the Pradesh Congress Committee chief.

Sachin Pilot and the 18 legislators skipped two back-to-back CLP meetings in mid July. The party Chief Whip complained to the Speaker, who issued show-cause (disqualification) notices to the rebels. The rebel legislators en masse shifted to a hotel in Gurugram district of Haryana. They also moved the High Court seeking a stay on the disqualification notices, arguing that the disqualification clause was against the basic structure of the Constitution. The government, through the Speaker, approached the apex court to stay the High Court proceedings. The Supreme Court refused to grant a stay. The High Court, meanwhile, ruled that the status quo would prevail as far as the legislators were concerned. The ruling framed a series of questions around the constitutionality of the disqualification clause. This was a round one victory for the rebel camp. The Speaker and the Chief Whip again moved the Supreme Court against the order of the High Court, raising jurisdictional issues as well as the right of the High Court to deliberate on matters that had already been settled in a Supreme Court ruling. The apex court itself has in several judgments upheld the constitutionality of the disqualification clause.

In the 200-member Assembly, the Congress has 107 legislators and the BJP has 72. The Bharatiya Tribal Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have two each; the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party has three; the Congress ally Rashtriya Lok Dal has one. There are 13 independents. In the 2018 Assembly elections, the Congress won 101 seats—a clear but precarious majority. The Bahujan Samaj Party, whose electoral foothold in the State has been shaky, surprisingly bagged six seats. In less than a year, all six legislators broke rank with the party and joined the Congress. As all six resigned from the BSP, they also escaped facing disqualification proceedings. The Congress now had 107, six more than the simple majority it had secured earlier. The BSP and a BJP legislator recently challenged the merger in court.

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