By Kalyani Shankar
With the state assembly election later this year, Congress faces a political crisis again. The party lost Punjab last year because of mishandling by the Gandhis by backing the wrong horse. Will the Congress leadership be able to save Rajasthan from going the Punjab way?
Congress and BJP have been alternating in Government, and now it is the turn of the BJP to win the elections in Rajasthan. Congress desperately needs to retain the big state in the Assembly polls. In a catch-22 situation, Congress is still dithering whether to face the electorate with Ashok Gehlot as Chief Minister or the rebel Sachin Pilot instead.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his former Deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot are at loggerheads again. The power tussle between the two started in 2018, first over party tickets and later over the chief minister’s position. Gehlot wants to keep his job, and Pilot wants to grab it immediately.
Pilot had rebelled twice in the meanwhile. In 2020, he led a revolt with the tacit support of the BJP with 20 of his legislators; the one-month-long political crisis ended after the Congress high command promised to look into the issues raised by Sachin Pilot.
The second time was in September 2022, when the Gehlot camp consisting of 90 MLAs, submitted their resignation letters to prevent Sachin Pilot from succeeding Gehlot. This was when Ashok Gehlot was offered Congress president’s post. Gehlot wanted Party presidentship along with retaining the CM’s position. Pilot thinks it is now or never as the time is running out. Though he is only 46, if Pilot misses this time,, his next shot would be in 2028. He is not in the mood to wait for another five years.
Last week, Pilot announced a one-day dharna accusing the Gehlot Government of failing to act against the excise mafia, illegal mining, land encroachment, or the Lalit Modi affidavit case sat in dharna for a day. He complained Gehlot had been reluctant to act against the predecessor Vasundhara-led Government. Incidentally, Vasundhara Raje (BJP) quietly helped Gehlot win the confidence vote in 2020. Also, she is staking her claims to become chief minister again.
Sachin is young, charismatic, ambitious, articulate, and sophisticated. He is also close to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi; however, he is a rebel, impatient. There are speculations BJP might offer him a ministerial berth. With few young leaders left, PIlot’s quitting could hurt Congress before the polls. Ashok Gehlot is 71, asking the electorate for one last chance. If denied CM’s position, he may not reconcile. At least his supporters say so.
The options before Congress are few. One is to counsel patience to Sachin. He has chosen corruption as an issue this time. When Rahul Gandhi is spearheading corruption, how could they blame Sachin? Moving Pilot to Delhi to give organizational responsibilities was one of the options, but Pilot would not be satisfied.
Alienating Gehlot also will have repercussions. One option is to convince the one-time magician Gehlot to step down. Gehlot had been the chief minister twice earlier and was an experienced leader from the OBC community. He has shown many times that he is a man in control. But, he is an aging leader, lacks charisma, and indulges in factionalism. He also faces anti-incumbency.
It will be an acid test for the six-month-old Congress Chief Mallikarjun Kharge busy amid Karnataka Assembly polls. Last month, he was toying with making Pilot the state party chief, which would have soothed Sachin but upset Gehlot. Kharge may be waiting for the Karnataka elections to conclude. With pretty good chances of winning the state, he could deal with both leaders from a position of strength. Ultimately, it depends on the party’s high command to find an acceptable formula for both. But this is easier said than done. Congress leadership has little time to dither.
The first and foremost is to quieten the warring camps. The Congress has roped veteran Kamal Nath to mediate between the two sides. Secondly, the High command should act swiftly. Keeping the crisis unaddressed will result in further chaos. It might also affect the party’s chances in Karnataka. Thirdly, Kharge should ensure Rajasthan is not messed up as they did in Punjab by backing the wrong horse and losing the state. Fourthly, there are few politically savvy peacemakers like Ahmed Patel in the Congress now.. Also, Sonia Gandhi has taken a backseat.
Kamal Nath has reportedly offered Pilot a ‘meaty’ role in the AICC secretariat, a member of the Congress Working Committee, and a vital role in the screening committee for the upcoming Rajasthan elections.
The High Command is not willing to disturb Gehlot. So, Congress must tread carefully, as any misstep would mean losing Rajasthan. It will need all the mediating skills to resolve the issue at a time when Congress needs to win and not lose. (IPA Service)