Ashok Gehlot cocks a snook as Congress discipline is in jeopardy

What is writ large is that the Congress supremo and the Gandhis seem to be losing their grip on the party, with many of the leaders not shy about stating their preferences, even if it is at variance

Gautam Mukherjee September 27, 2022 10:35:43 IST
Ashok Gehlot cocks a snook as Congress discipline is in jeopardy

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot

Running a political party on auto-pilot and remembrances of past glory obviously does not work. It is like King Charles I invoking Divine Right in the face of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Parliamentary Privilege’, after Cromwell won the civil war, leading the republican and puritan Roundheads against the royalist Cavaliers. That divine right ship had sailed. If only Charles I had realised that, he might not have been the only British king to be beheaded in the Tower.

The present leadership of the Congress hinges on the judgement of an ailing and lonely senior citizen, cloistered like Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, in her large compound in New Delhi. Her able political aides of many years have died, leaving her to operate with second-rate talent and on her own acumen. Almost powerless these days, she is under criminal investigation for past sins of alleged money laundering and many other offences, now coming back to haunt her.

Can this be the superannuated head of the grand old party? Why has she been allowed to continue at the helm so much after her effective years? The fortunes of the Congress have never been at a lower ebb. But Sonia Gandhi, a Roman Catholic, is too old and tired to respond to: ‘Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n’, to quote John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Her hapless children, the dreaded fourth generation of their dynasty, if one does not count Motilal Nehru, have no talent for politics, and only work at it part-time. They have failed to give the party any traction, but the party, in turn, ostensibly cannot seem to cut this toxic umbilical cord and move on.

But is this narrative really true, or have the bolts been loosening for quite some time? The Group of 23 who wrote a critical letter to Sonia Gandhi about a year or more ago, have lost a few of their number to the BJP since.

Their suggestions have not been accepted. Many were shunned by the Gandhis and humiliated by others speaking on behalf. They are now regarded with forever suspicion. Still, in their own way, they have moved on. The group continues to make mildly critical public remarks from time to time. Some have retired in disgust.

And others, including regional satraps, who did not sign the letter, are no longer blind loyalists. They too have decided to self-determine more of their political future, even within the Congress Party.

The senior leadership was jolted most recently by the abrupt departure of Ghulam Nabi Azad after 40 years in the party. His subsequent moves, including a rally in Jammu and the launch of his new political party, peopled largely by former Congress J&K MLAs was telling. The Democratic Azad Party has eclipsed the possibility of Congress playing any significant role in Jammu & Kashmir when the state is returned to electoral politics.

Captain Amarinder Singh, the Patiala scion, who was ultimately treated shabbily by the Gandhis after decades in the Congress, also, was forced to resign. He has now merged his new party with the BJP and joined along with his family. Punjab meanwhile, has been lost to the AAP in the recent assembly elections.

Jharkhand received a fright when the allegedly corrupt Soren family nearly came unstuck with the Congress bringing up the rear. The government of Shibu Soren has survived for now, but for how long?

Maharashtra was lost to the Shinde Shiv Sena and the BJP, with a notable Congress MLA, a former chief minister, jumping ship too.

There are dramatic developments overnight in Rajasthan. Three-times chief minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot, a veteran grassroots politician, is clearly not interested in becoming the Congress president. With recent developments, he is likely to be placed in the dissidents list anyway. But will his government survive?

Gehlot, not at all confident that anybody can revive the fortunes of the Congress, did not want to be the sacrificial lamb. He didn’t want to take the job at all, but was apparently put under pressure from 10, Janpath and new advisers like KC Venugopal.

So he issued a codicil. He didn’t want it, unless he could simultaneously continue as chief minister of Rajasthan. Alternatively, only if he could install a Gehlot loyalist as chief minister in Jaipur. Both Gehlot and his sizeable number of MLAs are not willing to hand over the chief ministership to rival Sachin Pilot. Pilot does not have sufficient support in the Rajasthan Assembly to make any challenge from him stick. He was banking on the High Command, just as in the old days.

This dual charge formula was shot down publicly by Rahul Gandhi who said in the course of his Bharat Jodo Yatra that he would prefer it if the one-person-one-post principle was followed. Gandhi said that the Congress president was not just an organisational position but the keeper of the party’s ideology.

Should the situation be forced however, the Congress will lose the Rajasthan government, and have to face fresh elections. The BJP would probably welcome such a prospect, given the unpopularity of the Gehlot government at present. The BJP thinks it could win Rajasthan, and install fresh leadership. To take on right now may be a little precarious, given the numbers.

In the course of Rahul Gandhi’s pointless padayatra, supported by a convoy of truck-mounted air-conditioned containers repurposed as accommodation, the Goa Congress collapsed. It merged 8 of its 11 MLAs with the ruling BJP in the state.

It was floated that the Gandhis would back Gehlot in the forthcoming Congress presidential elections scheduled for mid-October 2022. Other reports said the Gandhis would not back any candidate, so that free and fair elections could take place.

Till now, while the gate for collecting nomination forms is going to close, the only one who has collected one is Kerala Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. And Tharoor promptly announced he had the blessings of the Gandhis for his candidature and the backing of many of the 9,000 in the list of voters. However, the Kerala Congress announced they don’t want Tharoor as Congress president.

Another possible contender, veteran Digvijaya Singh, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, also chimed in supporting the idea that the Congress president should not hold any other post at the same time.

Another Gandhi loyalist, Kamal Nath, was mentioned in context either as a trouble-shooter or as an alternative. This, when the Gehlot-supporting MLAs, 82-92 of them, according to various reports, submitted their resignations to the Speaker of the Rajasthan Assembly. The resignations have not been accepted.

The interesting thing is the half-way mark is 100 in the Rajasthan Assembly. Does this suggest the remainder of the current Congress strength of 108 (including one from RJD), are largely Pilot supporters? In other words, Pilot could also send this government down the tubes if he chose to do so. The BJP has 70 MLAs and there are 14 Independents. Can they cobble something together?

Kamal Nath who claims he does not want the job either, has been summoned by Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi.

Central observers Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Maken, miffed by the developments in Jaipur, have returned to Delhi to report to the Congress supremo. They are likely to suggest that the apparently rebellious Ashok Gehlot is dropped as a candidate from the Congress presidential election. That Gehlot has not collected a nomination form yet indicates that he won’t be exactly heartbroken.

What is writ large is that the Congress supremo and the Gandhis seem to be losing their grip on the party, with many of the leaders not shy about stating their preferences, even if it is at variance.

Several of the state Congress units have passed resolutions that Rahul Gandhi should reassume the mantle of Congress president again, and this is increasingly looking like the best option.

In the event, there will be no need to hold an election at all. The entire exercise seems to have descended into chaos. Or, is it farce?

The author is a political commentator based in Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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