GoP loses ground as old fox Ashok Gehlot bares his fangs to “silent” Sachin Pilot

The Gandhi family desperately needs Ashok Gehlot as a networker, loyalist, and bridge builder. In better times Sonia Gandhi had Ahmed Patel as the crisis manager to do the dirty laundry. So, who has the upper hand now?

Arup Ghosh September 28, 2022 19:29:00 IST
GoP loses ground as old fox Ashok Gehlot bares his fangs to “silent” Sachin Pilot

A trusted aide of Sonia Gandhi, Gehlot was the frontrunner for the Congress chief's post. While the top leadership is upset with him, his name cannot be ruled out of the race. PTI

Two factors have emerged from the drama playing out over Ashok Gehlot. One, the power of a chief minister in modern India cannot be undermined. Two, the hold of the Gandhi family leading the beleaguered Congress has dwindled further.

As Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot at 71 is a wily old fox. He is perhaps the only senior politician in the Congress who can stitch together a decaying political fabric. In specific terms, the party needs Gehlot desperately as its crisis manager.

The scene unraveled when it was announced that current Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot was a preferred choice as the next Congress president. Why? Because he has access to other entrenched and eminent Opposition leaders. And an even, working relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It meant the Congress could utilize his political acumen and build a concerted, united front against the BJP in the next general elections in 2024. The narrative was fine until Rahul Gandhi dropped the one man-one post bomb.

This meant Gehlot would have to give up the chief ministership of Rajasthan if he is elected party president. In that case the chief minister in waiting, Sachin Pilot, was assumed to take over the mantle. This is where the Gandhi family miscalculated.

Gehlot made it clear he was open to doing both jobs. If not, then his nominee should be made the chief minister. His personal feud with Sachin Pilot has deteriorated to such an extent that he possibly anticipates open humiliation if Pilot takes charge. This was the trigger point for Gehlot to not only checkmate Pilot but also the Gandhis to some extent.

GoP loses ground as old fox Ashok Gehlot bares his fangs to silent Sachin Pilot

The bitter rivalry between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot has left the Rajasthan Congress divided. PTI

With political dexterity, he extended his personal feud to one between the two MLA camps. That was quite a masterstroke. In the Gehlot bag are 92 MLAs while Sachin has close to 18 MLAs with him. The pro-Gehlot MLAs went to town saying they would never want a “gaddar” (traitor) like Pilot as their chief minister. The traitor attack came from the rebellion triggered by Pilot earlier in 2020.

Nothing can be worse than a failed rebellion. No matter the cause the rebels are often treated and branded as traitors. In this case, the blood on the floor would be in metaphorical terms.

A Congress panel accused three legislators of indiscipline but refrained from blaming Gehlot for the Rajasthan turmoil, deliberately leaving room for political manouevre. Central observers Ajay Maken and Mallikarjun Kharge criticised the role of state minister Shanti Dhariwal for calling a meeting of 90-odd legislators to oppose Pilot’s possible elevation as the next chief minister should Gehlot be elected Congress president in the 17 October poll.

Hours after the panel’s nine-page report was submitted, the Congress sent show-cause notices to Dhariwal, minister Mahesh Joshi, and Dharmendra Rathore.

Preceding this development, 82 MLAs submitted their resignation to the Assembly Speaker, CP Joshi. The MLAs who resigned gave a three-point agenda opposing the selection of Sachin Pilot as the next chief minister if Gehlot wins the Congress presidential post.

Their demands include a chief ministerial face chosen from the 102 MLAs who were loyal to the Congress party in June 2020 when there was an attempt to topple the government. The MLAs in the Gehlot camp also conveyed to the party high command that deliberations on possible leadership change in Rajasthan should happen after the new Congress president is appointed. Third, Ashok Gehlot’s choice should be taken into consideration.

Between central party observers — Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Maken — the Gehlot camp is comfortable with Kharge. Maken is seen as backing Pilot as he looks to widen his scope of play.

Unlike his 2020 rebellion, this time around, Pilot has remained schtum. Besides direct access to Rahul and Priyanka, Pilot, until now, hasn’t shied away from saying he won’t brook any public humiliation. The Pilot camp’s biggest club in the bag is accusing Gehlot of triggering a manufactured rebellion.

So, on the face of it, Gehlot is dragging the GoP down further.

What needs to be understood is Gehlot is not in the same position as Captain Amarinder Singh who was summarily removed as the chief minister of Punjab. Amarinder never had the numbers, distanced himself from most legislators, chose to stay ensconced in his farmhouse, leaving his rivals with enough ammo to break the door down.

Gehlot is a different political animal. He is on the job virtually 24/7. He constantly interacts with his legislators, knows the pulse of the state, and is exceptionally gifted at neutralising his rivals.

In his first tenure he neutralised Paras Ram Maderna, and other Jat leaders like Balram Jakhar, Natwar Singh, Nawal Kishore Sharma. In his second tenure he got the better of CP Joshi who was very close to Rajiv Gandhi. Third tenure saw Pilot’s wicket being blown away.

In the public domain the picture is Pilot doesn’t have the numbers. The boxes he ticks include relentless campaigning during the last state elections, that the Congress won, and proximity to Rahul Gandhi. That may not be enough, though, to catapult him into the chief minister’s chair.

Circumstantially, the Congress is down to two states: Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh. So, the pressures are different.

The Gandhi family desperately needs Gehlot as a networker, loyalist, and bridge builder. In better times a powerful Sonia Gandhi had Ahmed Patel as the crisis manager to do the dirty laundry. So, who has the upper hand now?

Pilot, perhaps, fears if he doesn’t become chief minister now it might just turn out to be a long and draining wait for his dream to materialise. Let us not forget the example of a former prime minister in waiting LK Advani.

The next state elections in Rajasthan are due in December 2023. The BJP would project the face of Narendra Modi in its campaign. If it wins the name of Diya Kumari might come up. She is an MP from Rajsamand and the daughter of Rajmata Padmini Devi and Bhanwar Singh. Vasundhara Raje Scindia is no longer seen as a formidable contender. Maybe it takes one royal to hunt another.

Chosen insiders of the Congress like KC Venugopal and Ajay Maken seem to have conveyed that Pilot would be the best driver in the seat if Congress hopes to win back the state. They back it on opinion surveys. The rival camp says these polls could be manipulated. Secondly, Pilot is nothing more than a Gujjar leader. It is the powerful Jat lobby with its influence in 50 assembly seats which exerts a powerful influence, and they are mostly with Gehlot.

Govind Singh Dotasara, a powerful political figure, currently as the state party president for the last two years, is a Gehlot loyalist. He might be replaced as per the current buzz. But there is white noise he could be in contention for the post of deputy chief minister with Gehlot’s blessings.

CP Joshi’s name is also in line for the chief minister’s post. A Brahmin, he is the current Speaker and former MP from Bhilwara.

The sacrificial lambs could include names like Shanti Dhariwal, 78. He has openly trashed Pilot and Maken. Dharmendra Rathore, RTDC Chairman, is also on the high command hit list. Point is an example needs to be made no matter how ephemeral that step is.

Looking at the next elections in Rajasthan, the old timers have cast their lot with Gehlot as the man who could pull out more than just a rabbit out of the hat. He can rope in independents if the need arises and has introduced an avalanche of social welfare schemes. In contrast, the urbane, slick Pilot with his Delhi connections might have a grim fight on his hands as Rudyard Kipling’s tragic character did in: “The Man Who Would Be King.”

The author is CEO of nnis. Views are personal.

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