Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha elections: Multiple chief ministerial aspirants in Congress camp set tongues wagging

Jaipur: The Congress has set tongues wagging in poll-bound Rajasthan. As if the much-touted tug-of-war between “old horse” Ashok Gehlot and “young turk” Sachin Pilot wasn’t enough, the party’s state unit is now facing a problem of plenty when it comes to chief ministerial aspirants.

If recent statements of Congress leaders are anything to go by, seasoned former chief minister Gehlot and Rajasthan Congress chief Pilot have both set their hearts on the chief minister’s chair. Also in the ring is leader of Opposition in the state Assembly, Rameshwar Dudi.

While Gehlot is popular with the public and party members, Pilot is seen as a youthful, dynamic leader and Dudi has considerable support among the Jats. But the party strategists have refused to set the record straight and declare the chief ministerial face at the outset — a move that many believe may just cost the Congress dear in the elections that are weeks away. As of now, the Congress is favoured to win Rajasthan, where the BJP's Vasundhara Raje is facing anti-incumbency.

The BJP, on the other hand, was quick to declare the unrelenting Raje as its chief ministerial face as many as five months ahead of the 7 December election.

 Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha elections: Multiple chief ministerial aspirants in Congress camp set tongues wagging

File image of Rajasthan Congress leaders Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot. PTI

What the Congress leaders said — and did not say

Two-term chief minister Gehlot, while speaking to the media and addressing poll rallies, has maintained that there is no need to project anyone as the chief ministerial face, as the Congress central leadership would decide on it once the election results are declared.

Pilot, too, has been quoted as saying that after the results are out, the party’s central leadership would decide who to place at the helm of government.

Dudi, on his part, has insisted that only an elected MLA would head the government if the Congress emerges victorious and that the chief minister would be decided by none other than party president Rahul Gandhi. Congress insiders have hinted at Dudi’s chief ministerial aspirations, but he brushed aside the issue by simply saying that it would be premature to reveal any such desire.

While Dudi has not engaged in open hostilities, Gehlot and Pilot — both of whom declared a few days ago that they would contest the Assembly polls — have been shooting darts at each other.

Gehlot has frequently announced that where the Rajasthan Congress leadership was concerned, he is the only state unit chief who rose to become chief minister in 1998. This June, while addressing the media in Sikar, he took a jibe at Pilot by saying that whenever a new state Congress chief is appointed in Rajasthan, a group of 5-7 reporters form a coterie to project him as “chief minister material” and spin “feel good factor” reports.

In his remarks, Gehlot further indirectly advised Pilot, a two-term MP and former Union minister, to stay away from such “feel good” media people.

Pilot sought to even the score by announcing that within a week of taking charge as Rajasthan party chief, he had identified “sycophants from the media” and assured Gehlot that he wasn’t playing into the hands of any such journalist.

The former chief minister’s clearest statement to Pilot was, however, at a state-level Congress meet in Jaipur this August, when he suggested that the younger leader should abandon his dream of becoming the chief minister.

"The Congress has not declared the chief ministerial candidate yet. But if we talk about who is more influential, the one who has been the chief minister twice and has been in the dominating position for ten years, who can be more influential than that?” Gehlot reportedly told Pilot.

At another press conference following that, he questioned the need for the Congress to look for another chief ministerial candidate, since he had held the post on two occasions.

Pilot exhibited political maturity by not responding to his words.

Advantage BJP?

While the tension between Gehlot and Pilot simmered, BJP chief Amit Shah announced at a party meeting in July that the poll campaign in Rajasthan would be led by Raje, who would also remain chief minister if the party won.

Speaking to this reporter, BJP’s state unit chief Madan Lal Saini wondered why the electorate would vote for the Congress when there is uncertainty over who is leading the party’s campaign and who the chief ministerial candidate is.

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, convener of BJP’s poll management committee, insisted that the state Congress was a divided house, and that this was evident from the party’s indecisiveness on the chief ministerial candidate. He claimed there were not three but at least four Congress leaders angling for the chair.

“The state has witnessed unprecedented development under the leadership of Raje. That’s why the party is projecting her as its face again,” he said, asking: “What good can the Congress do for the people when it can’t even decide who its leader is in the state?"

Satish Punia, BJP’s state spokesperson and co-convener of the election management committee, alleged that the Congress was suffering from a leadership crisis.

Clearing the air

State Congress chief Pilot has tried to dispel the rumours which have gained currency.

“Our party is in the electoral battle as one composite unit. Once our party secures majority, Rahul Gandhi will take a call on who would be chief minister. The person would be decided through consensus by the central high command,” he said recently.

Insisting that he wasn’t in the race for the top post, Pilot did point out that in the past few years he had rebuilt and strengthened the Congress in Rajasthan, and victory in the previous three by-elections was proof of his work.

As Pilot attempted to settle the matter diplomatically, Gehlot fired another salvo last week — by mentioning several names which, according to him, were in the fray for chief ministership.

At a public contact campaign, he pointed out that besides him there were five other contenders in the Congress, such as Pilot, Dudi, CP Joshi, Girija Vyas and BD Kalla. Observers have taken his announcement with a pinch of salt.

(Author is a freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2018 17:10:12 IST