At 13, Rajasthan’s Independent MLAs outnumber non-Congress and non-BJP parties and at least 10 of them are Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s supporters.
In the CM’s tussles with former deputy CM Sachin Pilot in the past, these MLAs often gave him an edge but they may be now looking at an uncertain future as Gehlot may have to step down if he gets elected Congress president. At least one pro-Gehlot Independent MLA has changed his tune when it comes to Pilot who is said to be the Congress leadership’s choice to take over as CM if the veteran leader moves to Delhi to head the party.
The Independent legislators played a crucial role in getting Gehlot chosen as CM after the 2018 Assembly polls that had seen the Congress fall one short of the majority mark of 100. Most of them are former Congress leaders, and even Union ministers, who were denied a ticket but went on to win without the party’s backing. The pro-Gehlot Independent MLAs promised to support a Congress-led government only if the 71-year-old was made the CM. This effectively put paid to Pilot’s ambitions for the top job and he had to settle for the deputy CM’s chair. When Pilot rebelled against Gehlot and the party in 2020, these MLAs again sided with the CM. They stayed in hotels and resorts with Congress legislators while Pilot and his group of 18 MLAs camped in Delhi and Haryana for over a month. The Independent MLAs also voted for the Congress in this year’s Rajya Sabha elections.
Given the level of support Gehlot enjoys among this group, it was unsurprising when Sirohi MLA Sanyam Lodha recently said the CM should be allowed to hold on to his post even if he becomes the Congress president. Lodha, who is an advisor to the CM, told reporters, “Indira ji, Rajiv Ji, Narsimha Rao ji, all stayed both Congress presidents and prime ministers. In the context of Rajasthan, I would like to say that Ashok Gehlot sahab has done excellent work in four years. He started schemes for the welfare of the poor, and did unprecedented development work … Only by projecting his face can the Congress benefit from these works. I feel that he should stay the chief minister and lead the Congress.”
In an interview to The Indian Express on Thursday, Gehlot said though the “one person, one post” principle laid down in the party’s Udaipur Declaration was meant for nominated posts and not ones for which elections are held, a person holding two posts would not be able to “do justice to the Congress presidency”.
Some of the former Congressmen
Lodha is a three-time MLA from Sirohi. In 2018, he was among the veteran leaders denied an election ticket by the Congress. At the time, Pilot led the state unit and fielded young candidates, some of whom had a background in student politics. But the move backfired.
Lodha defeated both the Congress candidate and sitting BJP minister Otaram Dewasi, who headed the first cow welfare ministry, in the election. The other Independent legislators in the Gehlot camp are former Union Minister and Khandela MLA Mahadeo Singh Khandla, Shahpura MLA Alok Beniwal who is the son of senior Congress leader and former Gujarat Governor Kamla Beniwal, Gangapur MLA Ramkesh Meena, and Thanagazi MLA Kanti Prasad.
Of the 13 Independent legislators, three have maintained relations with Pilot. They are Om Prakash Hudla, Khushveer Singh and Suresh Tak. With Gehlot now set to contest the Congress presidential elections and the party leadership said to be in favour of Pilot as the next CM, Dudu MLA Babulal Nagar, who is among Gehlot’s advisors and staunch supporters, praised the former deputy CM.
Nagar sparked a controversy last week by saying in a public meeting that anybody chanting slogans other than “Rajiv Gandhi Amar Rahe” and “Ashok Gehlot Zindabad” would be jailed. He spoke a day after shoes and bottles were hurled and “Sachin Pilot Zindabad” was shouted when Congress ministers were speaking at the “asthi visarjan (ash immersion)” ceremony of Gujjar leader Kirori Singh Bainsla.
But, the Dudu MLA recently told reporters, “Pilot is a young leader of Rajasthan, of India. He has a long life ahead of him. He has a personality and that is why I feel that nobody can reduce his number (marks) or increase it. He has the ability and is doing politics according to it. I have seen him at that time when he was not in politics. I have been a kattar samarthak (staunch supporter) of Rajesh Pilot ji (Sachin’s father), have been his worker.”