A tussle between Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Deputy CM Sachin Pilot has pushed the government to the brink. A look at the similarities and differences with the Madhya Pradesh situation where the resignation of Congress MLAs loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia had toppled the government four months ago, and the reasons why the Congress struggles to resolve such flare-ups:
If Pilot were to leave the Congress, how would the numbers stack up?
The difference between the combined strength of the Congress and that of the BJP-led opposition is not razor-thin in Rajasthan, unlike in Madhya Pradesh where the Congress government fell when 22 MLAs pulled out. In a House of 230, the Congress strength fell from 114 to 92 (now down to 91 after one more resignation) which is below the BJP strength of 107.
The numbers in Rajasthan, on the other hand, were tested just a month ago in the Rajya Sabha elections. The two Congress candidates polled 123 of the 200 votes — its own 107, all 13 independent MLAs, 2 two from Bharatiya Tribal Party and one from RLD. It also banks on the support of the two CPM MLAs in a crunch, which takes the tally to 125. It got 123 votes because a minister and a CPM MLA could not vote on account of their health.
The BJP got 74 votes — its own 72 and 3 from the Hanuman Beniwal-led Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, less one vote disqualified. And unlike in MP, most of the independents in Rajasthan are close to Chief Minister Gehlot. Despite Pilot being the PCC president since 2014, Gehlot had the upper hand in ticket distribution for the Assembly elections in 2018 and about 75% Congress MLAs are claimed to be loyal to him. The Pilot camp claims the support of at least half the MLAs.
And the BJP is a divided house in Rajasthan, is it not?
Yes it is, and that is perhaps the key difference with MP. Also, the post of Chief Minister is at the heart of the tussle between Pilot and Gehlot, while Scindia was not asking for chief ministership, which made things easy for the BJP. If Pilot were to join the BJP, the question would be whether he would settle for anything less than chief ministership, given that he is already Deputy CM. Former BJP Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and a large section of the BJP leadership will not accept Pilot as Chief Minister.
Can Pilot not break the Congress and walk out along with MLAs loyal to him?
To escape the anti-defection law, two-thirds of Congress MLAs will have to leave the party. That is a very big number — 72 out of the Congress’s 107 MLAs.
The other option is the ‘Madhya Pradesh model’ — which means MLAs loyal to Pilot resign so that the strength of the House comes down. They would then have to join the BJP, and contest by-elections to fill the vacancies.
But since the difference in the combined strength is as large as 50, that many MLAs will have to resign to bring the halfway mark down to a level where each side has 75. This is assuming that the independents and smaller parties will align as before. If there is a switch of sides by some of those who supported the Congress in the Rajya Sabha polls, the breakaway camp will need fewer than 50.
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What are the roots of the power tussle?
Pilot was given charge of the Rajasthan Congress in January 2014 after it suffered one of its worst defeats under Gehlot. Pilot, those close to him say, believed his appointment marked a generational shift in the party, and that he would be CM if the party won again.
Gehlot has been around for a long time. He became Chief Minister for the first time in 1998, when he was 47. He had been the PCC president, and had spearheaded the Congress campaign that defeated Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s BJP (which had been in power since 1990, barring a year’s President’s Rule), and brought the Congress back to power. Gehlot has since alternated as Chief Minister with Vasundhara Raje of the BJP.
The feud between Gehlot and Pilot escalated after the Congress high command gave Gehlot a third shot at chief ministership, with an eye on the Lok Sabha elections that were then round the corner. The two leaders have been at loggerheads since, and each has made comments against the other without taking his name on several occasions.
But why hasn’t it been sorted out?
Many leaders argue that the party’s central leadership has weakened in the last six years. Regional leaders wield considerable influence. The AICC in-charge of Rajasthan, Avinash Pande, is seen as a lightweight, who does not have the stature to make Gehlot and Pilot sit across the table and sort out their differences.
Rahul Gandhi’s decision to step back from active organisational activities too, has left the younger leaders pondering their future. The old-versus-young tussle — and their competing ambitions — has split the party in MP, and is now the most visible in Rajasthan.
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It is also difficult for the Congress to ignore caste equations. Pilot comes from the Gujjar community, and one of the factors that went against his elevation was that it may not have gone down well with the Meena community. Gehlot, on the other hand, belongs to the backward Mali caste, and is not seen as a threat to any caste group — the dominant Jats, Gujjars, Meenas, or Rajputs.
That said, the Congress cannot ignore the Gujjars either — and that is where it sought to strike a balance. As it is, the Jats have long been unhappy with the Congress as they believe it has not given them their due. The Congress has historically had tall Jat leaders in Rajasthan, such as Parasram Maderna, Ramniwas Mirdha, and Sisram Ola.
Interestingly, Gehlot had pipped Maderna to the post for the first time in 1998. Maderna was then the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly. The Jats had then demanded that the Chief Minister be from among their ranks – either Maderna or K Natwar Singh. But Singh, like Sachin’s father Rajesh Pilot, preferred to stay in national politics.
Even if the government does not fall, what will be the impact of this crisis?
The crisis will certainly undermine Pilot’s position. Sources close to him ask how he can remain in the government, that too as number two, when an FIR says that the “Deputy CM says that he will be the CM. The mutual distrust between Gehlot and Pilot will deepen. It is terrible optics for the party, too.
Can any other state too see such a crisis?
All is not well in Punjab and Chhattisgarh. Although Punjab CM Amarinder Singh does not face any challenge to his leadership, there is rumbling — and the likes of former PCC chief Partap Singh Bajwa and former Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu keep stirring the pot.
In Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and Health Minister T S Singh Deo, who was a contender for the post, are said to be no longer on talking terms.
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