He kept the Congress on tenterhooks for a month, threw a big challenge at the veteran Ashok Gehlot, and raised the hopes of the BJP. But a month after he raised the banner of revolt against Gehlot, the Rajasthan Chief Minister, leaving the Congress government headed by him on the edge of a precipice, Sachin Pilot is back.
Pilot says he had never left the Congress — so there is no question of being back. Technically he may be right, but for all practical purposes he had been waging a battle against the party’s government for a month, during which time he was removed from the posts of Deputy Chief Minister and Rajasthan Congress president.
So, what is it that the 42-year-old Pilot gained by openly starting a rebellion, and where does his short-lived revolt and his staged comeback leave him? Where does it leave the Congress and the Gehlot government in Rajasthan? And who has emerged stronger, and how has the balance of power shifted?
The month-long rebellion has proved that Pilot was in a hurry, and underprepared to take on a heavyweight like Gehlot. Pilot overplayed his card and perhaps underestimated the political acumen of Gehlot, the grizzled veteran of many political battles.
The chief minister had the full support of the Congress high command, and together they employed an array of political, legal and psychological manoeuvres that left Pilot cornered.
The Congress’s decision to sequester all the MLAs in a hotel turned out to be the key as Pilot, who the Congress alleged was in touch with the BJP, could not wean away any more MLAs from the Gehlot camp. Gehlot’s repeated allegations that he was working in tandem with the BJP struck a chord with many leaders — Pilot’s repeated statements to the contrary notwithstanding.
Realising that he may not be able to manage the numbers to topple Gehlot, Pilot has beaten a retreat. But his stature within the party stands diminished.
Those close to him say that he has been able to get an assurance from the Gandhis that he could be considered for the Chief Minister’s job closer to the Assembly elections due in December 2023. But as the saying goes, even a week is a long time in politics — no one can be certain about what happens a year later.
So, for now, Pilot has lost pretty much everything: his posts – that of Deputy Chief Minister and state Congress president – the trust of the leadership, and the respect of party colleagues. He will have to work hard to regain all of that. This, ironically, is a man whose name would crop up in discussions about the post of Congress president.
The 69-year-old has proved that he is indispensable for the Congress in Rajasthan, and he still has enough firepower to take on rivals both inside and outside the party.
Gehlot has ensured that his government stays, which was the top priority for the Congress leadership too, given that the party has been at the receiving end of repeated political machinations and power play by the BJP — the most recent instance being in Madhya Pradesh.
He used the rebellion by Pilot, the trigger for which interestingly was Gehlot’s decision to file an FIR into allegations of horse trading, to achieve multiple goals. He has rallied the majority of the MLAs with him, and proved once and for all that Sachin’s claim for the Chief Minister’s post is numerically untenable.
He has also brought out the rift in the BJP in Rajasthan, painted it as a party hungry for power even in the midst of a pandemic, and managed to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the Gandhis and the Congress leadership about Pilot’s intentions.
Rahul Gandhi had, in the first Congress Working Committee meeting after the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, mentioned that some leaders had pressured the party to secure tickets for their wards. He had mentioned Gehlot — as also then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath. Gehlot has now redeemed his position by aggressively fighting back a bid to topple his government.
Such a powerful pushback was unexpected, even considering all of Gehlot’s experience and abilities. So aggressive was his comeback that he even forced the BJP to move its MLAs out of Rajasthan. The shoe was on the other foot.
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The Gehlot-Pilot tussle revealed the growing friction between the young and old leaders in the Congress, but it also resulted in the redrawing of some internal equations. While the old guard stood solidly behind Gehlot, the contradictions in Team Rahul came out in the open.
Young leaders who had climbed the ladders of the party through the NSUI and the Youth Congress were clearly unhappy with the likes of Pilot, who they argued had got too much from the party in too little a time. Many of them felt it was time the hardworking leaders in the party were rewarded, not the likes of Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia.
The crisis also brought the leadership confusion in the Congress back into focus. At the same time, the Gandhis used the crisis to send out some clear political messages.
One was that they were willing to listen to grievances, but would not brook open rebellion even by those who were close to them. Pilot was close to Rahul Gandhi, but his sacking was aimed at sending a message that personal equations matter only till a point.
But they did give him a long rope, sending out the message that the party values young talent, and wants to retain them at any cost.
The patch-up too was aimed at sending out that message.
While Ahmed Patel and K C Venugopal did the groundwork, the party wanted Pilot to meet Rahul. It wanted to convey that Rahul was working behind the scenes to save the government and prevent the exit of Pilot.
Rahul had in the past been accused of remaining aloof and inaccessible, and of not showing the eagerness to resolve crises and prevent the exit of leaders. The surprise aspect was the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
For many in the Congress, the BJP was the invisible hand behind the crisis in Rajasthan. But as it turned out, the crisis only exposed the divisions in the Rajasthan BJP.
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Many Congress leaders believe the party should thank former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje for saving the Gehlot government. Raje, the Congress believed, was not keen to support the propping-up of an alternative government.
Unlike in Madhya Pradesh, where Shivraj Singh Chouhan and other senior leaders were in the loop about the negotiations in the run-up to toppling of the Kamal Nath Government, Raje was missing in action in the developments in Jaipur.