After the events of the last month in Rajasthan ended in an anti-climactic surrender by the rebel Sachin Pilot and a successful show of strength in the Assembly by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, there have been new, politically significant developments in the state. These developments give rise to three key questions, which must be explained.
One, why has Avinash Pande been removed as Congress general secretary in charge of Rajasthan?
Avinash Pande has become the first big casualty of the Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot tussle. The party may not admit it — and Pilot will not say so openly — but it is well known that the former Deputy Chief Minister had conveyed his displeasure over Pande’s style of functioning to the central leadership of the Congress. Replacing Pande, which had been a foregone conclusion, is the first signal by the Congress high command that it is serious about addressing the grievances of Pilot.
For Pilot, Pande’s removal signals good optics. Having lost both the post of Deputy Chief Minister and PCC president, it is important for Pilot to convey a message to his loyalists that the high command is serious in addressing the issues raised by him. The Pilot camp had argued that Pande was not performing his responsibility as an impartial umpire, a role that in-charges are expected to fulfill, especially in faction-riven state units like Rajasthan.
And yet, this is not the first time that an AICC in-charge in a state has come under scrutiny, and has been accused of bias. There are several such instances, the most recent ones being in Haryana, Delhi and Maharashtra.
In October last year, then Haryana Congress president Ashok Tanwar resigned from the party days before the elections after an open fight with Bhupinder Singh Hooda. In an open letter, he said that general secretary in charge Ghulam Nabi Azad had “sold out his responsibility of being the high command’s eyes and ears in Haryana by submitting entirely to the might of his friends”.
In Delhi, the late Sheila Dikshit had a bitter battle with then AICC in-charge P C Chacko, who was removed after the Assembly election earlier this year. In fact, Dikshit’s son Sandeep Dikshit sent a letter to Chacko accusing him of having caused mental agony to Sheila in her last days, which led to her sudden demise.
In Maharashtra, Sanjay Nirupam, who was removed as president of the Mumbai Congress, had hit out at in-charge Mallikarjun Kharge.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress high command replaced its in charge three months ago since state Congress president Kamal Nath was not getting along with him.
There have been instances in which in-charges have even faced physical attacks. In 2010, disgruntled Congressmen threw black ink on the face of V Narayanasamy in Raipur. Narayanasamy, who is now the Chief Minister of Puducherry, was then a Union Minister in Manmohan Singh’s government, and the AICC in-charge of Chhattisgarh.
In the same year, then Union Minister and AICC general secretary in charge of Bihar, Mukul Wasnik, and some other leaders were locked inside the party’s Patna office, Sadaqat Ashram, by some Youth Congress leaders who sat on a dharna outside the gate demanding tickets for Youth Congress candidates in the Assembly elections.
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Two, why has the Congress chosen Ajay Maken to be Pande’s replacement?
First, Pande was a lightweight, Maken is anything but. A former Union Minister and president of the party’s Delhi unit, Maken has rich organisational experience.
Second, he is one of those leaders in the Congress who enjoys the trust and confidence of both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, as well as the leaders who are loyal to both of them.
Third, he is deeply entrenched in the Congress system, knows the ins and outs of its working, and is an established player in it. Sources say the decision to replace Pande was taken as long as a month ago – when the crisis began in the second week of July — and it was a conscious decision to send Maken to Jaipur along with Randeep Surjewala. Maken spent over a month in Rajasthan.
Importantly, the Pilot camp does not appear to be unhappy with the appointment of Maken. Sachin and Maken were Ministers together in the Manmohan Singh cabinet. The Sachin camp believes Maken is a deep politician, who will not get swayed by the frills of power. In fact, both Gehlot and Pilot have welcomed the appointment of Maken.
For Maken, the appointment marks a formal comeback to the AICC set-up after he returned to Delhi politics in 2015 as state unit president. He would know the importance of an impartial in-charge: in the Dikshit-Chacko tug of war in Delhi, the former Chief Minister’s allegation was that Chacko was playing into the hands of Maken. She believed Chacko had become pro-Maken, a charge that Maken always refuted.
The memories from Delhi are likely to have crossed Maken’s mind. Those who are close to him say that he believes that AICC in-charges should be neutral — and not be seen as being pro- or anti- any faction.
Finally, in the light of these developments, what is the Congress’s plan in Rajasthan, at least in the medium-term?
The party has, in a rare move, set up a three-member committee comprising Ahmed Patel, AICC general secretary (organisation) K C Venugopal, and Maken, to hear out the grievances of Pilot and the MLAs close to him.
Never in the recent past has the party officially set up a committee with such a mandate. AICC old-timers remember that the party has always sent central observers to states in times of crisis to listen to factions, leaders, or disgruntled groups and to report back to the high command. But those have always been informal arrangements. This is perhaps for the first time that the party has put in place an institutional mechanism.
That the party has taken such a decision shows its appreciation of the enormity of the crisis — and its desire to resolve it. It also signals the importance that it wants to give to Pilot publicly. There is no timeframe for the committee to come up with a report or suggestions, but both the Congress high command and its state leaders believe it may take no more than 3-6 months. Further changes in the party setup in the state will follow from the committee’s report which, of course, will not be made public.
“It is the classic Congress style. What has to happen will happen, but it will happen through the committee. It should not look like the Congress president has done this. It will be like this is being done since the committee has suggested that,” a senior leader said.
The plan to move Pilot to Delhi and make him AICC general secretary of an important state too may not happen immediately. “All that will happen after the committee holds deliberations with all sections of the party in Rajasthan,” a senior leader said.
Bottomline: The crisis in the Rajasthan unit is not over yet, but the warring factions and the Congress high command have got a breather of at least 3-6 months.