Updated: November 16, 2021 1:27:29 pm
Over the last few days, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Deputy CM Sachin Pilot have been meeting top party leaders in New Delhi. Both have had one-on-one meetings with party chief Sonia Gandhi, ahead of the much-delayed cabinet expansion in Rajasthan. Cabinet expansions or reshuffles are closely watched but in Rajasthan, the impending expansion has been making news sporadically for over a year now. This time, however, it seems that the expansion will indeed happen, although no one is willing to give a date yet.
Why is a cabinet reshuffle/expansion expected in Rajasthan?
Last year, the then deputy chief minister of Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot, had led a rebellion of 19 Congress MLAs, including himself. While the party removed Pilot as deputy CM and as the Panchayati Raj minister, his loyalist Vishvendra Singh was removed as the Tourism minister and Ramesh Meena was removed as Food and Civil Supplies minister.
The crisis lasted beyond a month and the party high command had to step in to broker peace between the two factions. After the two shook hands in August 2020 following truce, it was expected that Pilot’s loyalists would be adjusted in Gehlot’s cabinet. However, for 15 months, Gehlot has been resisting expanding his cabinet.
Over this period, there has been a speculation every few weeks or months in Rajasthan that the expansion may happen ‘soon’, especially whenever local body polls or Assembly bypolls got over, or post the second Covid wave, or once Gehlot’s health improved, with party’s state in-charge Ajay Maken giving evasive replies at best.
Pilot has himself said, on numerous occasions, that the cabinet expansion is expected “soon.” In May this year, for example, he said that “we will have to work more quickly in the remaining tenure. This includes political appointments, cabinet expansion – whatever is to be done, the party and the government will form consensus. As you know, a committee was constituted several months ago…I have trust and belief that there won’t be any delay as the discussions which were held and the issues which were raised; the issues on which the committee was constituted, there should be immediate action on it and I feel there will be – I have full faith in Sonia Gandhi ji because the committee was constituted on her orders.”
There was also pressure on Gehlot by Pilot’s loyalists, who publicly attacked his government. But in an apparent message to the party workers in the state, Gehlot continued to delay expansion and imply that the power rests with him and that he can’t be pressured by the Pilot faction.
Now, with some ministers holding dual responsibilities and state elections just two years away, the expansion apparently can’t be delayed any longer.
What is the significance of the reshuffle now?
The Sachin Pilot faction had been hoping that Pilot would be made the Chief Minister long before the state goes for Assembly polls in late 2023. Some within his faction wanted this to happen at least two years before the poll – which is right now – to avoid a Punjab like mess, and for Pilot to comfortably settle in and make a mark on the basis of which he can again seek votes in 2023. They argue that for the last two decades, Rajasthan’s electorate has been taking turns to elect BJP and then the Congress. So, to break the chain and re-elect the Congress, it is necessary to launch a fresh face as the CM, they say.
However, after last year’s political crisis, Gehlot has only gone from strength to strength. The party has performed fairly well in municipal and panchayati raj polls, and in the recently held bypolls for two assembly seats, Congress not only retained its seat in Vallabhnagar but took Dhariawad from BJP and BJP was pushed to fourth and the third position on these seats, respectively.
Gehlot’s actions and remarks since last year have also implied that he isn’t going away anytime soon. Hence, Pilot may just have to contend with cabinet berths for his loyalists.
In January this year, the AICC had done a balancing act in its appointments to the Congress state executive, where Pilot’s loyalists figured in appropriate numbers. However, Gehlot seems to have grown stronger since then. Hence, induction of new faces in the cabinet will show where Pilot stands in the party now, and also show the high command’s perception of who stands where in the party in Rajasthan.
With Gehlot holding power, will the expansion/reshuffle be easier for him?
While the expansion will be a test of Pilot’s sway in the party, it isn’t any easier for Gehlot either.
As Congress MLAs, independents, etc. stayed with Gehlot in hotels and resorts for over a month, they were assured by Gehlot that their patience and loyalty will be suitably rewarded.
Congress had 107 MLAs of its own during the rebellion – including six from Bahujan Samaj Party who merged with the Congress. After Pilot moved out with 19 MLAs, it left Gehlot with 88 Congress MLAs, well short of the majority of 101 in the Assembly. However, with the support of 13 independents, two MLAs from Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP), one from Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), and two from Communist Party of India (Marxist), Gehlot was well placed and eventually foiled Pilot’s rebellion; RLD’s Subhash Garg is already a minister in the Gehlot government.
Back then he had assured those who supported him that they’ll be suitably rewarded. Then, at one of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) meetings during the rebellion, the MLAs even passed a resolution seeking strict action against the rebels.
So, when Gehlot inducts Pilot loyalists, not only will he be backtracking on the CLP resolution but the induction will come at the cost of those who supported him. This may not sit well with some of his supporters.
Last, he will also have to balance the regions and castes. In the words of Pilot, the party will have to consider factors like “experience, credibility, performance, regional balance and caste combination” in the cabinet expansion.
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What is expected in the cabinet?
A state can have a maximum of 15 per cent ministers of the total numbers of members in the Legislative Assembly. Since Rajasthan has 200 Assembly seats, Gehlot can have a maximum of 30 ministers.
Currently, apart from the CM, there are ten cabinet ministers and ten ministers of state, leaving nine vacancies.
Then, at least three ministers are expected to go as they hold important responsibilities in the party. Govind Singh Dotasra is the Minister of State and holds the portfolios of Education (Primary and Secondary), Tourism, and Devasthan Departments but is also president of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee. Health Minister Raghu Sharma was recently appointed AICC in-charge of Gujarat and Revenue Minister Harish Chaudhary is in charge of the Punjab Congress.
That makes for 12 vacancies. However, Gehlot is expected to leave 2-3 berths vacant for now to enable him to buy more time with those who are not inducted and may be visibly unhappy.
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