With Sachin Pilot’s claim that he is not joining the BJP, the Rajasthan drama has become complicated. For the Congress, it would have been easier to handle it if Pilot were to follow Jyotiraditya Scindia and join the BJP. With the risk of losing power in Rajasthan, the Congress could complain about treachery and ideological bankruptcy. It is another matter that the Congress never introspects why its stalwarts have no problem joining the ideological arch rival. For the time being, by not joining the BJP, Pilot has thrown up tough questions for the party that seems too eager to lose him.
Pilot has never hidden his ambition to “serve the people of Rajasthan”. There was more than a whiff of entitlement resulting in impatience in his (and earlier, in Scindia’s) claims. But as the current developments have shown, Pilot does not seem to have the steadfast support of more than a score of the party MLAs. This has severely limited his choices. Another option is to join the BJP but that alternative probably does not guarantee the post of chief minister.
This leaves Pilot with the third and more challenging option: To form a new party (and then form an alliance with whoever is willing). Many Congresspersons have adopted this route — like the present incumbents in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. But the Congress in Rajasthan is not in the dilapidated condition that it was in these two states when Mamata Banerjee and Jaganmohan Reddy took the regional route. It could also be argued that Rajasthan (like MP or Gujarat) is far too bipolar in its political character to have space for a third party.
But what do the Rajasthan developments tell us about the Congress? While on the surface, this is a “fight to the finish” for the two warring factions in the state, the role of the “third angle” in the triangle — the central leadership — has been intriguing. The party’s hydra-headed approach has confused most — both outside and inside the party. The central leadership’s approach has ensured that Pilot will find it very difficult to “return” to the fold. The Congress seems keen on showing how to create enemies out of its own members and commit political suicide.
The political intrigue in Rajasthan so far leads to the inescapable conclusion that if Pilot has been over-ambitious and impatient and Gehlot has been excessively factional, the party has been inexplicably muddleheaded. Dropping Pilot from the cabinet might be seen as a concession to the chief minister who seems to have larger numbers with him. But what procedure was followed and what purpose was served by also removing him as state party chief? Barricading him and his supporters against a possible move to the BJP seems understandable, but what is the sense in issuing notices under the anti-defection law when all they have done is not attend the legislature party meeting? When a seasoned politician like Gehlot publicly ridicules his colleague as merely a smart-looking, English speaking person, what message does that send?
A party that is often accused of not giving enough autonomy to its state leaders all of a sudden seems to have given a free hand to the chief minister — even at the cost of causing a split in the state party. While the two factions in the state Congress would surely charge for each other’s throat, the party’s invisible top leadership seems busy in hurting the party more than the two factions can.
Sometime back, Captain Amarinder Singh was supposed to have wrested autonomy, in Chhattisgarh Bhupesh Baghel seems to be quietly creating a niche for himself, in MP, the exit of Scindia has given Kamal Nath more control over the state unit and in Rajasthan now, Gehlot appears to be in command. Though, in MP, the party lost power and in Rajasthan it might face the same fate, a rather audacious interpretation would be that the party is finally waking up to the idea of giving its state units more autonomy and state leaders more elbow room. That would indeed be a great step in redesigning the party. It is, however, not clear if this is an outcome of a well-thought out approach or merely a function of the drift in the party.
A careful redesigning of the organisational strategy, however, is predicated on three pre-conditions. The first is that the state strongmen don’t wrest the initiative, leaving the party only with the option of endorsing what they do; secondly, the state leadership should have the ability to ensure accommodation of key factions rather than one faction masquerading as the party; and above all, the central leadership must have both a connect with the people and legitimacy with rank and file, so that when it intervenes, such intervention is seen as acceptable. A weak party with a leadership groping the dark can barely afford to expect that disciplined soldiers can be made out of party members merely by imposing the will of one faction on the other.
The other way to understand the Rajasthan drama is to read it as the outcome of chaotic non-coordination. For the past one year, the party does not have a full-fledged president, and as a result, no clear direction. The interim president of the party has not bothered about organisational matters. The president of a party is many things. She/he is surely a symbol of unity, and as such, must perform symbolic actions; the party president is also an ideological leader expected to give clues about the parry’s stand on various matters. But over and above these expressive functions that catch public attention, the tasks of party building, strategising and mediating among party colleagues remain the most crucial responsibility of leadership.
It would be interesting to see whether the Congress seeks to move in the direction of a more federal handling of factionalism without necessarily allowing state-level factions to hijack the state units. But if what is happening in Rajasthan is mere drift, then it seems more than likely that leaders like Pilot, from many states, might consider forming their own state parties. The overcrowding of the BJP and the unwillingness of the Congress to take various factions on board in different states are likely to create space for such regional experiments. It is a surprise that this process did not begin right after 2019, but the directionlessness of the Congress and its continuing failure to resolve the leadership crisis can only function as a catalyst for another spurt of regional parties.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 20 under the title “Redesign or drift.” The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.