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What the Rajasthan political crisis highlights: Congress effectively has no high command

Is the Congress now entering a time when it will not be dominated by the Gandhi family? Is the period of the family's domination of the party – as Narasimha Rao had predicted in 1998 – coming to a close?

The relationship between Gehlot and Pilot has become increasingly bitter, going beyond the usual political differences between leaders, and the national leadership did little to defuse those tensions. (File Photo)

A few days after Sonia Gandhi had taken over as Congress president after ousting Sitaram Kesri in 1998, I met former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao for an informal chat. In the course of the conversation, he remarked, “Ab 25-30 saal ke liye is parivar ke haath mein chali gayi yeh party (Now this party will go into the hands of this family for the next 25-30 years)”. Rao turned out to be prophetic. But now, the influence the Nehru-Gandhi family has exercised in Congress affairs for a quarter of a century is waning.

There was a time when chief ministers of states would get the shivers if the high command sent them an emissary like GK Moopanar, ML Fotedar, Buta Singh or Sitaram Kesri. It could be a one-line resignation for the CM to sign, or a diktat for the CLP to authorise the Congress president to choose a CM.

But India is changing and so is the Congress party. If something has underscored this changing reality dramatically, it is Rajasthan, and the defiance by none other than its chief minister, Ashok Gehlot.

It was Congress chief Sonia Gandhi who asked for a Congress Legislature Party meet in Jaipur. Ajay Maken, general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan, and senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge arrived in the state capital to secure a one-line resolution by the CLP, which would authorise the Congress president to select the next chief minister of Rajasthan — something she has been doing for years.

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The high command had decided to install Sachin Pilot as the new chief minister, a position promised to him repeatedly over the years since 2014 — and to bring the experienced Gehlot to the national stage as the Congress president. On the face of it, it seemed to be a win-win situation. For, the younger Pilot was more likely to beat back anti-incumbency in the state, and increase the Congress tally in the polls due next year. And the savvy Gehlot would have helped rebuild the organisation, given his experience of administration as a three-time CM and his understanding of the Congress system, and of India, over the last 40 years — possibly leading to an increase in the Congress seats in the 2024 general elections. The high command would have also calculated that on the high table of Opposition leaders, Gehlot would be more acceptable than possibly any other Congress leader today, as regional satraps try and forge Opposition unity against the Narendra Modi-led BJP. Besides, he enjoyed the confidence of the Gandhi family and was seen as a true blue loyalist.

But Gehlot, the old-school, wily Congress politician who wants to remain CM, turned defiant. The CLP meeting did not take place. Ninety-two MLAs reportedly loyal to Gehlot — he played his trump card at the last minute — met elsewhere. Then they drove to the Speaker and gave in their resignations from the assembly — if Pilot was made CM. They put three conditions — that the party president would decide the CM after October 16, when he, Gehlot, was elected Congress chief; none of the rebels who had revolted with Pilot in 2020 could be CM; and the central observers would have to talk to the MLAs in groups, not individually.

Gehlot had sent a clear message to the high command — that he had the majority with him. With the MLAs’ threat to resign from the assembly, theoretically speaking, he could break the party, if pushed to the wall. And if he becomes the party chief, he, not Sonia Gandhi, should decide the next CM. And no way could it be Pilot, who the party high command wanted to install as CM. Nobody bought the line that he had nothing to do with the MLAs’ revolt.

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The relationship between Gehlot and Pilot has become increasingly bitter, going beyond the usual political differences between leaders, and the national leadership did little to defuse those tensions.

The high command is reportedly “furious” with Gehlot but what their fury will add up to remains to be seen. There was little the high command could do when the Haryana Congress MLAs loyal to Bhupinder Singh Hooda had helped BJP-backed independent candidate Subhash Chandra win the Rajya Sabha elections in 2016. Their votes (14) were declared invalid due to the use of the “wrong pen”. In Punjab more recently, the high command had sent captain Amarinder Singh packing — and later lost Punjab.

Ever since Modi came to power in 2014, the Gandhi family has been losing its clout. It is neither able to win elections for the party nor raise the money that is needed for them; successive elections have gone to prove this. Rahul Gandhi — even as he is being greeted enthusiastically in southern states during his Bharat Jodo Yatra — has not proved to be a vote catcher. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has not taken off as expected. Sonia Gandhi’s health does not permit her to undertake an active role. Worse, Sonia no longer has experienced hands like Ahmed Patel to troubleshoot for her, to anticipate and deal with a crisis like Rajasthan. Those dealing with the state now obviously did not have an inkling about the “revolt” in the offing, with as many as 92 MLAs reportedly cocking a snook at the high command.

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The Rajasthan developments also come as a setback for Pilot, even as many see him as the face of the future. But more significantly, they come as a slap in the face of the Congress high command. Rajasthan has underscored that there is no such thing as a high command in the Congress today. Even if it exists formally, its writ does not run.

Is the Congress now entering a time when it will not be dominated by the Gandhi family? Is the period of the family’s domination of the party — as Narasimha Rao had predicted in 1998 — coming to a close?

The writer is a senior journalist

First published on: 28-09-2022 at 04:00:14 am
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