In 2018, after the Congress won underwhelmingly in Rajasthan, scraping past the halfway mark in a state where anti-incumbency sentiment was strong against the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje government, Ashok Gehlot was made chief minister and Sachin Pilot his deputy. That was clearly not the end of the leadership tussle in the Congress. It was, in fact, only the beginning of a new phase of the attrition within. For that persistent unease in one of the few states where the Congress still has a government, both Gehlot and Pilot are to blame — Gehlot more, given that as the head of government, the buck stops with him. But Pilot isn’t the innocent victim done in by a wily superior. If the No. 2 job, as it was defined, was too small for him, he should not have taken it. Sulking about the CM when you are his deputy in the government is neither good politics nor smart governance. But this time, Gehlot must take responsibility for the extraordinary sequence of events — a bizarre notice issued to Pilot, among others, by the Rajasthan Police’s Special Operation Group, to record their statements in connection with the arrest of two BJP leaders allegedly conspiring to topple the Congress government. After that, an all-too-familiar political brinkmanship has played out in a Congress government still to turn two years old — MLAs openly divided into camps, being ferried in buses with tinted windows into fortress-like resorts. All this, even as the other staple of an Opposition government in crisis in recent times — income tax raids — takes place, apparently coincidentally.
But if Gehlot must own the larger share of the blame for the Congress unravelling in Jaipur, it is the party high command that is most answerable. If it knew of the patchy peace between the warring CM and his deputy — and how could it not — the question is: What did it do to resolve the resentments? What mechanisms did it put in place to prevent a breakdown like this one? There is no evidence that either Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi addressed themselves to the task in Rajasthan with any urgency. Like much else in the Congress, the CM vs Deputy CM conflict in Jaipur was left unattended, and allowed to fester and grow. The organisational listlessness that has marked the Congress ever since the Modi BJP laid it low has contributed to the implosion in Rajasthan — just as it led to the collapse, earlier, of the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh after the exit of Jyotiraditya Scindia and subsequent cross-over to the BJP. The irresoluteness at the centre of the party, if it continues, could well stoke other simmering factional resentments in other state units, jeopardising more Congress governments.
Whichever way the Gehlot vs Pilot face-off goes, this much is clear: The Congress needs to get a grip on itself and that process must start with filling the apparent leadership vacuum at its centre. It cannot keep deferring important decisions indefinitely. This is a vital necessity for the Congress, if it wishes to survive. It is also necessary for the polity to have a coherent and healthy national party of the Opposition.
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