In a busy market adjacent to the Jama Masjid stands an old two-storey building painted in yellow that houses the office of the district Congress committee (DCC) in Rajasthan’s Tonk.
A Congress party flag has been hoisted above, and a poster of party president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul has been put up over the building, which also has a government dispensary operating from the ground floor.
But there’s no party worker or office bearer anywhere in sight and the gate to the office is locked, with local shopkeepers saying that it remains shut most of the time.
A few hundred metres from the DCC office are posters of Congress leader and Tonk MLA Sachin Pilot, put up by supporters of the former deputy chief minister.
The three and half-year-long feud between Pilot and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has had its bearings on Tonk as well, which hasn’t had a district Congress president since July 2020, when all district and block Congress committees were dissolved by the party during the political crisis in the state in the wake of Pilot’s rebellion against Gehlot.
Last year, the party finally appointed 13 DCC presidents but Tonk was not among them.
For Pilot’s supporters in Tonk, it has been a long wait since December 2018, when, as the Congress’s state unit chief, he was projected as the new, youthful face of the party and a strong contender for the CM post. Though Pilot won with a margin of more than 54,000 votes from Tonk, it was Gehlot who went on to be CM.
The upcoming elections for the Congress national president and the speculation that Gehlot may have to relinquish the CM’s post if he is elevated to the top post in the party have once again made Pilot’s supporters hopeful.
“The Congress party was decimated to 21 seats (in the 2013 polls). It was Pilot sahab who worked hard and brought the Congress to power. People are of the opinion that he should be made CM at least now so that the Congress still has a chance to retain power (in the next Assembly elections),” says Laxman Choudhary Gata, former president of DCC Tonk.
Gata, a Jat leader, was appointed by Pilot — then the Congress chief in Rajasthan — in 2018 to head the Tonk unit of the party. He stayed in the post for two years, until the DCC was dissolved in 2020.
“The election process for the national president that has started now, had this been done earlier, the party would have been strengthened,” says Ali Ahmed, chairman of the Tonk Municipal Council.
He goes on to list the development works that Pilot initiated — a Rs 400-crore sewerage project, roads built during Pilot’s tenure as PWD minister, and schools that were upgraded to senior secondary.
Ahmed is the brother-in-law of Saud Saidi, a close associate of Pilot, who was instrumental in garnering support for the 45-year-old leader during his election campaign in Tonk. Saidi himself had contested the 2013 Assembly elections as an Independent from Tonk and came second, ahead of the Congress candidate.
According to local Congress leaders, the over two lakh voters of the Tonk constituency include Muslims (50,000), Scheduled Castes (45,000), Gujjars (32,000) and Jats (25,000).
“Pilot sahab should become the CM because he has worked hard for the party. When we voted in 2018, we thought he would become the chief minister. The last three years have gone by with us hoping that he would be elevated to the post someday. The people of Rajasthan, not just Tonk, wanted Pilot sahab as CM,” says Shankar Dadiya, who belongs to Pilot’s Gujjar community and whose mother, Manbhar Devi, is the sarpanch of Baroni, a gram panchayat that falls in Tonk.
While Pilot’s detractors have often tried to label him as a Gujjar leader, his supporters point to how the former deputy CM, while immensely popular within his community, has worked hard to take chattis kaum (all communities) together.
Back in 2020, out of the 18 loyalist MLAs who sided with Pilot, two were Gujjars while the rest were from a large array of castes, including Jats, Meenas, Rajputs, Brahmins, Vaishyas and Scheduled Castes. His supporters point to how, even in the eastern Rajasthan district of Dausa, where Gujjar-Meena clashes had erupted during the quota protests of the mid-2000s, there are MLAs belonging to both the communities wh are counted among Pilot’s supporters.
For now, Pilot’s biggest challenge remains CM Gehlot’s grip over the state’s politics. Even in the event of Gehlot stepping down as CM to make way for Pilot, the 45-year-old faces a tall order — a majority of the legislators had sided with Gehlot during the 2020 political crisis. Also, Gehlot loyalists have a majority in the council of ministers and at least 10 of the 13 Independent MLAs are supporters of the 71-year-old CM.
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Back in Tonk, from where around 5,000 party workers came to Jaipur to mark Pilot’s birthday earlier this month, the mood among his supporters is clear — this is his last chance to be CM ahead of next year’s Assembly elections.
“Yeh abhi hua to hua, warna fir nahin hoga,” says Tonk Municipal Council chairman Ali Ahmed.