If another proof was needed that Ashok Gehlot is not going anywhere in a hurry, this was as good as any. On Friday, the Rajasthan Chief Minister, engaged in a battle of wits with his own party leadership, posed confidently on the stage with industrialist Gautam Adani at an investors’ summit in Jaipur. A day later, Rahul Gandhi, who has made Adani the chief target of his attacks on the Modi government, was facing uncomfortable questions about it at his Bharat Jodo Yatra in Turuvekere, Karnataka.
It’s only 10 days since Gehlot emerged from his meeting with Sonia Gandhi in Delhi and announced with humility that he was no longer in the race for Congress president. The defiance by his loyalists of a Congress high command order and the rap from it meant Gehlot, apparently chastened, said he had apologised to Sonia and that it was up to her to decide who the new CM of Rajasthan would be.
Handled a major embarrassment on the eve of its presidential election, the Congress promised an answer in “one-two days”.
No one knows better than Gehlot’s rival and CM-in-perpetual wait Sachin Pilot that the moment may have passed.
It didn’t take long for Gehlot to be in original form after that September 29 meeting with Sonia. On October 2, ignoring a precise directive by the central leadership to party leaders in Rajasthan to refrain from making public statements against other leaders or about the party’s internal matters, Gehlot was voluble in remarks seen as directed at Pilot as well as party Rajasthan in-charge Ajay Maken, as well as in defending his loyalists.
When a new CM is to be appointed, “80-90 per cent MLAs leave the (incumbent) CM, and want to catch the new CM”, Gehlot said, speaking to journalists. “But what was this case where it was known that if I become the (party) president, and there will be a new CM… woh iss kadar matlab bhadak gaye (they got so agitated)… What was their fear?… All sides, all our leaders should think… why were the MLAs angry?”
On October 3, Gehlot observed that there is “guna bhaag (multiplication and division)” in politics, and “dikhta hai jo hota nahin hai, jo hota hai woh dikhta nahin hai (things are not what they seem, and what happens is not seen)”.
If the high command needed any more hints that this might exactly be the case while dealing with Gehlot, came the October 7 Investment Summit, and the Adani star appearance. If Adani had high praise for the CM, Gehlot commended both “Gautam bhai” and his state of Gujarat.
The BJP put in words what all of Jaipur was speculating on in private. Amit Malviya, its I-T cell head, asked whether it was “another sign of revolt and brewing discontent against the Gandhis” by Gehlot and “an open message to Rahul Gandhi… to back off”.
On Saturday, Day 2 of the Summit, Gehlot attacked the BJP, saying: “Why are you creating issues over employment opportunities?… The 3,000 (investors) who have come, are they of Congress? They can be from the Congress, BJP or anywhere… Be it Gautam Adani or any Adani, be it Adani or Ambani, or Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah, we will welcome everyone here, those who are from the industry.”
Asked about Adani being given pride of place at the Rajasthan Summit, Rahul said Saturday that the businessman had not been given any preferential treatment. “Mr Adani has a proposal to invest Rs 60,000 crore in Rajasthan. No CM can refuse such an offer,” he said, adding that he was not opposed to business but monopolies.
If the Congress wished the scrap hadn’t interfered with Rahul’s message, which continues to be about “the two Indias, one of the rich and the other of the poor” during his Yatra, clearly it could do little to control Gehlot.
Meanwhile, in other ways too, the indefatigable 72-year-old has been sending Delhi unmistakable signals from Rajasthan. Over the last few days, thanks to the Investment Summit, his face is conspicuous in Jaipur — on billboards, road banners, newspaper ads (including in national dailies).
According to his rivals, having pushed the envelope one too many times with the September 25 rebellion of his loyalists, Gehlot is just trying to go out with a bang. Or at least attempting a last hurrah.
However, if there is one lesson they have learnt in four-plus years of the near-constant tussle between him and Pilot for chief ministership, it is that you never know with Gehlot.
And hence, both the BJP and Pilot camp are doing little but watching, and waiting, for the chips to fall.
The resignations of Gehlot camp MLAs, to protest against any possibility of his removal, are still with Speaker C P Joshi, as Leader of Opposition Gulab Chand Kataria had told The Indian Express. Joshi is known to be close to Gehlot, and this gives the CM considerable leverage over the party, which can’t let another state get out of its control.
The Pilot camp doesn’t hold any cards, in comparison, and is seen as banking solely on being valued for its discretion, as the ‘good boys’ who follow the high command, particularly in comparison to Gehlot’s ‘bad men’.
Sources say the situation is likely to remain in a limbo at least till the Congress presidential election on October 17.
However, if the party is hoping not to get into the intractable situation before that, no one expects the going to be easier after. A month is a long time in politics, and as the memory of his MLAs’ defiance becomes fainter, and he ensures that his imprint on Rajasthan gets stronger, Gehlot is not likely to be any more pliant to change.
The onus might then be on Pilot, and whether he would be willing to wait any longer. The young leader has already burnt his hands once in taking Gehlot on, but has not climbed down from his position that something needs to give if the Congress wants to return to power in the state.
Spare a thought also for the Congress MLAs, who have now lived through resort coups, midnight coups, allegations of phone-tapping, all in-house, and are still not sure which side to place their bets on. Some, like Osian MLA Divya Maderna, have decided that there is only one good side: the high command.