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Friday, July 01, 2022

Down, down but never out, out: Sachin Pilot hangs on to support, hope

No party post since his rebellion against Ashok Gehlot two years ago, but Pilot's recent meetings with the Gandhis, talk of change at top show his relevance  

Written by Deep Mukherjee | Jaipur |
Updated: April 24, 2022 7:17:38 am
In January 2014, Sachin Pilot was appointed the president of Rajasthan Congress and tasked with reviving the party in the state. (Express Archive)

Despite not holding any official party post since his rebellion against Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot ended in an uneasy truce two years ago, Tonk MLA and former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot still exerts influence on the party’s affairs in the state.

An example is his recent meetings with the Congress high command — he met the Gandhis twice in a fortnight — that have renewed speculation about the party’s plans for the leader who, as the state Congress president, led it to victory in the 2018 Assembly elections.

However, he still lost out to Gehlot in the race for the chief minister’s chair. The 44-year-old put his chief ministerial ambitions on the backburner and settled for the deputy’s role, but soon found himself at loggerheads with Gehlot. He publicly differed with the government on several issues such as mayoral elections and the death of children at Kota’s JK Lone Hospital, and made repeated demands that party workers at the grassroots be made stakeholders in governance. These caused friction with the Gehlot camp that saw them as Pilot’s attempts to undermine the chief minister.

The tussle escalated to a full-blown political crisis from July to August 2020 after Pilot decamped with 18 MLAs, including Cabinet ministers, loyal to him and moved to Delhi and Haryana for over a month. In response, the state administration filed police cases against some of the legislators. The Congress high command too sided with the chief minister and relieved Pilot of his posts as the state president and deputy chief minister. Two Cabinet ministers who were among the 18 MLAs were also removed from their posts. Wary of the Pilot faction poaching more to its side, Gehlot kept his MLAs in hotels and resorts.

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The tussle between CM Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot had escalated to a full-blown political crisis from July to August 2020. (Express Archive)

But the Congress high command, eager to avoid a rerun of the Jyotiraditya Scindia episode in Madhya Pradesh that led to the fall of the Kamal Nath government earlier that year, brokered a truce between the two warring camps in Rajasthan. Some party leaders have claimed that the Gandhis informally assured Pilot of a change of guard in Rajasthan at least a year before the Assembly polls and that prompted him to end his revolt.

Officially, the Congress set up a committee to look into the issues Pilot and his supporters raised but the public sniping between the two sides continued.

Parallel power centre

Due to the factional feud, several political appointments in the state remained pending for long, with both sides not agreeing on the names of candidates. But in a display of Pilot’s clout in state politics, his loyalists were accommodated in a Cabinet expansion last year and more of his supporters were included in a list of members and chairpersons appointed to various boards and commissions earlier this year.

Pilot’s supporters also played an active role in the protests against three central farm laws that triggered a year-long demonstration at Delhi’s borders starting in September 2020. MLAs in the Pilot camp organised kisan mahapanchayats in various districts as a show of strength. The events, separate from those organised by the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC), revealed that Pilot’s position as a parallel power centre in Rajasthan Congress remained undiminished.

In the recent state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Pilot was one of the party’s star campaigners and was seen several times accompanying Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was in charge of the party in Uttar Pradesh. The regular courtesy calls MLAs make also reflect his grip on Rajasthan politics.

The son of former Union Minister Rajesh Pilot, who died in an accident in 2000, and former MP Rama Pilot, Sachin was elected to the Lok Sabha for the time from Dausa in eastern Rajasthan in 2004. (Express Archive)

Pilot takes off

The son of former Union Minister Rajesh Pilot, who died in an accident in 2000, and former MP Rama Pilot, Sachin was elected to the Lok Sabha for the time from his father’s seat Dausa in eastern Rajasthan in 2004. At the time, he was 26 years old.

After being re-elected from Ajmer in 2009, Pilot found himself as a minister in the Central government and held the portfolios of Union Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology, and Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Corporate Affairs.

In January 2014, Pilot was appointed the president of the state PCC and tasked with reviving the Congress after it was decimated in the 2013 Assembly elections, winning only 21 seats in the 200-member Assembly.

Though the Congress lost all 25 parliamentary seats in Rajasthan in the Lok Sabha elections a few months later, the party, under Pilot, chalked a steady turnaround by consistently winning by-elections and eventually unseating the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in December 2018.

The Congress swept Dausa, which has a substantial population of the Gujjar community to which Pilot belongs, and other districts in eastern Rajasthan. In his political career, Rajesh Pilot was elected to Parliament five times from Dausa (and once from Bharatpur) and the constituency also elected Rama after his death.

In the government, the Congress leader, though officially the number two, burnished his reputation as an able administrator. He held the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj portfolio and was credited for Rajasthan’s laudable performance under MGNREGS during the first Covid-19 wave as the scheme employed a large chunk of the state’s rural, poor population.

With the Pilot camp claiming that “a change of guard is no more not a possibility”, the focus will continue to remain on the 44-year-old leader as the state gears up for the all-important Rajasthan Assembly elections scheduled for later next year.

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