For the second time in two years, the Congress high command Monday changed the party’s in-charge for Rajasthan, appointing former Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa to the post.
Randhawa’s appointment comes two years after Ajay Maken took over, and is a reminder that despite the Congress’s repeated efforts to present a united front – including as the Bharat Jodo Yatra passes through Rajasthan – all is far from well in the state unit, split between the two factions led by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former deputy CM Sachin Pilot respectively.
Maken’s replacement followed his letter to Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge seeking to resign as AICC general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan after no action was taken against three close associates of Gehlot, who were given show-cause notices for holding a parallel meeting in Jaipur on September 25, while Maken and Kharge had called a Congress Legislature Party (CLP) meeting.
Maken was openly accused of being partial towards Pilot by Gehlot-loyalist ministers such as Shanti Dhariwal, one of the three leaders who were served show-cause notices by the party.
Ironically, in August 2020, when the Congress had brought in Maken in place of its Rajasthan in-charge Avinash Pande, it was also with the hope of defusing the tension between the Pilot and Gehlot camps. Maken’s appointment came after the stormy month-long political crisis in July-August 2020, when Pilot took off with 18 of his loyalist MLAs and camped in Haryana and Delhi.
It was known at the time that the Pilot camp was unhappy with Pande’s style of functioning and his perceived proximity to Gehlot. His replacement with Maken was seen as a gesture by the high command to address the grievances raised by Pilot and broker peace.
Pande had been holding the post since 2017 and had overseen the Congress’s election campaign and its subsequent return to power after the 2018 Rajasthan Assembly elections.
After his appointment, the first task before Maken was reconstituting the district and block Congress committees that were dissolved after the 2020 rebellion of Pilot against Gehlot. But work got stalled on this front due to neither camp agreeing on the names of the appointees.
Finally, more than a year after Maken took charge, the Congress appointed 13 district presidents in Rajasthan in December 2021, shortly after a long-due Cabinet expansion, where Pilot loyalists who were stripped off the ministerial ranks in 2020 got them back.
However, Maken failed in efforts to reorganise the Congress organisation.
Last year, a short video clip of minister Dhariwal went viral, where reporters asked him his thoughts regarding Maken taking feedback from party MLAs to make changes in the organisation. “Kaun kar raha hai badlav? Kaun kar raha hai badlav? Yahan toh Ashok Gehlot ji hain jo kuch hain jo (Who is making changes? Who is making changes? Here there is only Ashok Gehlot ji, who is everything)” Dhariwal had said.
The last straw that completed the undermining of Maken’s authority was the political crisis of September-October this year when over 90 party MLAs chose to skip the CLP meeting and submitted their resignations as part of the Gehlot camp’s bid to stop the high command from installing Pilot as the CM.
Now it’s upon Randhawa to strengthen the party organisation before the 2023 Assembly elections, just a year away. Several district Congress committees (DCCs) in the state don’t have a president or office-bearers still, having been removed following the 2020 political crisis.
Incidentally, Randhawa himself comes from a Congress unit that has long been fighting dissension in ranks, and was among the leaders who rallied against former CM Amarinder Singh, eventually leading to him leaving the party. Randhawa is known to be close to former Rajasthan minister Harish Choudhary, who is the Punjab in-charge of the Congress.
With both Gehlot and Pilot congratulating Randhawa on his appointment, he thanked the Congress leadership Tuesday, adding that he will try his best to meet the “huge expectations” of the party.