If the Congress finds itself in intractable knots in Rajasthan, at least one of the threads is held by the party in-charge of the state, Ajay Maken.
The Ashok Gehlot camp has openly accused the veteran leader of being biased towards Sachin Pilot, the one man unacceptable to them as the new chief minister of Rajasthan.
While that may just be one reason why Maken and the other leader sent by Delhi as observer, Mallikarjun Kharge, kept waiting for a Congress Legislature Party (CLP) meeting that didn’t happen, Congress leaders in the state say Maken failed consistently to resolve the cracks in the state unit since the August 2020 Pilot rebellion.
1) The latest fiasco
The high command is believed to have communicated to Sachin Pilot its intention to appoint him as CM, with Gehlot set to become the new Congress president. Somehow, Gehlot camp got the whiff of it and his loyalist MLAs got spooked. Congress leaders say that ideally, both sides – and especially Gehlot camp MLAs – should have been taken into confidence by Maken, as the general secretary in-charge of the state, before Pilot was floated as Delhi’s choice, particularly given the bad blood between him and Gehlot.
“It was his job to make sure the news landed smoothly, and Pilot could have been asked to keep it under wraps,” a source said.
Maken also clearly misread how many MLAs supported Gehlot, and how few were with Pilot.
One reason for this is that Maken presumed that with Sonia Gandhi’s blessing to the power change in Jaipur, the MLAs would fall in line – as they do in the party. However, Gehlot is a different kettle of fish, being currently one of the Congress’s tallest leaders, who had already let it be known that he wanted a say in who replaces him.
Sources said that as he headed for the CLP, “Maken was warned by some national leaders about the brewing trouble in Jaipur. But he came with a stick in his hand to enforce the high command’s decision.”
2) Inaccessibility and bias
Party leaders in Rajasthan often complain that Maken, whose politics has centred around Delhi, is inaccessible. This is unlike the culture in Jaipur where, perhaps bar the CM of the day – that too occasionally – everyone else is easily accessible.
It was Parliamentary Affairs Minister and staunch Gehlot loyalist Shanti Dhariwal who, in the wake of the open defiance by Gehlot camp MLAs of the high command, accused Maken of not just being biased but actually asking MLAs to “publicise” Pilot’s name as CM.
“It was 100 per cent a conspiracy. And the general secretary in-charge (of Rajasthan) was a part of it. It is my charge against the general secretary that he was talking partially with the MLAs here. He used to tell MLAs to publicise Sachin Pilot’s name, we have evidence of the same,” Dhariwal said.
Later, he told The Indian Express that Maken had been “biased” and “in favour of Pilot” for a long time.
As leaders in Rajasthan tell you, this would not have gone unnoticed by Gehlot who, they say without exaggeration, “has ears everywhere”. And who strikes clinically and quietly, giving rivals little inkling.
3) The 2020 after-taste
Gehlot’s ability to think two steps ahead of his rivals was evident in the 2020 rebellion by Pilot, when the old fox not just outsmarted the young usurper by saving his government, but by rallying the Congress MLAs overwhelmingly behind him, shut out any lingering ambitions the latter may have had – till now, that is. In the process, Pilot also lost both his position of Deputy CM and PCC chief.
Maken was appointed in the wake of this crisis, after the Pilot camp accused then Congress state in-charge Avinash Pande of “bias”. Maken’s brief was to “ease the tensions” between the Gehlot and Pilot camps, and implement a high command-brokered agreement.
One way to this was to be through political appointments, cabinet expansion, etc, accommodating Pilot’s people. However, Gehlot resisted the same for one-and-a-half long years. Over this period, there was speculation every few weeks or months in Rajasthan that a Cabinet expansion may happen “soon” — “just after” a local body poll or Assembly bypoll got over, or the second Covid wave waned, or Gehlot’s health improved.
Maken could give only evasive replies as to why the promised solution wasn’t materialising. Along with Ahmed Patel and K C Venugopal, he was part of the team tasked with implementing the agreement. With Patel’s demise in November 2020 and Venugopal concerned with other national affairs of the party, the responsibility mainly fell on Maken’s shoulders; meanwhile, the Pilot camp’s restlessness grew, mounting pressure on him.
Congress leaders also wonder at the choice of Maken if the idea was to get Gehlot to compromise. There is no comparison between the two when it comes to stature, they point out – though, given the dearth of tall leaders in its ranks, the Congress may not have been left with much of a choice. So, Maken could really never get Gehlot to do what the latter didn’t want.
“Here, the party high command could have intervened and appointed a veteran to replace the late Ahmed Patel, but it was business as usual. Gehlot’s defiance undermining his authority would naturally have left Maken displeased,” a source said.
4) The Rajya Sabha seat
The Gehlot camp believes that Maken was more favourably placed towards Pilot because of lingering anger over being denied a Rajya Sabha berth from Rajasthan in the June 2022 polls. “Maken wanted to contest from Rajasthan, where it was safer, than Haryana. But Gehlot insisted on Haryana leader Randeep Surjewala rather than Maken. So Maken contested from Haryana, and lost,” a leader said.
5) The countdown
The Gehlot camp claims Maken planned that the CLP would simply pass a one-line resolution authorising the high command to pick the CM, and that it would end up being Pilot. Maken, however, insists he and Kharge were ready to meet everyone individually.
“Ajay Maken ji is correct that raishumari (consultation, with MLAs) is done individually. But was raishumari the agenda of the CLP meeting? Was it on the agenda that there will be raishumari about changing the CM? If it wasn’t so, then why are allegations being levelled against me that we said that we will meet in groups? The CLP meeting is held as a group,” said Mahesh Joshi.
Dhariwal also denied that Maken wanted to meet everyone individually, saying he just wanted to enforce a one-line resolution. Another way out could have been for Maken to say that he would speak to the MLAs first before the CLP meeting, but that too didn’t happen.
Once the Gehlot camp MLAs had assembled at Dhariwal’s house rather than heading for the CM residence where the CLP meeting was planned, Maken again showed little tact in handling what was a fait accompli. Instead of trying to resolve the issues internally, he went to town blasting Gehlot in Jaipur, and then in Delhi.
Before heading for Delhi, Maken even refused to meet Gehlot when he reached the hotel where Kharge and he were staying. Kharge, in contrast, met the CM.