The key variable that helps explain the chaotic sequence of events in Rajasthan is the authority of the Congress high command. The high command is a somewhat misunderstood concept in media circles but when it comes to the Congress, it simply represents a dynamic balance of power between the Gandhi family (and its coterie), and the senior leadership of the party, at both the national and the state level.
This balance of power has turned against the Congress high command because of two reasons: one, the Gandhi family can no longer win elections for the party; and two, its ability to dispense patronage has diminished as it can no longer accommodate ambitious leaders in the central government.
Sonia Gandhi had understood the import of these fundamental shifts and therefore adopted a consensual, status quoist approach to party management. In the three years after he took over the reins of party and government, Rajiv Gandhi had changed Congress chief ministers twelve times. At once every three months, this turnover rate was higher than even under the imperious Indira era. Comparatively, Sonia Gandhi has only forced out two chief ministers in two decades: Ashok Chavan (in 2010) and Amarinder Singh (in 2021).
Ashok Gehlot is likely to become the third deposed CM, his apology notwithstanding. His rebellion represents perhaps the most serious challenge to the authority of the high command in the entirety of the Sonia era (even more so than the G23 episode).
Authority, a formalised system of power, is about perception; and the truest gauge of authority is in how it is seen to respond when confronted with a challenge. If the high command is seen to be enforcing no costs, it would risk transmuting a temporary damage into a permanent diminution of authority. If regional satraps are allowed to walk all over it, for all intents and purposes, it ceases to be a high command.
After Gehlot’s exit from the presidency race, we can sketch two plausible scenarios of how the Rajasthan impasse can be resolved.
Ashok Gehlot resigns, consensus CM installed (likely scenario)
We say this is the likely scenario because both sides here satisfy their core interests: the high command gets to preserve its authority, whereas Ashok Gehlot manages to retain control over the choice of his successor, and keep Sachin Pilot out of the fray.
There have been signals from both sides on the desirability of this compromise. In his press briefing after meeting Sonia Gandhi, Gehlot left the choice of the future CM to the discretion of the Congress president. In the meeting, he only insisted that placing Sachin Pilot on the throne would break the government (leaving open the possibility of the succession of another leader). Meanwhile, the high command has been careful to spare Gehlot from the disciplinary dragnet, charging only his hatchet men, thus allowing him the space to manoeuvre towards a settlement.
If this scenario turns into reality, it would beg a simple question: why could such a straightforward compromise not be hammered out behind closed doors, and needed a Game of Thrones style saga playing out all over the national media?
Both sides, perhaps, over-estimated their negotiating hand, since the balance of power between the Congress high command and its senior leadership has been in an unprecedented state of flux.
The mistake of the Gandhis was in denying Ashok Gehlot the right to influence the choice of his own successor. Both Sonia and Rahul had reportedly communicated to Gehlot that he need not concern himself with the choice of the future CM. They can point to longstanding Congress tradition, where such a decision has wrested solely with the high command. Nevertheless, it was an unreasonable position, in light of prevailing reality. Gehlot is one of only two Congress chief ministers. Asking him to relinquish that enormous power to assume the presidency of a declining party that is unlikely to come to power anytime soon at the Centre, without acquiescing to his demand of continued influence over his home turf, was an almost Biblically severe test of loyalty.
The mistake of Gehlot was in accepting the opportunity to run for the Congress presidency, knowing what it entailed. A firm ‘no’ at the outset (ala Kamal Nath) would have left him in a stronger position than he is today. Defiance of the high command in private, as bad as it is, is better than defiance in full public glare. He might have nevertheless been forced to submit to a similar transition, but he could have maintained his unimpeachable record of loyalty to the high command.
After all, Gehlot’s biggest political capital, over the last four decades, has been proximity to the Congress high command: the Gandhi family and its surrounding coterie. It was this proximity, rather than his personal charisma or vote-catching abilities (both of which are rather modest), that had fuelled his rise up the organisational ladder. More importantly, it had enabled him to fend off equally formidable (or even more formidable) challengers to the CM chair, thrice in succession—Parasram Maderna in 1998, C.P. Joshi in 2008 and Sachin Pilot in 2018. The rebellion has staked out all that carefully accumulated political capital, although a compromise now might help repair the frayed relations.
Scenario 2: Gehlot stays on as CM (less likely)
Of course, there is a second plausible scenario where Gehlot refuses to budge from his chair. The high command might then feel constrained to allow him to run through the remainder of the term, especially if the only alternative involves jeopardising the stability of the government.
This might be construed as a victory for the Gehlot rebellion, at least on a short-term evaluation. He gets another year as chief minister and (equally importantly) keeps Sachin Pilot out. But in the long-term view, it decisively moves the high command towards the Pilot camp. Gehlot will steadily shed power as he moves towards the end of the term. Especially so if the high command administers a restructuring of the state unit (particularly the post of the PCC chief), away from the stranglehold of the Gehlot camp.
Much has been made of the loyalty of party MLAs towards Gehlot, but we must remember that political loyalty is a transactional value that mainly depends on expected patronage. In other words, the political calculus of MLAs (and indeed all organisational functionaries) is determined less by the softer skills of man management and more by the hard, shifting dynamics of power.
At any rate, it is very hard to see Gehlot returning to power again, even in the remote possibility of a Congress victory. Thus, the moment he vacates his chair, he loses his entire political leverage, as the locus of power shifts once again to the Delhi durbar. Post-December 2023, without the Congress presidency, and facing a hostile Pilot buttressed by the high command, Gehlot might also lose the ability to shape the political career of his son, Vaibhav Gehlot (which, all along, had been a key bone of contention in his feud with Pilot).
Hence, a compromise now (from a position of relative strength) might serve his long-term interests better than pressing home the advantage over a stunned high command.
One can also think of a third possible scenario — the removal of Gehlot and the enthroning of Sachin Pilot. But that seems very unlikely. Gehlot’s gambit has succeeded in ensuring that making Pilot the CM would now be perceived as an undemocratic imposition of the high command over the wishes of the party MLAs. It would be a particularly hard move to justify at a time when the ‘defence of democracy’ forms an important component of the ideological positioning of the Congress, reflected in both the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the resumption of presidential polls after a two-decade hiatus.
The Rajasthan crisis is still in a fluid situation, and the two principal players (Gehlot and the high command) are yet to make their final moves. Gehlot, the magician, might have temporarily vanished the authority of the high command, but political reality is rapidly gushing back to demand its due. In whichever way this impasse is resolved, it would show us the real measure of the prevailing balance of power undergirding the authority of the Congress high command. It is this newer paradigm that would shape the future of the Congress, much more than any presidential election.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist. He tweets @AsimAli6. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)