New Delhi: Sachin Pilot, the Rajasthan Congress rebel leader, may look down and out with only 18 out of 107 party legislators supporting him but he is still in the hunt to oust Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.
Rajasthan High Court’s decision Friday on a petition by the 19 rebels against the assembly Speaker’s disqualification notice may be crucial to the survival of Gehlot government as also Pilot’s immediate political future. The Congress party’s crisis managers have conceded to ThePrint that Gehlot is not out of the woods yet, though the party claims the support of 109 MLAs, including smaller parties and Independents in the 200-member assembly.
The reason for Pilot’s hopes: the ruling Congress’ strength has been reduced to 88 from 107, excluding the 19 rebels. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has 72 MLAs and its ally, Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) has three. As it is, the Gehlot government needs 13 non-Congress MLAs to survive while the opposition BJP-RLP combine needs 26 to topple it.
What had started as an attempt by Sachin Pilot to become the CM has turned into a battle of egos — and a moment of reckoning for all the humiliation he says he was subjected to as deputy CM.
The 42-year-old Pilot would settle for anything that results in the ouster of his ex-boss, CM Gehlot, say legislators in the Pilot camp. In his conversations with ThePrint, Pilot has maintained that he won’t join the BJP and wouldn’t mind “the heat and the dust for the next 5-10 years” if it comes to that. It means that Pilot is ready for a long haul — outside the BJP and the Congress — and chart out an independent path.
Although he has been in touch with Congress leaders and spoke to former finance minister P Chidambaram on Thursday, he is not convinced by their assurances as the party high command has made “many commitments in the past, too” only to renege on them, say Pilot’s confidantes.
How HC ruling will swing political equations
If the Rajasthan High Court puts a hold on the assembly Speaker’s disqualification notices to the 19 rebel Congress MLAs and protects their membership, Pilot camp will get the time to consolidate and try to wean away a few more MLAs from the ruling party and its allies.
As mentioned above, Gehlot needs 13 non-Congress MLAs to survive while the Pilot-BJP team need 26 to topple it. Gehlot relies on the support of 10 out of 13 Independent MLAs — excluding three who are facing the state anti-corruption bureau’s probe for allegedly offering money to others to bring the government down. That brings his government’s tally to 98. He can then count on the support one CPI (M) MLA — another Left MLA is in the Pilot camp — and one MLA from Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a Gehlot confidant who is a minister. That takes the ruling Congress’ tally to 100.
Until the start of the political drama, the Congress was banking on the support of two MLAs of the Bharatiya Tribal party (BTP) of Gujarat’s Chhotubhai Basava. But Basava has now directed his MLAs not to vote for either the Congress or the BJP in the assembly. If the BTP sticks to its stand, Gehlot government would have 100 MLAs, a majority in the 198-member house (minus BTP). Gehlot must be a hardcore optimist to rely on what may still be a notional majority by 1 in the assembly, especially in a fluid political situation with an adversary like Amit Shah’s BJP.
If the Rajasthan High Court rejects the petition by the rebel Congress MLAs, Gehlot may be right on top. The assembly Speaker may go ahead and disqualify the rebel Congress MLAs, making them redundant in the current political drama. Facing disqualification — and the prospect of seeking a renewed mandate from the people over three years before the next scheduled election — some MLAs in the Pilot camp may find it safer to return home. The Pilot camp that hopes to wean away some of the Independents who are Gehlot loyalists — 10 out of 13 — may be left disappointed. Even the BTP may do a re-think.
What now for Sachin Pilot’s chief ministerial ambitions
The sacked deputy chief minister of Rajasthan won’t settle for anything less than Gehlot’s ouster, according to Congress interlocutors who shared their assessment with ThePrint. Becoming the CM has become the second priority, they say. So, if a favourable high court ruling paves the way for the downfall of the Gehlot government, Pilot would first try to gather the numbers to install a government with the support of the BJP. It’s a plausible scenario.
As mentioned above, the BJP and its ally have 75 MLAs. If one adds up the anti-Gehlot camp — 19 from the Congress, three Independents who are facing the anti-corruption bureau’s probe and one CPM MLA — the opposition’s number swells to 98. And one never knows what the two-member BTP camp would do in such a situation.
If the 19 rebel Congress MLAs end up getting disqualified ahead of the trust vote/no-confidence motion, the assembly’s strength would be reduced to 181 MLAs. Gehlot is likely to sail through easily then.
However, in case the high court stalls the disqualification and they get to vote on a no-trust motion — risking their disqualification later — Gehlot government may be walking on thin ice. There could be a spell of the President’s Rule, which would give Pilot and the BJP time to get the required numbers. The rebels can always hope to get re-elected as their counterparts did in Karnataka and be rewarded subsequently.
Unpredictable factors play the spoiler
In all these numerical probabilities, there could be an X factor — that is, former chief minister Vasundhara Raje. The BJP high command has been consistently trying to undermine her in Rajasthan. She would not like Sachin Pilot to emerge as another factor —as part of the BJP or as its prop — in the leadership tussle in her party. On the record, BJP leaders discount any possibility of her scotching the party’s plans to dethrone Gehlot in cahoots with Pilot. But, they tell a different story privately. For the moment, she is keeping mum.
Whichever way Friday’s high court judgment goes, it will likely see the aggrieved party knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court and then a protracted legal battle — a prospect the BJP and Pilot wouldn’t mind.
As it is, Pilot may still fancy a chance to bring down Gehlot government but whether he will then get to occupy the CM’s chair is a million-dollar question. Odds are heavily stacked against him on that count.