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Uncertainty mounts in Rajasthan Congress as party chiefs refuse to resolve Pilot-Gehlot impasse

Several Congress leaders say party should be taking advantage of absence of anti-incumbency against CM, but Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot tussle could lose them a 'winnable' election.

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Jaipur: They may be aligned with either Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot or his challenger Sachin Pilot, but Congress ministers, legislators and leaders in Rajasthan are unanimous in their view that there would be “a repeat of Punjab” in the desert state unless the high command intervened immediately and took decisive action.

Their concerns have only increased since Pilot’s Kisan Mahasammelan, a five-day public outreach programme held earlier this month, in which he took indirect swipes at Gehlot and attacked the Rajasthan government for not doing enough to check corruption and find out the real culprits behind the frequent cases of paper leaks.

“Either give Pilot a bigger role or ask him to stay quiet till the elections. Otherwise, he will continue to embarrass the government. We won’t need the BJP then to defeat us,” a senior Congress MLA, who wished to not be named, told ThePrint.

Elections in the state are scheduled to take place over November-December this year.

Pilot, however, told ThePrint that his rallies were meant to ensure that the Congress retained power in the next election in a state where voters are known to change the ruling party every five years.

“We have 10 months left for elections. There is a perception in Rajasthan that an incumbent government does not get a second term. This cycle has to be broken. There are instances from other states where Congress CMs got a second consecutive term, be it Tarun Gogoi in Assam or Sheila Dikshitji in Delhi. The aim of my outreach programme was to galvanise the people and motivate them to vote for the Congress,” Pilot said.

Also read: Decision on Pilot-Gehlot stalemate will be taken after Bharat Jodo: Rajasthan Congress in-charge

‘Sending wrong message will harm Congress’

Two years ago, in 2020, Pilot along with 18 Congress MLAs had staged a revolt against Gehlot’s leadership. Gehlot called it “Operation Lotus” and alleged that Pilot was in talks with the BJP to bring his government down. Pilot and his supporters called the charges baseless and said all they wanted was removal of Gehlot from the CM’s post.

The crisis led to Pilot being removed as Rajasthan’s deputy chief minister and state party chief. Congress sources said the party high command had then persuaded Pilot to give up his rebellion, promising to install him as CM later.

The central leadership even sought to deliver on the promise last year by seeking a meeting of Congress MLAs in Jaipur to pave the way for Pilot to replace Gehlot. The meeting was, however, boycotted by an overwhelming majority of MLAs loyal to the CM.

Gehlot dug in his heels and the Congress high command has since chosen to look the other way.

Even Ajay Maken’s resignation last November as general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan — a move that was seen as his attempt to force the high command to intervene — made little difference as the party’s focus shifted to the Bharat Jodo Yatra that was then traversing the nation.

In this backdrop, Pilot’s rallies and renewed attacks on Gehlot are being seen as a fresh attempt to force the central leadership’s hands.

While a section of over half-a-dozen Congress leaders, including ministers and MLAs, ThePrint interacted with were of the view that the Gehlot government was not facing any noticeable anti-incumbency at the moment, all of them, irrespective of their alignment with Gehlot or Pilot, were unanimous that if the tussle in the state was not resolved, it would lead to a repeat of Punjab.

There, the Congress’ mishandling of the Amarinder Singh-versus-Navjot Sidhu fight led to the party’s decimation in the Punjab assembly election last year.

Speaking to ThePrint, Govind Singh Dotasra, Congress’ Rajasthan president, said though there was a good balance between the party and the government under Gehlot, and the Congress was in a better position than the BJP in the state, the war of words between the top two leaders was sending the wrong message.

“The government has done good work. The welfare schemes are helping all sections of society. There is no anti-incumbency. But if senior leaders are saying contradictory things and that too in public instead of party forums, it sends the wrong message. It will harm the Congress,” Dotasra said.

‘No negativity against Gehlot but Pilot also popular’

Several Congress leaders in the state told ThePrint that the party should be taking advantage of the absence of anti-incumbency against CM Gehlot even after four years in power.

“There is no negativity against Gehlot. You go and ask around and people will tell you how they have benefitted from one or the other welfare schemes of the government. But Sachin Pilot frequently attacking his own party’s government gives a bad impression — that the two top leaders are pulling the cart in different directions,” said Congress MLA Rafeek Khan, who is also the chairman of Rajasthan State Minorities Commission.

A senior Congress leader, who did not want to be named, added: “There is uncertainty among the leaders as well as karyakartas (party workers). It is affecting the morale of the ordinary Congress worker on the ground.”

Senior Congress leaders loyal to Gehlot also asserted that there was “no negativity” against the CM as the welfare schemes announced by his government were helping the public, but conceded that Pilot was also popular.

“The fact that Pilot managed to draw a huge crowd (at his rallies) despite not enjoying the support of the state unit shows his popularity among the youth, and not just the Gujjar community. Gehlot is over 70 years old while Pilot is seen as the next generation,” a second senior Congress leader, an MLA, said.

According to political observers in Rajasthan, all eyes are now on the ongoing assembly session to see if Pilot and his supporters kick up a storm after the budget.

Gehlot will present the state budget on 8 February, during which, state government sources said, he is expected to announce welfare/populist schemes with an eye on the elections.

Also read: Ex-foe, old loyalists — Gehlot’s generals who ‘mobilised’ MLAs against Congress high command

Just doing his job, say Pilot supporters

According to Pilot’s supporters, the former deputy CM attacking the policies of the Gehlot government should not be seen as infighting and against the Congress’ interest.

Hemaram Choudhary, Rajasthan forest and environment minister, who is considered close to Pilot, told ThePrint that as a Congress leader, Pilot was doing his job to highlight issues about which people were complaining.

Yeh khamiya ginane ki baat nahin hain. Agar logo ko pareshani hain, toh Pilot ji sarkar ka dhyaan un ki taraf kar rahe hain, taki logon ki pareshaniyan sarkar door kare (it’s not about highlighting the government’s deficiencies. If people are aggrieved, Sachin Pilot is doing his job of bringing it to the notice of the state government, so that the problems can be addressed),” he said.

Choudhary, who attended Pilot’s rally at Parbatsar in Nagaur district, asserted that by raising people’s issues, the young Congress leader was in fact strengthening the party. “If people’s problems are resolved in time, the Congress will get stronger — not the other way around,” he added.

Political commentators admitted that the youth are drawn towards Pilot because he is young and charismatic, but pointed out that his influence was confined to Gujjar pockets in the state. And here, too, he did not enjoy the same clout as his father, Rajesh Pilot.

Rajasthan-based senior political commentator Om Saini said: “Among the Gujjars, there are 14 different khaps and Rajesh Pilot had tried to organise all of them together, but his son does not have influence in the entire community.”

Saini added that the BJP had also sensed an opportunity here and was trying to woo the Gujjars.

A pastoral community, Gujjars reportedly comprise about 5 per cent of Rajasthan’s population and have influence in close to 40 seats. Though considered traditional BJP supporters, the community moved to the Congress in 2018.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit Malaseri Dungri, the birthplace of Lord Devnarayan, considered a holy place for the Gujjar community. It is an important visit. The BJP is trying to organise the community,” Saini said.

Congress high command ‘wary’

The Congress’ central leadership has become wary, a third senior party leader who did not want to be named, said, citing the September 2022 episode in which a Congress Legislative Party meeting — called to pick the next CM, widely expected to be Pilot — was boycotted by more than 80 MLAs loyal to Gehlot.

“Over 80 MLAs had rallied behind Gehlot last year and resigned. The party high command might be apprehensive that making any change in leadership or giving Pilot a bigger role could backfire in such a scenario, as he does not enjoy the support of the majority of state MLAs. That could be behind their reluctance to intervene,” the leader explained.

Political analyst Naresh Dadhich, former vice-chancellor of Vardhman Mahaveer Open University in Rajasthan’s Kota, however, pointed out that the Congress central leadership will have to intervene sooner than later if the party wants to win the upcoming assembly election.

“They can’t just look the other way anymore, else the situation will precipitate further. They have to be practical and talk to the two leaders. Pilot is young and popular among the youth and can rally them behind the Congress. Giving him a bigger role will send the message that the party is looking at a generational shift,” he said.

A section of Congress leaders also feel that it has helped the party that the opposition BJP is a divided house currently.

“BJP’s house is in disarray with too many CM aspirants. Otherwise, they could have made things really difficult for us in the prevailing circumstances, where Pilot is contradicting Gehlot and cornering the government on different issues — be it about taking strong action in the paper leak case or curbing corruption. He has taken the opposition’s role in the Congress,” a state minister from the party said.

Drawing a parallel with the Punjab situation, political observers pointed out that the Congress high command was equally confident of a weak opposition in Punjab prior to the state polls — the Shiromani Akali Dal which had lost public support due to the Centre’s controversial farm laws. That emboldened the Congress to drop Amarinder Singh as CM in September 2021. A big blunder for which the party paid heavily.

Sachin Pilot is not Navjot Sidhu though. Pilot is a popular face and even Gehlot supporters concede that he is “charismatic”.

In Punjab’s case, Pilot supporters argue, the real blunder was the way the Congress high command kept dilly-dallying for months and took a call on Singh virtually at the eleventh hour — barely five months before the state election in February 2022. They fear that if the leadership continues to dilly dally in Rajasthan, too, the party may lose a “winnable” election.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Punjab managed, Congress turns to Rajasthan to resolve Sachin Pilot-Ashok Gehlot row

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