Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai)

As Cong picks old guard over new, future tense for both Gehlot, Pilot



NEWDELHI: An anecdote from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections involving Punjab’s Captain Amarinder Singh held perhaps the template for striking an equitable balance between the competing ambitions of Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. The story goes that Singh was talked into playing a more proactive role in the elections in a direct phone call from Sonia Gandhi. She struck a personal note with the reluctant Punjab leader, saying it’ll help if he does so, and the Captain agreed to contest.

Cut to 2020.

“The Congress president has to take a call,” Pilot told this writer shortly before he was removed as deputy chief minister and president of the party’s state unit. He said he conveyed to the central leadership his grievances against chief minister Gehlot, who “sidelined and humiliated” him and his supporters in the legislatur­e party.

With the party high command choosing to back the incumbent chief minister who, at 69, is elder by 27 years to Pilot, the Congress has lost another young and promising leader after Jyotiradit­ya Scindia. Gehlot might pass a trust vote in the assembly. But winning the perception war will be an exacting task for his fractured regime. Only a party united can deliver governance in a divided polity.

Organisati­onal power is centralise­d in the Congress even when it is out of power. That apart, Sonia Gandhi’s regard in the rank and file is intact despite the party’s falling graph. A personal appeal by her to Pilot or his mother, Rama Pilot, who has been a Congress legislator, could have set the stage for an honourable truce. For that to happen, Pilot should have grabbed the olive leaf the party publicly extended through emissaries dispatched to Jaipur.

That he received a lot in too short a time in the Congress was accepted by Pilot in an interview when Gehlot became CM against his claims after the 2 018 polls: “Today’s the payback time .... Congress has given me a lot. At age 26, I became an MP, at 30 a minister and at 35 the party chief .... ”

What changed then in the span of 19 months? It is understood that Rahul Gandhi, who then was the Congress president, invoked their friendship to make Pilot wait his turn for the CM’S office: “Do it for the sake of our friendship...”.

But the euphoria of the assembly poll victory died fast. Five months down the line, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections saw the Congress losing all the 25 seats, including Jodhpur, where Gehlot’s son Vaibhav was the candidate. He was defeated by the sitting MP and the BJP’S emerging face, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, believed to be groomed by the PM as a latter-day Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.

The late vice-president of India and three-time CM of Rajasthan was from the Shekhawati region from where Gajendra Singh’s family migrated to Jodhpur (Marwar). In that sense, he fits the “Shekhawat 2” tag perfectly.

The parliament­ary debacle provided the early sparks that today gutted the Congress’s facade of unity. Gehlot and Pilot blamed each other for the humiliatin­g outcome. Their distrust of each other that got shrouded by government-formation in Rajasthan was as much the cause of the party’s below-par victory. The original Congress tally was 99 in the House of 200.

Ironically, the party’s tenuous numbers tilted the scales in Gehlot’s favour. He seemed better qualified to helm the government in a touch-and-go legislativ­e arithmetic. He consolidat­ed his position by delivering fast on that front, winning over the Bahujan Samaj Party MLAS and marshallin­g the support of Independen­ts -- among whom some were his men who were denied tickets in the tussle with Pilot.

Gehlot was also helped by other factors: proximity to influentia­l Congress apparatchi­ks; bigger support in the legislatur­e party and a social identity that was a threat to none. Rightly or wrongly, in the tug-of-war for the CM’S office, Pilot was projected as a leader of his Gujjar community, and viewed with circumspec­tion by other social groups.

To be sure, Rajasthan hasn’t had any Gujjar CM since Independen­ce. The office mostly went to Brahmins, Baniyas, Kayasthas

and Rajputs barring the exception of Barkatulla­h Khan, a Muslim, and Jagannath Pahadia, a Dalit. The talk in the Congress circles at that time was that Pilot’s ascendance as CM could antagonise the Meena community that has been with the party since the days of the freedom struggle.

The end of Rahul’s party presidency, which was a collateral casualty of the Congress’s poor show in the Lok Sabha elections, was another setback for Pilot. It was on his assurance that he agreed to Gehlot as an “interregnu­m” CM.

At the Congress Working Committee meeting, where he announced his resignatio­n, Rahul lashed out against three senior colleagues for focusing more on the prospects of their sons than the party. Gehlot was one among them.

Even that wasn’t a cause for Gehlot to lose favour. He said he put up his son to create a semblance of a fight rather than giving the BJP a walkover in his home town.

That brings one to the question whether the BJP can offer Pilot the CM’S slot he seeks. This writer’s reading is that Gajendra Singh will be its choice if Vasundhara cedes ground, or is bypassed in the eventualit­y of the party assembling the numbers required.

But as the leader of a regional outfit with numbers touching 30 (after by-elections), the 75-member BJP combine could see value in Pilot’s bid. The identity question will remain a nagging worry which only the wholesome support of the Prime Minister can negate in the people’s arena.

For the present, it is future uncertain for both Gehlot and Pilot.

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