Several news reports claimed that on Sunday at least 85 Congress MLAs from Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s camp tendered their resignation to the Assembly Speaker to thwart a possible move of the high command to make Sachin Pilot the next chief minister of the state. However, sources told Outlook that numbers were largely exaggerated by the media reports and that not more than 65 MLAs took part in the parallel meeting that was convened at Shanti Dhariwal’s residence, and that Gehlot does not have as large as the legislative backing as projected by the current media coverage.
“In the meeting at Shanti Dhariwal’s residence on Sunday, not more than 60 MLAs were present,” an MLA from the Gehlot camp, wishing to be anonymous, tells Outlook.
“After the meeting at Dhariwal’s house, they went to the speakers’ residence in a 49-seater bus and only a couple of cars. 80 and 90 MLAs is a lie,” he told Outlook.
The MLA went on to say that the meeting was convened just because some senior MLAs are feeling insecure about the portfolios they hold and are worried there could be a major reshuffle in the cabinet if Sachin Pilot happens to be appointed as the chief minister of Rajasthan.
“Those ministers did the most of the talking in the meeting,” he says, adding “and several MLAs did not ascribe to their views. Juniors and first-time MLAs like me, apprehensive of offending the senior leaders, did not utter a word in the meeting against them, although many of us did not feel it was a right decision to go against the high command.”
“Just that we did not want to go against the environment of the meeting,” the MLA says, “our mere participation was taken as our acquiescence, and a resolution of mass resignation was passed.” The MLA further says that he signed the resignation letter not because he wanted to resign, but he had to abide by the “engineered” resolution of the meeting.
While corroborating the anonymous MLA’s testimony above, Divya Maderna, a Congress MLA from the Osian constituency tells Outlook that MLAs were told to assemble at Shanti Dhariwal’s residence. “MLAs were oblivious to the fact that a meeting would be held there. It was thought that the legislators were called for assembling there and from there they would go and attend the CLP meeting,” Maderna said while confirming that the number of the MLAs was below 65.
“Scores of MLAs— Indira Meena, Jitendra Singh, Sandeep Yadav, Khushveer Singh, Prashant Bhairwa, Jogendra Awana, Madan Prajapat, Ganga Devi among others— have come out over the past several hours testifying that they did not support the mass resignation and will comply only with whatever the high command decided.” Maderna tells Outlook. Interestingly, all of these MLAs are from Gehlot’s camp.
Although the Congress high command has initiated disciplinary action against Shanti Dhariwal and Mahesh Joshi, and MLA Dharmendra Rathore, and given a clean chit to Ashok Gehlot, but political observers say it is impossible to rule out the role of Ashok Gehlot in the “engineered rebellion”. A source, who was present in the meeting at Dhariwal’s residence, alleges that besides the trio—who have been issued a show cause notice— ministers Subhash Garg and Pramod Jain Bhaya also kept “corralling the MLAs” for the meeting. “Bhaya even brought a few MLAs in his car,” the source alleges.
Nevertheless, as more and more MLAs are calling out the ‘Sunday Rebellion’, pushing Gehlot onto a sticky wicket, the crisis in Rajasthan grows more puzzling. A journalist based in Jaipur who has been covering Congress for more than 20 years tells Outlook that the developments from Jaipur reflect that Gehlot’s clout is getting thinner than what is being projected in the ongoing media coverage.
The ongoing tug of war between the Congress’s high command and Jaipur rejuvenates the memories of 1988. Back then, the stalemate, similar to the current day, was settled in favour of Shivcharan Mathur having the support of 25 MLAs against the incumbent Chief Minister Haridev Joshi who claimed to have the backing of 87 party MLAs. A gossip rife in Rajasthan’s political circles has it that Ashok Gehlot, who was then the state Congress chief, played a thick role in securing the ouster of Haridev Joshi by spearheading an anti-Joshi campaign along with the would-be successor Mathur and a dozen other MLAs. At that time, the high command sent a stifling message to Jaipur: only and only Gandhis can call the shots.
The Pilot-Gehlot Standoff
The current crisis in Rajasthan has its roots in the widening rifts between Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot. To understand the faultlines that are fracturing the Rajasthan congress today, it is important to peek into the recent electoral dynamics of the state.
Ashutosh Sharma, a political analyst based in Jaipur tells Outlook that whenever Gehlot assumed the charge of a chief minister in the state, the anti-incumbency against his MLAs grew rapidly, and Congress slipped off the throne. In 1998, Gehlot became chief minister for the first time when Congress won 153 seats in the assembly elections. However, in 2003 polls, the Congress’ toll plummeted to just 53 paving the way for BJP’s Vasundhara Raje Scindia to assume the charge. In the 2008 elections, Congress emerged victorious again bagging 96 assembly seats, and Gehlot assumed the charge of a chief minister for the second time. In 2013, after Gehlot’s term came to an end, Congress put up one of the worst shows in the history of Rajasthan elections as their seats shrank to a mere 21, catapulting Vasundhara Raje Scindia to power once again.
Later, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Rajasthan Congress lost all the 25 seats to BJP, a tally which the latter maintained in the 2019 parliamentary elections.
After the 2013 debacle, high command made Sachin Pilot the state party president, assigning him an uphill task of rejuvenating the electoral fortunes ahead of the 2018 assembly elections. “Sachin Pilot,” says Sharma, “played a major role in steering Congress to victory in 2018. However, Gehlot whose electoral performance had lost the sheen was once again made the Chief Minister, leaving Pilot aggrieved.”
A source based in Jaipur tells Outlook that in 2018 Ashok Gehlot had assured the high command that if he was made the chief minister again, he would help them bag the Lok Sabha seats in 2019 that the grand old party had lost in 2014. However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, all 25 Congressmen lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even Ashok Gehlot’s son, Vaibhav Gehlot, who was contesting from the Jodhpur constituency, lost to BJP’s Gajendra Singh Shekhawat by a stupendous margin of around 2,69,000 votes.
Ashutosh Sharma tells Outlook that although Gehlot’s government has been doing well in the domains of health and social security, the latter’s governance lacks lustre inviting a brewing anti-incumbency against his legislators shoving congress out of power at the end of his term.
“It has become a pattern. And if Gehlot is a popular leader, where is the popular vote? Gehlot has never been able to sustain power for Congress and win elections on his own,” says Sharma.
A source close to Sachin Pilot tells Outlook that after the 2019 Lok Sabha results were when Pilot, who was then the deputy to the chief minister Gehlot, aggressively started asking the high command to give him a chance. “He told the high command ‘we need to win elections, and I will do it for Congress’,” the source says, adding “however, the rifts between him and Gehlot kept widening as the latter sidelined him, and rendered him nearly powerless, ignoring his suggestions, recommendations, pleas, and even his MLAs and loyalist party workers.” However, he adds, Gehlot’s blatant indifference towards Pilot and his cadres kept growing with time.
The deepening disgruntlement with Gehlot led Pilot to stage a rebellion in 2020 when the latter decamped to Delhi, and then Manesar, along with 20 MLAs. After nearly one month, the peace between the two arch-rivals was brokered— some say by Priyanka Gandhi— and a promise of inducting some of the Pilot’s MLAs into the cabinet was made to him, including a long-held promise from the high command: a chance to Pilot of becoming the Chief Minister in near future. Although, some of the MLAs from the Pilots camp were inducted into the cabinet, a move that for time being deescalated the tensions between the two bandwagons, the promise of making him the chief minister remains unfulfilled to date.
As Gehlot’s name started appearing in the media about the Congress presidential elections, and after Rahul Gandhi’s ‘one person, one post’ comment made to headlines, the cracks in Rajasthan were yet again laid bare.
“Although the high command appeared to have been making room for fulfilling the promise made to Pilot,” says Sharma, “the way it was done shows the hastiness and mishandling of the situation.”
“Congress high command should have waited, rather than staging the unceremonious exit of Gehlot from the corridors of power,” Sharma tells Outlook, adding “and that’s what stirred the pot in Rajasthan.”
As the Congress is busy reviving its cadres and sheen through Bharat Jodo Yatra, the developments unfurling in Rajasthan appear to throw a spanner at its plans, as well as the emanating crisis sheds light on the faultlines that still haunt the 137-year-old party. Rumours are rife that Pilot is on his way to becoming the Chief Minister. And in that case, whether the 1988 episode will repeat on the political battlefield of Rajasthan, catapulting Pilot onto the throne he has been long envying, only time will tell. But, political observers believe that the ‘Sunday Rebellion’ put up by their aides of Gehlot has deeply bruised his relationship with the high command that might cost him his shot at becoming the party’s national president. As an MLA from the Gehlot camp sums it up, “He (Pilot) is sitting quiet, and Gehlot’s mischief has set him [Pilot] free from the burden. Now, the high command itself will fight for Pilot and what he deserves!”