The embarrassment for the Congress party continues in Rajasthan despite Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot taking “moral responsibility” for his loyalist lawmakers’ defiance of the party high command. The events of the past one week one week in Rajasthan reflects the widespread factionalism in the party.
Following days of drama, Gehlot on Thursday pulled out of the Congress presidential contest. While he made it clear he does not support what transpired on September 25, when MLAs loyal to him skipped a Congress Legislature Party (CLP) meeting, the ongoing war of wards also reflects poorly on the party at a time when the party is trying to rejuvenate itself on a national stage.
Hours after Gehlot said that he will not contest the Congress presidential polls and apologised for the indiscipline displayed by his loyalists, Congress General Secretary (Organisation) KC Venugopal sent out a strong message to leaders in Rajasthan by issuing an advisory instructing them to refrain from making public statements about other leaders or party's internal matters.
The fact that the advisory mentioned that the Congress high command has noticed the statements that were made in Rajasthan in recent times show that the party has taken a strict stand on the issue.
Venugopal also made it clear that the final decision on Chief Minister of Rajasthan will be taken by Congress President Sonia Gandhi in the next two days.
Ashok Gehlot loyalists’ defiance of Congress high command
The biggest example of defiance shown by Rajasthan Congress leaders was when Gehlot's right-hand man and Rajasthan Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shanti Kumar Dhariwal accused Congress Rajasthan in-charge Ajay Maken of being partial towards Sachin Pilot.
On September 25, it was Dhariwal's residence that became a venue of a parallel meeting of over 90 Gehlot loyalist MLAs who later submitted their resignations to the Rajasthan assembly speaker. The legislators skipped the CLP meeting taking place at the same time at the Gehlot’s residence.
The Congress recently issued show-cause notices to Dhariwal, Congress Chief Whip Mahesh Joshi and Gehlot's close aide Dharmendra Rathore for the incidents that jeopardised the party's plan of installing Pilot as chief minister and also resulted in a major loss of face for the party.
The fact that skipping of the CLP meeting was unprecedented even for the infighting-ridden Congress in Rajasthan was highlighted by Congress MLA Divya Maderna who lambasted ministers Dhariwal and Joshi for holding a parallel meeting. She even demanded their sacking from the posts held by them.
“How can Mahesh Joshi boycott the CLP meeting being a chief whip of the party? Now-onwards, I will not be taking any directions of party whip from him. He phoned all legislators to come for CLP and he on parallel led anti-party activity at Dhariwal’s residence,” said Maderna, a Congress MLA from the Osian constituency, in a tweet.
Maderna was tweeting in response to Joshi's statement where he had said that “high command should make anyone chief minister but it should be from the Gehlot camp instead one of those who revolted against the party, tried to weaken it.”
Maderna and several other party MLAs also issued statements and reiterated that they will abide by the high command's decision. Neither Maderna nor others who issued statements are Pilot loyalists — Pilot had revelled against Gehlot with his loyalists in 2020 and therefore Gehlot loyalists don’t want him to be the Chief Minister of Rajasthan.
War of words in Rajasthan Congress
Verbal duals between Gehlot and Pilot supporters over the past three years have now snowballed into an all-out war in wake of the recent crisis.
The pushback from Gehlot loyalists came after Rahul Gandhi insisted that the "one person-one post" strategy would be followed, which would force Gehlot to quit the post of the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Gehlot was earlier the front-runner for the post of the party's national president, the election for which is due on October 19.
The incidents in Jaipur have become a subject of mockery by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and detractors of the Gandhi family, further causing an embarrassment for the party's brass. While the Congress has hinted through the notices issued and instructions to party leaders —asking them to keep away from controversies— that it is keeping a close watch on happenings in Rajasthan, it is yet to be seen if the animosity between the two warring groups will cease anytime soon.
The Congress presidential election was not the first time the factionalism between the Gehlot-Pilot groups came in open. In 2018, after Congress came to power in Rajasthan, Pilot was promised that the job of Chief Minister would be shared between him and Gehlot. While Gehlot was sworn in as the Chief Minister, Pilot was appointed as his deputy. Unhappy with the post, Pilot rebelled in 2020 along with his 18 loyalist MLAs who went to Delhi and camped for over a month which resulted in a political crisis in Rajasthan. Simultaneously, he was removed from the post of Deputy CM and state unit of the party.
A month later, the Congress high command intervened and Pilot agreed to end the rebellion. At the time, the Congress had formed a three-member committee —comprising Ahmed Patel, Venugopal, Maken— to present their report on the issues highlighted by Pilot.
In the Rajasthan assembly of 200 seats, the ruling Congress has 106 MLAs, the BJP 71, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) three, the CPI(M) and Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) two each, and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) one. The Assembly has 13 independent legislators.