After four days of intense political theatrics that pushed the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government in Rajasthan to a precipice, the Grand Old Party, on Tuesday, finally decided to sack Sachin Pilot from the posts of Deputy Chief Minister and State Party Chief. Two other ministers, Vishvendra Singh and Ramesh Meena were also dropped from the cabinet for supporting Pilot's rebellion.
Pilot, who had rebelled against Gehlot over the weekend and left Jaipur for Delhi along with at least 16 of his loyalist MLAs, is yet to make his future political course public. The Congress has, as of now, not suspended him or his loyalists from the primary membership of the party. This action, say sources, is the logical corollary to the Tonk legislator's "anti-party activities" and may follow once the party's central observers in Jaipur - KC Venugopal, Ajay Maken and Randeep Surjewala - return to Delhi and brief interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
Rumours that Pilot will, like Jyotiraditya Scindia, be joining the BJP along with his supporters have not stopped ever since the rebel Congress leader left Jaipur on Saturday. Even a denial by Pilot of reports about his joining the BJP - his only official statement to the media ever since the Rajasthan crisis began - have not put an end to these rumours.
With the Gehlot government surviving the threat of collapsing like the Kamal Nath regime of Madhya Pradesh and the party, instead, sacking Pilot from the posts he held, questions on the likely future course of action by the former deputy chief minister are bound to arise.
So, what are the political options before Pilot?
The now deposed longest-serving Rajasthan Congress president is unlikely to stay on in the party he has represented as a lawmaker for nearly two decades now. This is the same party that his father, the late Rajesh Pilot, was a leading member of in the 1980s and 1990s. By digging his heels in over his impractical demand for a higher stake in the state's power pie, despite having an evidently miniscule support of just about 16 legislators against Gehlot's 89 in the 107-member Congress legislative party, Pilot seems to have sealed his exit plan from the Congress party, at least for now. His refusal to heed the advice of the Congress high command and other party colleagues to amicably resolve the differences with Gehlot has also made it difficult for the Nehru-Gandhis to offer him a fresh olive branch. Thus, staying in the Congress seems to be an idea that's presently dead on arrival for Pilot.
The other, much-debated, option before the Gujjar leader is to join the BJP, like scores of disgruntled and ambitious Congress leaders have done over the past six years; the most recent being Pilot's friend Scindia. However, sources in the Congress, including some of Pilot's former aides who have now switched loyalties to Gehlot, tell Outlook that the rebel leader "will not take such a decision unless he has some lofty assurances from the BJP".
"The entire rebellion was because Pilot wanted to become CM and have his nominee get the post of PCC chief. Will the BJP make him CM if he has only 16 MLAs backing him. Is there any guarantee that all these 16 will follow him into the BJP? Will the BJP make him state chief and give him a free hand to run the party in Rajasthan... It just won't happen, so what interest will it serve," points out a former Pilot confidante.
Another Congress MLA says, "it is not just a question of Pilot going to the BJP but also whether the BJP would want him. Even if he had 20 MLAs behind him, the number would be insufficient to topple the Gehlot government... Besides embarrassing the Congress by stealing another promising leader, what will BJP achieve by accepting Pilot. If he joins, what will the BJP do with other leaders it is grooming currently like Satish Poonia, Rajyavardhan Rathore and others?'
Some also say that drawing parallels between Scindia and Pilot in the BJP's context could be misleading. "In Scindia's case, he had the numbers to topple Kamal Nath's government and was willing to neither stake claim for the CM's post nor the state BJP chief's post. Pilot doesn't have the numbers to oust Gehlot and this has been established now but for him the CM's post remains non-negotiable even now. It's a bad bargain even for the BJP," says a senior Rajasthan Congress leader who claims to be neither in Pilot's camp nor in Gehlot's lobby.
The obvious litany of questions notwithstanding, Pilot may still keep the option of joining the BJP open if his immediate plan is only to slight Gehlot, the Nehru-Gandhis and the Congress party for what he no doubt sees as injustice meted out to him. However, the rebel leader has so far maintained that he won't be donning the saffron and that is where the situation stands as of now.
The final option, and arguably the most plausible one, seems to be that Pilot may float a regional political outfit. Several of his confidantes and some former loyalists have indicated that this may be Pilot's likely course of action. Rajasthan has traditionally been a bipolar state with the Congress and BJP remaining the two dominant parties.
For Pilot to launch his own party and make it a success would be no easy task. Multiple leaders have tried this in the past and failed. Ghanshyam Tiwari, Hanuman Beniwal and Kirodi Lal Meena are just some names who have gone down this path and failed to make any significant change to Rajasthan's political landscape. However, by forming his own party Pilot will succeed in sending some clear political signals. Unlike Scindia, who jumped to the BJP, Pilot, if he forms his own party, can show that he isn't opting for the easy way out to stay politically relevant by joining an electorally ascendant BJP but is willing to take up challenging ground work and grassroots effort to build a party.
As someone who took over the role of state Congress president soon after his party's rout in the 2013 Assembly polls and worked tirelessly to revive the organisation in time for the 2018 state polls, Pilot certainly is not a stranger to toiling it out on the ground. This, in fact, is what sets him apart from Scindia - the Maharaj of Gwalior - who wanted the spoils of power without really taking up the responsibility of running the party organisation in MP when the job was offered to him, at least on two occasions. At one point, when his bitter rivals Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh finally relented to the Congress high command's pressure for making Scindia the MP Congress chief, Maharaj reportedly refused the job and wanted his loyalist, Tulsi Silawat (now a minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan cabinet) to be anointed.
Through his nearly seven year tenure as Rajasthan Congress president, Pilot has routinely toured the state, developed the image of a hard-working grassroots leader and broken the perception of him being a spoilt dynast who prefers the comfort of a Lutyen's Delhi bungalow. He can now build on these achievements by forming his own party. If the party succeeds electorally, Pilot can prove his critics in the Congress wrong and emerge as a strong political force in the state. It would then be his turn to choose a partner on his own terms - BJP or the Congress.
A senior Congress leader also has an interesting aside to such an eventuality. "Rajasthan doesn't elect an incumbent government for a second consecutive term and if this stays true, Gehlot anyway will be out of power by 2023 if his government lasts a full term. Pilot can, in the meanwhile, build his party while maintaining cordial relations with Rahul, Priyanka Gandhi and central Congress leaders; if he emerges as kingmaker, he can also ask to be made king. If he doesn't, he can still merge his party with the Congress and demand his pound of flesh when the time is right. By switching directly to the BJP now, he won't gain anything but will certainly run the risk of being dubbed a power-hungry, spoilt and entitled dynast who values post over ideological commitment".