Once again, Congress high command struggles to control Pilot-Gehlot tussle in Rajasthan

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi (centre) with Sachin Pilot (left) and Ashok Gehlot during a public event in 2018. Himanshu Vyas / Hindustan Times
31 July, 2021

The political storm that arose within the Congress government in Rajasthan a year ago—a tussle for power between the current chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot—has taken on a new relevance in recent weeks. On the evening of 24 July, the Congress general secretary KC Venugopal and the All India Congress Committee’s Rajasthan chief Ajay Maken arrived in Jaipur for a long consultation with Gehlot and the Congress state president Govind Singh Dotasra. Speaking to the media after the meeting, Maken mentioned an impending cabinet reshuffle.

Over 28 and 29 July, Maken held one-on-one meetings with 119 MLAs from the Rajasthan assembly. The next day, Maken told the media that “all MLAs are satisfied” with the Gehlot government, and that he would be making a report to the All India Congress Committee in Delhi with an eye on its strategy for the 2023 elections in Rajasthan.

Maken had earlier denied any differences between Gehlot and Pilot over the cabinet reshuffle and a restructuring of the party leadership in the state. But local media is rife with reports of their disagreements over the new order. While Gehlot is reportedly seeking rewards for the 19 non-Congress MLAs that helped him retain power last year—a mix of independents and MLAs from the Bahujan Samaj Party who switched to the Congress—Pilot wants to tighten his hold in the party by putting as many of his supporters in the cabinet as possible. According to NDTV, Pilot attended the meeting on 24 July with a group of the MLAs supporting him and demanded that they be accommodated in the state government.

The stand-off in Rajasthan is taking the place of another recent crisis within the Congress ranks, in Punjab, where Navjot Singh Sidhu went up against the chief minister Amarinder Singh. After a months-long tussle, Sidhu was eventually named the Congress committee president in the state. The Gehlot–Pilot rivalry has complicated matters for the Congress high command in Delhi—the displeasure of any group, be it the Pilot and Gehlot camps or allied non-party MLAs, could adversely impact the party’s hold in the state and its performance in 2023. 

The spat between Gehlot and Pilot first came to a head in mid 2020, when Pilot, the deputy chief minister at the time, left for Delhi with some MLAs in tow. Coming right after Jyotiraditya Scindia’s move to the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, which toppled the Congress government there, Pilot’s visit to Delhi sparked speculations of another defection—in fact, Gehlot accused him of working with the BJP to bring down the government in Rajasthan. Pilot made it clear at the time that he was only expressing his dissatisfaction with the Rajasthan government’s workings. He claimed the support of 18 MLAs within the party. Displeased with Pilot’s actions, the Congress leadership removed him from the posts of the deputy chief minister and the party’s state president.

The crisis came to a halt only weeks later, after rounds of talks with the party leadership and a trust vote in the Rajasthan assembly, which Gehlot won. The veteran chief minister shored up support from several non-Congress MLAs—13 independents and six from the Bahujan Samaj Party.   

At present, there are nine empty positions in the council of ministers in Rajasthan, with several portfolios missing a full-time minister. According to the Dainik Bhaskar, the party command wants a reshuffled cabinet to come with significant changes. It reportedly wants to drop the non-performing ministers from their roles and to give a chance to new faces.

The Dainik Bhaskar further reported that Pilot wants at least six MLAs from his faction to be included in the cabinet, and for the others to be given posts in various boards, committees and other government organisations. Meanwhile, Gehlot is only willing to cede space to three of Pilot’s MLAs.

“We want Sachin Pilot to come to power so that the Congress can form the government in Rajasthan again,” Ramniwas Gawriya, an MLA from the Parbatsar constituency, told me. Gawriya is from Pilot’s faction. “We have become MLAs because of the party workers. Without those party workers, how will that happen? Those who have helped form the government should get space in political appointments.”

“Brainstorming is taking place right now and surely it will be fruitful,” Mahesh Joshi, the MLA from Hawa Mahal constituency, said. Joshi is a part of the Gehlot camp. “When the reshuffle will take place is the high command’s decision.”

Some of the MLAs that backed the Congress in the trust vote have also made clear their demand for a space in the cabinet. According to the Dainik Bhaskar, the independent MLA Ramkesh Meena said, “The cabinet should be expanded and the MLAs who saved the government should be given some place in it.”

According to an Outlook report, the MLA Rajendra Singh Gudha, formerly of the BSP, told the media, “The Congress high command should understand that had we not supported Ashok Gehlot led government, then by now they would have marked its first death anniversary.” He added that it was “high time” for changes in the cabinet. If not the council of ministers, many of the Congress-allied MLAs are vying for placement among the myriad government commissions, organisations or committees, some of which accord minister status.

It is clear that Pilot is exerting pressure on the party high command with his eye trained on the 2023 assembly elections. He is close to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, and has considerable influence among young party workers. Recently, Pilot told the media that his aim was only to ensure a win in 2023. “Whenever we have come to power in Rajasthan, we have not been able to sustain it,” he said. “This is the collective responsibility of the party and its leaders.” He added that despite being in power, the Congress government won only 56 seats in the 2003 assembly election, and only 21 seats in the 2013 polls. Both times, Gehlot was the sitting chief minister—Pilot, however, refrained from spelling this out.

But unlike Sidhu, who has a strong following among the MLAs in Punjab and therefore considerable negotiating power, Pilot’s hold among Rajasthan’s MLAs is weak. Gehlot’s broader base gives him a significant edge over Pilot, sealing the veteran leader’s place in the party’s strategy for the coming years. 

According to The Wire, journalists and political observers in Rajasthan feel that a reshuffle is likely to go against Pilot. They stated that Pilot would suffer for his political moves, especially his rebellion against the government in 2020. Alternatively, India Today reported, the high command could attempt to pacify Pilot by offering him a place in the party leadership in Delhi—although he seems averse to this change.

Whatever the outcome, one fact has emerged clearly from the events in Rajasthan and Punjab. The Congress, ever reliant on key veteran faces to come to power in states, is struggling to contain the displeasure of its younger leaders.