The present crisis in the Congress in Rajasthan is actually a result of the choices the party made in the winter of 2018. In fact not just this crisis, a lot of what has gone wrong with the party in the past four years can be traced to that moment.
Consider the fact that since the beginning of 2019, the Congress has failed to win a single Assembly election on its own.
So what makes the choices made in 2018 end so important?
Let's have a brief flashback.
The Rahul Gandhi-Ashok Gehlot Duo
Few would dispute that the best phase the Congress has had since its 2014 decimation was in 2017-18, when Rahul Gandhi was the party president and Ashok Gehlot the general secretary (organisation) and de-facto number two.
During this period, the party gave a scare to the BJP in Gujarat, bringing it below 100 seats for the first time in decades.
It managed to retain Karnataka, though through a post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular).
Later that year, it won Chhattisgarh comprehensively and formed governments with slender majorities in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
During this period, the party also ran a focused and somewhat successful campaign targeting the Narendra Modi government on issues like Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation, and the economy in general.
Rahul Gandhi showed a great deal of energy as party president and Gehlot provided much needed political wisdom and nuance, aspects that the former probably lacked.
This Is When Things Started Going Wrong
The Congress fell short of a majority in the Rajasthan Assembly elections, a surprising result given the massive sentiment against the then Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
Some say that a narrow verdict was mainly due to elements within the Gehlot camp ensuring the defeat of pro-Pilot candidates in a number of seats and also the victory of Gehlot-leaning Independents across the state.
The Rajasthan verdict was such that only Gehlot could have become the CM.
Sachin Pilot, who had worked hard for the previous five years, probably deserved the CM's post but had to miss out because of the numbers. Though he became Deputy CM and state Congress chief, he felt increasingly stifled by Gehlot and his loyalists, which led to his failed 2020 rebellion.
The Congress high command's effort to make him the CM now is in some ways a way to correct that wrong, at least from their point of view.
The Consequences Go Beyond Rajasthan
"Rahul Gandhi had promised the CM's post to three people in 2018 - Sachin Pilot, TS Singh Deo and Jyotiraditya Scindia – and he couldn't fulfill his promise to any of them," says a party insider involved with one of the three election campaigns.
At that time Scindia was considered more reasonable than Pilot as his supporters in MP didn't begin protesting the way the latter's did in Rajasthan. However, he was the first to leave the party, bringing down the Congress government in MP in 2020.
What's happening in Rajasthan is there for all to see. Chhattisgarh, too, isn't still a resolved issue as the party had promised a rotational arrangement whereby Bhupesh Baghel would be CM for the first two and a half years and TS Singh Deo for the next two and a half. It has already been two years and 10 months and the promise to Singh Deo hasn't been kept.
The events of December 2018 had a national impact as well.
Gehlot took over as CM and left his position as General Secretary (Organisation) less than five months before the Lok Sabha elections.
He was replaced by KC Venugopal, who has neither the political heft nor skill for such an important job.
The death of Ahmed Patel in 2020 created another massive vacuum and the party lacks a troubleshooter of his calibre. Perhaps had Gehlot remained the general secretary (organisation), he may have been able to fill that vacuum to some extent.
Impact on Rahul Gandhi
The inability to meet the promises he made to Pilot and Scindia is said to have been one of the reasons why Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president in 2019. At the crucial Congress Working Committee meeting which saw fireworks between Rahul Gandhi and the old guard, one of the issues Gandhi cited was that he wasn't even allowed to appoint CMs of his choice in 2018.
It is clear that 2018 was a lost opportunity.
Most surveys conducted between November 2018 and January 2019 said that popularity gap between PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi was the lowest in this period than any moment since 2014.
Then the Pulwama attacks and Balakot strikes happened in February 2019 and equations completely changed.
Even then the Congress may have done a bit better had Gandhi continued with the economy-centred campaign that he and Gehlot had successfully run in 2017-18. Instead, he made the alleged Rafale scam his main plank. As a poll issue, it wasn't easy to explain to the public.
And after Pulwama and Balakot, a large number of people were just not willing to buy the charge that PM Modi was corrupt and had compromised the country's security. Gandhi's pet 'Chowkidar Chor Hai' slogan was perceived by many as being classist.
Had Gehlot been by Gandhi's side, perhaps the campaign would been somewhat different. The Congress hasn't recovered since 2019.
However, the Udaipur Chintan Shivir, which many say was Gehlot's idea, was a step on the path of revival for the party. The Bharat Jodo Yatra that's presently underway, was conceived of in Udaipur.
But the past, specifically the mistakes of 2018, have caught up with the Congress in the form of the Rajasthan crisis, taking attention away from the yatra.