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Ashok Gehlot Meets Sonia Gandhi, Sachin Pilot With Rahul: Rajasthan Deal Done?

As CM Ashok Gehlot readies to contest party president elections, Rajasthan Congress MLAs are set to meet on Sunday.

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The election for the Congress president has triggered a crisis in the biggest state government by the Congress – Rajasthan.

This is evident from the sequence of events of Wednesday, 21 September.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot met Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her residence, 10 Janpath, for nearly two hours. Congress General Secretary KC Venugopal and Treasurer Pawan Kumar Bansal were also reportedly present.

Meanwhile his former deputy and current rival in state politics, Sachin Pilot, was with Rahul Gandhi at the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kerala's Ernakulam district.

Both Gehlot and Pilot joined the Yatra on Thursday 22 September. Does this mean that the Rajasthan deal is done?

The crisis in Rajasthan stems from the reluctance of Ashok Gehlot, tipped to be the Congress president, to hand over the mantle to Sachin Pilot.

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Earlier, Gehlot had said that he will "try once more" to convince Rahul Gandhi to take over as the Congress president. Already a number of Congress state and territorial units have passed resolutions asking Rahul Gandhi to become the party chief once again.

Gehlot's likely opponent in the presidential poll – three-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor – is also known to have said that he would not contest the presidential election if Rahul Gandhi agrees to take over.

However, if Gandhi still isn't persuaded, Gehlot will have to file his nomination, leading to an election between him and Tharoor.

With the Gandhis, and a sizable section of the party, said to be backing Gehlot, his win is more or less assured.

This has made the question of his successor in Rajasthan a bigger issue for the party.

What the Gehlot Camp Proposed

Late night on Tuesday 20 September, Gehlot held a meeting of all the Congress MLAs in Rajasthan and told them that he would once again try to convince Rahul Gandhi but if that doesn't happen, he will be filing his nomination for the party president's post.

He also invited the MLAs to Delhi to accompany him if he does file his nomination.

The meeting and the invitation were both shows of strength by Gehlot. It is his way of conveying to the party leadership that he enjoys the support of a vast majority of MLAs in the state.
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This has been a critical factor that has helped him overcome Pilot's challenge, both when the Congress won the elections in 2018, and also during Pilot's alleged rebellion in 2020.

Gehlot's supporters in the Rajasthan government, as well as among the MLAs, say that they don't want to work under Pilot. Some of them argue that they shouldn't be made to accept the leadership of someone who allegedly rebelled against the party.

The recent attack on Pilot by minister Ashok Chandna is also said to have been to show the lack of support for him. Chandna, a Gehlot loyalist, happens to be from the Gujjar caste like Pilot.

Gehlot, on his part, is clear that he doesn't want to transfer power in Rajasthan until the Gujarat elections are done. This may not just be regarding Sachin Pilot, but even a consensus candidate. Gehlot is the Congress' senior observer for the Gujarat Assembly elections.

However, the Gehlot camp is trying to put forward the following proposals:

  1. Gehlot be allowed to remain CM for some more time even after becoming party president.

  2. A person of Gehlot's choice be made CM. The name that has been suggested is Assembly Speaker CP Joshi.

  3. Gehlot be made working president of the party while still remaining CM of Rajasthan.

  4. A compromise formula is also being considered whereby CP Joshi or another leader acceptable to Gehlot becomes CM and Pilot becomes Deputy CM and gets charge of the home ministry.

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The speculation around CP Joshi is interesting as he was backed by Rahul Gandhi in 2008 but couldn't become CM as he lost his own seat by a single vote. CP Joshi's Bungalow Number 49 in Jaipur's Civil Lines has already become a hub of activity with a number of meetings in the past week.

Another name doing the rounds is that of Raghu Sharma.

Gehlot and his supporters know very well that if anyone other than Pilot becomes the CM for now, Gehlot would still have a chance to become CM once again in 2028. By that time, his presidential tenure would also be over.

As CM Ashok Gehlot readies to contest party president elections, Rajasthan Congress MLAs are set to meet on Sunday.

Gehlot first became the state’s CM in 1998.

(PhotoCourtesy: Ashok Gehlot/Facebook)

However, this would be difficult to accomplish if Pilot becomes the CM as then he could become the main face of the party in the state.

Speaking to the media, Pilot has said that one person can't hold two posts in the party, clearly hinting that Gehlot needs to step down as Rajasthan CM if he has to become the Congress president.

Why Gehlot, Pilot, and the Gandhis Are All In A Dilemma

The interesting aspect in this crisis is that everyone involved is in a dilemma of some sort or the other.

Gehlot, no doubt, wants to retain power in Jaipur even if he becomes party president, be it by remaining CM or having someone acceptable take over.

However, if that happens, the first challenge for him as the Congress chief would be to deal with Sachin Pilot's rebellion. If Pilot exits, it would leave Gehlot in a sticky position very early in his tenure.

And if Pilot does become CM, even then it won't be easy for either of them. Pilot would have to deal with Gehlot as party chief and his loyal MLAs in Rajasthan being opposed to him. Gehlot, too, will be in a difficult position as a party president can't be seen to be leading a rebellion against a CM.

As CM Ashok Gehlot readies to contest party president elections, Rajasthan Congress MLAs are set to meet on Sunday.

Rahul Gandhi with Rajasthan Sachin Pilot during a party rally at Deoli in Tonk district of Rajasthan in 2014.

(Photo: Ravi Shankar Vyas/IANS)

It isn't an easy choice for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi as well.

Sonia Gandhi has worked very hard to convince Gehlot to become party chief. He agreed, despite his reluctance. Therefore, there would be some pressure on her to accept his demand to at least have a successor of his choosing.

Rahul Gandhi is said to have promised the CM's chair to Pilot ahead of the 2018 elections. When Gehlot was picked, Gandhi is said to have reiterated his promise to Pilot and asked him to be patient.

This is Gandhi's moment to honour his promise. However, he also can't be seen as going against Gehlot as the latter's assent to become Congress president has saved him from a lot of pressure.

Sachin Pilot, too, isn't exactly spoilt for choice. As of now, he doesn't have the number of MLAs to bring down the Rajasthan government if he isn't made CM. Jyotiraditya Scindia delivered that in Madhya Pradesh and was later rewarded by the Bharatiya Janata Party with a central ministership.

It is unlikely that Pilot will get a similar deal. To be fair, there is no evidence to suggest that Pilot is negotiating anything with the BJP at present.

But even if he joins the BJP, he is unlikely to ever become CM given that Vasundhara Raje is still dominant and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat is waiting in the wings.

That leaves him with the option of forming his own party, which is not an easy task given that Rajasthan has traditionally voted for either the Congress or the BJP, with the smaller parties being marginal players. Even in the third party space, Hanuman Beniwal's Rashtriya Loktantrik Party and the Bharatiya Tribal Party are already present.

Both Gehlot and Pilot are also aware of Rajasthan's track record of switching between BJP and Congress every five years and ideally neither would want to be held responsible for a possible defeat in 2023.

However, while Gehlot is moving to a bigger position and has some leeway, this may be Pilot's best chance. The examples of Navjot Sidhu and Charanjit Channi in Punjab is a lesson for him that waiting for a better opportunity in the future or getting the chair too late are both bad options.

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