Anti-Corruption or Anti-Congress? What Sachin Pilot’s Fresh Rebellion Indicates

As Pilot-Kejriwal target inaction over corruption in Rajasthan, many feel both may cobble together a Third Front.

5 min read
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The cloak and dagger saga continues to haunt Congress corridors in Rajasthan. The political thriller starring Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot as the main protagonists are moving towards a heady but bitter climax in the election-bound state. In an election year when most parties normally get ready to fight their rivals at the hustings, the Congress is busy with an internal slugfest reminiscent of stunt scenes of C-grade Bollywood films.

As he launched his sharpest-ever attack on his arch-rival on Sunday, Pilot opened up a fresh front in his war with Chief Minister Gehlot over why there has been no action on graft charges against the former Vasundhara Raje government. As he accused the Gehlot government of complete inaction on corruption cases of the previous BJP regime, Pilot virtually alleged that Gehlot is hand in glove with Raje.

Significantly, at his dramatic press conference in Jaipur, Pilot even played old video clips of CM Gehlot where he had attacked Raje on corruption issues. He questioned pertinently: “Why the Gehlot government has not initiated any probe on graft issues related to the excise mafia, illegal mining, land encroachment, and the Lalit Modi affidavit case?”

Asserting that the Congress government had evidence against the former BJP government but has not acted on it, Pilot targeted the Gehlot government for failing to fulfill its poll promises.

The former Deputy Chief Minister of Rajasthan even announced that he will go on a one-day hunger strike on 11 April over the critical issue he has raised. Claiming that strong action should be taken so that the public does not feel that their promises were broken, Pilot asserted, “While in the opposition, we had accused the BJP government of scams worth 45,000 crores and had promised a fair inquiry. But nothing has happened. Now, 6-7 months are left for elections and to prove that we are not hand in glove with our opponents, action should be taken.”


Revival of The Rajasthan Showdown

It’s worth recalling that this is hardly the first time that Pilot has aimed a fusillade against his bete noire. Gehlot’s unsavoury epithets for Pilot—from Nikamma and Nakaara to Gaddar—are well-known and hardly add dignity to the three-time chief minister. But Pilot too has repeatedly attacked Gehlot over a range of issues.

From alleging laxity by the Gehlot-run police department over the Pehlu Khan verdict in 2019 to targeting insensitivity in handling Kota infant deaths in 2020, Pilot was unsparing in his attacks while he was the Deputy CM.

Even after his unsuccessful revolt in July 2020, Pilot has rarely hesitated taking potshots at Gehlot. Over the past month itself, Sachin has been critical of the Gehlot government’s handling of protests by the widows of Pulwama martyrs, the Doctors' strike over the Right to Health bill, and even the recent acquittals of the accused in the Jaipur Bomb Blasts case by the Rajasthan High Court.

At the root of his bitter rivalry with Gehlot is, of course, Pilot’s thwarted chief ministerial ambitions for the past several years. More recently, Pilot has been upset with the party High Command for taking no action against pro-Gehlot leaders who had allegedly engineered the revolt by Congress MLAs last September. That revolt had virtually denied Pilot’s CM coronation at the last moment as Gehlot loyalists foiled the plan to shift Gehlot to Delhi as the Congress President and let Pilot become the CM.

Pilot’s Grouse Over Lost CM Post Boils Up

Ever since the revolt of MLAs in September 2022, Pilot and his supporters have repeatedly demanded disciplinary action against leaders of that rebellion which amounted to even challenging the authority of the Congress High Command. Pilot’s repeated pleas for action have fallen on deaf ears. The failure to take action against Gehlot loyalists led to Ajay Maken moving away as in-charge of Rajasthan.

Even under the new in-charge SS Randhawa, there has been no movement forward and no CLP meet has been held despite Pilot asking for the same. With elections barely eight months away, there’s little chance of any disciplinary action, though the September revolt was one of the worst challenges for the Congress High Command in many decades. Stonewalling by Gehlot and his supporters and inaction of the Congress High Command have now left Pilot angry and deeply upset.

Congress insiders say that what has possibly triggered Pilot’s current outburst is a recent Congress event in Jaipur where Gehlot loyalist and Water Supply Minister Mahesh Joshi raised slogans demanding a fourth term as CM for Ashok Gehlot. Slogans of ‘Chauthi Baar, Gehlot Sarkaar’, in the presence of Randhawa, have set political corridors abuzz. Joshi was one of the key organisers of the meeting of the Parallel Legislature Party on 25 September last year which prevented Pilot from getting the CM post. Sloganeering by Joshi and his group was a message to the Pilot camp that seems to have worked.

As Pilot gets set to protest with a hunger strike against his own government, the big question now is— what is his plan?


Ahead of Polls, Is Pilot Contemplating a Switch?

One theory suggests that Pilot will not quit the Congress, that his outburst is an attempt to pressurise the High Command to give him a vital post or role ahead of the assembly elections. Political veterans say that his ‘Dharna’ will showcase his strength and popularity in order to push the Congress top brass to give him an equal say with Gehlot during ticket distribution for the Rajasthan polls.

Some observers, however, believe that Pilot may be on the verge of moving away from the Congress. But Pilot’s options are rather limited—he is unlikely to go to BJP as it already has too many CM aspirants—from former CM Raje to Union Mister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, to name just three.

But Pilot’s powerful presser has set off a big buzz in Jaipur that he may be headed towards the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which has reportedly offered him to lead its campaign in Rajasthan. This observation comes from the fact that there is a striking similarity in Pilot suggesting a Gehlot-Raje nexus and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal raising exactly the same issue at a meeting in Jaipur last month.

With both of them targeting inaction over corruption cases in the state, many feel that Pilot and AAP-Kejriwal may cobble together a Third Front that could make Rajasthan assembly polls more interesting though messy.


Pilot's Stand Divides Congress Camp 

If Pilot ultimately moves away from the Congress, it will greatly dent the Grand Old Party in an election year in Rajasthan. Already there are indications that many may support Pilot’s posturing and even Gehlot's Minister PS Khachariyawas has openly supported Sachin’s stand for action on corruption cases under the previous Raje-BJP government.

However, initial reactions from the Congress top bosses suggest that Pilot is unlikely to get much support from the party High Command. They have virtually endorsed the Ashok Gehlot line through a Congress statement saying its government in Rajasthan has implemented numerous schemes that benefitted people, and it will seek a renewed mandate based on its achievements as well as the collective efforts of the organisation. Strikingly, there is no mention of Pilot or his outburst. Though SS Randhawa is being rushed to Jaipur to placate Pilot, even he has claimed that Pilot never raised the corruption issue with him.

Meanwhile, Congress old-timers are hoping for wisdom to prevail. They have asked Pilot and Gehlot to calm down. The next few days are critical for Congress's fortunes in the state. Gehlot-Pilot frictions are spoiling the atmospherics and taking the narrative away from the welfare schemes of the Gehlot government just months ahead of the elections.

But if Pilot walks away. the price may be much higher for the Congress. The damage won’t just be in Rajasthan as their chances may get heavily dented in Karnataka next month. And the domino effect could be a huge dampener for Congress plans for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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