It was a picture-perfect moment for the ruling Congress in Rajasthan to project an ‘All Is Well’ image. As Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former Deputy CM Sachin Pilot smiled and raised their hands in the air along with AICC General Secretary KC Venugopal in Jaipur, the dark clouds over Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra in the desert state seemed to dissipate rather suddenly.
Till then, the factional feuds in the state unit were all set to become a major roadblock in the first Congress-ruled state that Rahul Gandhi will step into during his ambitious Yatra this weekend.
The bonhomie among the biggies came just days after CM Gehlot called Pilot a ‘Gaddar’ (traitor) and took their bitter rivalry to a new low. Gehlot’s no-holds-barred attack on his bête noire in a recent TV interview, raised the political temperature sharply though the mercury was dipping in Rajasthan.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot smiling, raising hands along with AICC General Secretary KC Venugopal is Rajasthan Congress's 'All Is Well' moment.
Rahul Gandhi helped diffuse party tensions and effect Gehlot-Pilot's patch-up ahead of Bharat Jodo.
With the two at loggerheads, a trust deficit plagues the state unit. Gehlot tagging Pilot a 'traitor' was a thinly-veiled attempt to revive ghosts of 2020 revolt.
The Congress rift has also given ammunition to BJP in the poll-bound state which is mocking Gehlot-Pilot bonhomie as just a 'political break' till the infighting returns again.
Can Peace Be Brokered Between Faction Camps?
Significantly, it was Rahul Gandhi himself who cooled down the hot-heads by calling both Gehlot and Pilot “assets of the Congress party.” Rahul’s comments, followed by Venugopal's visit to oversee Yatra preparations in Rajasthan, helped defuse tensions and effect a Gehlot-Pilot patch-up despite the bad blood between the top two in the state unit.
With the Congress High Command stepping in, the atmospherics for the Rahul Yatra has improved as the slugfest between the leaders has ceased and the ‘doom and gloom’ among the cadres, lifted. Instead of fissures and frictions, the focus now seems to be on making the Rahul Yatra a memorable event in Rajasthan. As such, the Yatra is now likely to pass off without any disruption in the desert state.
However, given the deep divisions that have persisted for years and sharpened since the revolt by pro-Gehlot MLAs in September, the key question is how long will the Gehlot-Pilot Truce last?
It must be remembered that it’s not the first time a show of unity happened in the Rajasthan Congress. Claims of ‘United Colours of Rajasthan’ and images of Gehlot-Pilot together have been beamed thrice in the past four years. Yet, except for postponing problems and dithering on decisions, little has been done to resolve the Rajasthan Congress Crisis that continues to simmer ever since the party’s return to power in 2018.
At the heart of the Rajasthan crisis is, of course, the Gehlot-Pilot leadership tussle. The central dilemma for the Congress top brass revolves around a promise reportedly made by the Gandhi siblings to promote Pilot on one hand, and realpolitik concerns of continuing with Gehlot as CM on the other.
Gehlot-Pilot Rift Widens
Gehlot loyalists point to his grassroots connect, welfare schemes, and huge backing among MLAs as key reasons to retain him. But the Pilot camp points to Sachin’s popularity, especially among the youth, and claims it was his hard work and charisma that helped the Congress regain power after the historic loss in the 2013 elections. With the High Command shy of rocking the boat in Rajasthan as they did so disastrously in Punjab last year, the leadership battle has turned the state Congress into two warring camps.
With the Top Two at loggerheads, a trust deficit now plagues the state unit. Gehlot tagging Pilot a 'traitor' last week, was a thinly-veiled attempt to revive the ghosts of the 2020 revolt, highlight his hobnobbing with the BJP two years ago, and argue that Pilot should not be trusted.
Pilot loyalists, however, question why the ‘traitor’ argument is trotted out whenever leadership change is discussed. They also wonder how the five MLAs who were part of the 2020 revolt were made ministers by Gehlot last year if Pilot backers were traitors.
The Modi Factor in Congress Infighting
The ‘Gaddar’ jibe came barely a fortnight after Pilot targeted Gehlot for the praise showered on CM by Prime Minister Modi. Pilot had attacked the CM-PM bonhomie at a public function in Banswara district in an effort to project that Gehlot has a closeness to Modi like that of Ghulam Nabi Azad who had revolted against the Congress after his praise by the PM.
Most observers believe that Pilot’s attack was a ploy to taint Gehlot with a BJP brush and blunt the charge of his own dalliance with the BJP to topple the Gehlot government in 2020. The bitter skirmishes in the state Congress have worsened since the 25 September rebellion by pro-Gehlot MLAs against the party high command’s purported plan to make Gehlot the AICC President and bring in Pilot as his replacement.
Ever since the September revolt which critics claim had Gehlot’s blessings, the CM has adopted an ‘attack is the best form of defence’ policy. Inevitably, there has been no action on the three Gehlot loyalists who were served notices by the AICC and are believed to have organised the revolt by MLAs.
The lack of disciplinary action has now become a key issue in the Rajasthan mess. The Gehlot camp is worried that action against pro-Gehlot leaders may well start a process of weakening the CM’s stronghold on the MLAs. In contrast, Sachin’s supporters argue that if Pilot was stripped of both his posts for the 2020 revolt, why should Gehlot loyalists be spared?
Will the Rajasthan Truce Sustain?
Enforcing discipline is critical for the Congress High Command’s image. After the September revolt, KC Venugopal claimed that the leadership issue will be settled in two days but it continues to fester even two months later.
In his closed-door meeting to effect the current Gehlot-Pilot patch-up, Venugopal has reportedly warned both camps that the leaders/ministers will be dropped in 24 hours if they make any irresponsible remarks to inflame the infighting.
Since party General Secretary Jairam Ramesh has also asserted that the High Command would not shy away from taking ‘tough decisions’ in the interest of the party, it’s time for the Congress top brass to ‘Walk the Talk’ to salvage its own stature and heal the fissures in Rajasthan.
The Congress rift has also given ammunition to the BJP in the election-bound state. The party is mocking the Gehlot-Pilot bonhomie as just a 'political break' till the infighting returns after the Rahul Yatra. Interestingly, the BJP has started its own Jan Aakrosh Yatra and expose what it calls the ‘Nikamma-Naakara’ state government— an obvious reference to Gehlot’s jibes against Pilot.
Can Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Fix Party Fissures?
The BJP also claims the Congress rift has ruined governance in Rajasthan which could well be a major issue in the elections next year. And a top BJP leader has filed a PIL in the High Court on the resignations of about 90 pro-Gehlot MLAs on 25 September which are still pending with Assembly Speaker CP Joshi.
As the Rahul Yatra arrives in Rajasthan this weekend, the Gehlot-Pilot truce brokered by the party leadership is likely to ensure that the political messaging of the mega-walk is not diluted by the bickering among state leaders.
But Gandhi and the Congress top brass must realise that the deep divisions in the Rajasthan unit could explode fiercely if they are not addressed on priority. With all factions turning impatient in the run-up to the assembly polls, the need for decisive action can hardly be overstated. A failure to resolve the Gehlot-Pilot saga and check the rift could seriously dent the party’s prospects in the only major state that the Congress now rules.
(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.)