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As the slugfest between Congress rebel Sachin Pilot and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot rages on, politics in the desert state has turned into a sordid drama. From two central protagonists battling it out in full public glare to fancy dialogues and endless twists and turns in the plot, the Pilot-Gehlot saga has become a political potboiler that’s captivating the entire nation.
Interestingly, the high drama has also unveiled a supporting cast of intriguing characters, many rather unknown on the national stage. In particular, most people are curious about the rebel MLAs in the Pilot camp.
Who are these Netas? What are their special abilities and stakes? What roles do they play in the Pilot camp? How did they get close to the reserved Sachin?
In the motley group of MLAs supporting Pilot, the oldest and perhaps the most controversial is 75-year-old Bhanwar Lal Sharma who has been suspended from party membership since he figures prominently in the ‘audio tapes’ on charges of plotting with BJP leaders to bring down the Gehlot government.
Sharma’s clout stems from being the President of the All India Brahmin Federation since 2011; he also heads the Rajasthan Brahmin Mahasabha, the biggest organisation of the 75-lakh Brahmins of the state from 2002 till today.
Sharma, the Serial Government Toppler
Though he grew up in poverty and dropped out of school in 10th grade, Sharma fancies himself as a political strategist, a modern-day Chanakya. He once pompously stated: “The great sage Chanakya advised the powerful king Chandragupta Maurya but himself lived in a jhonpri (hut) outside the Rajmahal (palace). Well, we're not satisfied with the jhonpri. We want the palace.”
Over the years, his political acumen has been over-shadowed by his personal ambitions that have seen him flitting from the Lok Dal to the Janata Dal to the BJP to finally the Congress in the past two decades. Instead of achievements, Sharma is more known for engineering crises in Rajasthan politics as he has been at the heart of many attempts to topple governments in the state.
Sharma’s most infamous bid to bring down a government relates to his attempt at dislodging the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat-led BJP government in 1996.
Besides charges of horse-trading and money-laundering, what made it a specially unsavoury episode was its timing - the coup effort was made when Shekhawat was battling for his life in USA.
Despite being a staunch opponent of the BJP, Gehlot had refused to join in that bid to displace the ailing Shekhawat – and ever since the Sharma-Gehlot equation has been one of enduring bitterness.
The veteran is also known in Rajasthan for his acerbic statements. Soon after the Congress rout in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Sharma had dubbed Rahul Gandhi as the “MD of a team of jokers”.
Ironically, he had even claimed that folks like Rahul Gandhi and Sachin Pilot were little more than “political dynasts”. The Congress had then expelled him over those remarks but he was reinstated just ahead of the 2018 Assembly polls after his apology.
A 7-term MLA from Churu district, Sharma is angry at never having been made a minister by Ashok Gehlot and is now working overtime to install Pilot on the CM chair. As he strikes deals and fine tunes strategies, many call him the ‘Chanakya of the Pilot camp’.
- Bhanwar Lal Sharma’s clout stems from being the President of the All India Brahmin Federation since 2011
- Instead of achievements, Sharma is more known for engineering crises in Rajasthan politics
- Sharma had even claimed that folks like Rahul Gandhi and Sachin Pilot were little more than “political dynasts”
- Sharma is angry at never having been made a minister by Ashok Gehlot
- Vishvendra Singh heads the former princely family of Bharatpur, the only riyasat in Rajasthan where Jats were rulers
- Singh has switched sides from the Janata Dal to the Congress to the BJP and back to the Congress in 2008
- Despite being an official Advisor to Raje for some time, Singh and Raje fell out bitterly
- He is believed to be deeply upset at the importance accorded by Gehlot to another Bharatpur-based minister
Once Close to Raje, Now Wary of Gehlot
Unlike Sharma’s modest background, the other suspended MLA of the Pilot camp, Vishvendra Singh, is rather vocal and immodest about his royal lineage. He heads the former princely family of Bharatpur, the only riyasat in Rajasthan where Jats were rulers. Vishvendra is an influential voice amongst the politically powerful Jat community that is a major votebank in around 40 of the 200 Assembly seats in the state.
Ironically, Vishvendra began his political career by defeating a Pilot – Rajesh Pilot – in the Lok Sabha elections of 1989.
Despite his royal background and caste advantage, his political journey has been rather chequered. Though he enjoys an image of a Dabbang, fearless royal, Vishvendra is regarded as a political maverick who has switched sides from Janata Dal to Congress to the BJP and back to the Congress in 2008.
During his long years in the BJP, he shot into prominence during Vasundhara Raje’s first tenure as chief minister from 2003 to 2008. Although they were old friends, the ‘blow hot, blow cold’ equation between them forms a special chapter in the annals of Rajasthan politics.
Despite being an official Advisor to Raje for some time, the two fell out bitterly and have been fighting a battle royale of one-upmanship in eastern Rajasthan for years.
Although a 3-time MP and a 2-time MLA, Vishvendra was only made a minister for the first time in 2018. But as Tourism Minister, he has been unhappy with bureaucrats in his department.
Also, he is believed to be deeply upset at the importance accorded by Gehlot to another Bharatpur-based minister, Subhash Garg, a known protégé of the CM.
Congress insiders opine Gehlot’s support for Garg is seen by Vishvendra as an attempt to create a challenger on his home-turf. Inevitably, Vishvendra drifted into the Pilot camp and his open rebellion now has resulted in his being dropped from the Cabinet.
Pro-Young Pilot Supported by Veterans?
Besides this dodgy duo, the disparate mix of MLAs supporting Pilot also includes Hemaram Chaudhary aged 72 and Deependra Singh Shekhawat aged 69. A Jat leader from Barmer district, Hemaram is a 6-term MLA who was a Cabinet minister during Gehlot’s previous term as CM between 2008 and 2013.
Similarly, Deependra Singh, a 5-term MLA, was a minister in Gehlot’s first tenure as CM and the Speaker of the Rajasthan Assembly from 2008 to 2013. The ministerial dreams of these veterans were shattered in 2018 due to Pilot’s insistence on fielding younger faces in the Cabinet to give a positive signal before the last Lok Sabha polls.
Now, as they dream of returning as ministers via the Pilot camp, many say it’s too simplistic to term the Pilot-Gehlot feud as a battle between the party’s ‘Old Guards’ and the ‘Young Gen’.
It is anybody’s guess how the political battle in Rajasthan will end. But even if Gehlot is able to save his government, the state could see a long spell of political uncertainty.
An old adage says that ‘a man is judged by the company he keeps’ and the unveiling of his political ‘friends’ in the current drama reveals that Pilot is in rather colourful company.
Besides denting his stature in Rajasthan politics, the squeaky clean image of the young and promising Pilot now seems under the scanner.
(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.)