Even as the power struggle in Maharashtra deepens by the day, a political storm seems to be brewing in Rajasthan. Over the past few days, the tussle between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot has reignited with ferocious intensity. With barbs flying from both sides, political circles are abuzz that the rift in the ruling Congress may lead to a full-blown crisis. The “desert squall” that was adroitly controlled two years ago now threatens to turn into a major tornado.
Ironically, a rather innocuous, off-the-cuff comment by former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has rekindled hostilities between the Gehlot and Pilot camps. Sharing the experience of his recent ED (Enforcement Directorate) interaction with party workers at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters in Delhi last Wednesday, Rahul said, “ED officials asked me about the patience with which I answered their questions. I’m in Congress since 2004. Patience is inculcated in us and every leader of the party understands this.” He added, “Congress party teaches patience … Sachin Pilot is sitting here, Siddaramaiahji is here.”
Rahul said recently, “ED officials asked me about the patience with which I answered their questions. I’m in Congress since 2004. Patience is inculcated in us and every leader of the party understands this.” He added, “Congress party teaches patience … Sachin Pilot is sitting here, Siddaramaiahji is here.
Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot's recent remarks in Sikar have further set off intense speculation over the leadership battle in Rajasthan.
Significantly, what irks Gehlot and his loyalists is Pilot’s regular flaunting of his proximity to the Gandhis, which sparks rumours about major changes in the Rajasthan Congress
With barely 16 months to go for assembly elections, the Congress top brass needs to address the Gehlot-Pilot rift immediately.
With Gehlot-Pilot friction being such an open secret, it obviously provides the BJP with enough opportunities to fish in troubled waters.
Rahul’s remarks, especially his reference to Pilot, soon went viral and set off intense speculation over the leadership battle in Rajasthan, with many wondering whether some major changes in the state unit were on the anvil.
'Pilot Missed a Golden Chance'
While the exact meaning of Rahul’s praise for Pilot’s patience was being deciphered, Gehlot dropped a bombshell in a media interaction in Sikar district on Saturday. Referring to a recent remark by Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, that “Pilot missed a golden chance in repeating an MP-like rebellion in Rajasthan in 2020”, Gehlot accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader of colluding with Pilot to destabilise his government. Gehlot said, “You conspired to topple our government and your naming of Sachin Pilot proves that you were hand in glove with him.”
Gehlot’s outburst was the first time that the Chief Minister openly named Sachin Pilot as being a conspirator in toppling his government after a truce was worked out to quell the rebellion two years ago. Despite their cold war, Gehlot and Pilot had refrained from taking each other’s names in public. The next day, when Gehlot’s close confidante and state Urban Development & Housing Department (UDH) minister, Shanti Dhariwal, remarked, “What has the Chief Minister said wrong? We also believe so”, it was obvious that Gehlot loyalists supported his sharp attack on Pilot.
Ultimately, Pilot broke his silence and hit back on Monday during a trip to his constituency in Tonk district. Linking the attacks on him to Rahul’s praise, Pilot said no one should be upset if Rahul Gandhi had praised his ‘patience’ and people “should take it in the right spirit”.
Brushing aside Gehlot’s charge of colluding with Union Minister Shekhawat, Pilot said that in the past, too, Gehlot had said “many things about me like ‘nakaara’, ‘nikamma’ (useless, worthless)”. He added, “But I don't take the statements otherwise as he is an experienced, elderly, father-like figure.”
However, Pilot couldn’t resist taking a dig at the Chief Minister and said that Shekhawat became a Union Minister because he won from Jodhpur in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls despite the Congress being in power in the state. He termed that defeat as a ‘chook’ (mistake) on the part of the party. It may be underlined that Jodhpur is Gehlot’s hometown, and his son Vaibhav Gehlot lost the Lok Sabha election there against Shekhawat in 2019.
Fiery Verbal Volleys Make a Comeback
Though Pilot was guarded in his responses, his supporters were not. Launching a caustic counterattack, Inderraj Gujjar, a pro-Pilot Congress MLA, said on Twitter, “A man sitting on the ground never falls, only those making castles in the air should be worried.” Another key supporter, Acharya Pramod Krishnam, hinted at Pilot getting a major responsibility in the state. Krishnam said on Twitter: “Sachin Pilot gulped political poison. Lord Shiva drank poison but he is anointed in Sawan (monsoon). As Sawan approaches, the person who gulped political poison will also be anointed.”
This resumption of the fiery verbal volleys reveals deep fissures in the Rajasthan Congress, which, despite the truce after Pilot’s revolt in mid-2020, has witnessed relentless sniping between the two factions. If Gehlot rarely loses an opportunity to embarrass Pilot as well as remind people about his failed revolt, Pilot’s pet theme is the Congress decimation in 2013, which indirectly highlights his own role in the 2018 Congress revival in Rajasthan.
Significantly, what irks Gehlot and his loyalists is Pilot’s regular flaunting of his proximity to the Gandhis, which sparks rumours about major changes in the Rajasthan Congress. It also puts them on tenterhooks despite multiple successes in Assembly by-polls as well as the recent Rajya Sabha elections, wherein the Congress won an extra seat in the state by defeating BJP-backed media baron Subhash Chandra.
An Opening for the BJP?
With Gehlot-Pilot friction being such an open secret, it obviously provides the BJP with enough opportunities to fish in troubled waters. The Leader of Opposition in the Rajasthan Assembly, GC Kataria, recently claimed that “Pilot has the support of the people ... and hence, Gehlot wants to throw him out so as to rule like an autocrat”. In his bid to draw a deeper wedge between the Congress rivals, Kataria’s deputy, Rajendra Rathore, said, “I would like to hail Sachin Pilot for his patience, though he is sometimes called useless or a conspirator.” Hoping for Pilot's patience to run out and enable the BJP to enact a Madhya Pradesh-like coup in Rajasthan, Rathore termed Pilot ‘Neelkanth’ (person with a blue throat), a synonym for Lord Shiva who consumed poison for the benefit of society.
With barely 16 months to go for assembly elections, the Congress top brass needs to address the Gehlot-Pilot rift immediately. Else, the Rajasthan Congress could hit serious turbulence. An open fallout would not only expose the duo but also indicate a lack of effective central leadership.
Astute political observers suggest that the party needs to placate Pilot with some dignified position at the state level as he has been in the wilderness for nearly two years. To put the Congress house in order and settle matters amicably, the party high command needs to display some dexterity and deft handling. Otherwise, the Gehlot-Pilot rift could inflict a huge blow to Congress prospects and enable the BJP to ‘pilot’ Rajasthan’s destiny after the next election.
(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.)