After corruption became a central focus of the Karnataka verdict, political circles are abuzz that scams and dubious deals will figure prominently in the Hindi heartland polls this winter. Most analysts believe corruption and the '40% Sarkara’ barbs resonated with Karnataka voters in a big way. As it creates a catchy narrative, corruption taints against the incumbents and is now being seen as a key element in forging a winning electoral strategy.
Well before the poll battle in Rajasthan, infighting in the ruling Congress and mudslinging over corruption and paper leaks are creating a big buzz. The Gehlot-Pilot tussle has continued for years but recently, it has flared up enormously and the political narrative has been less about the welfare schemes of the Gehlot dispensation and more about the slugfest in the party.
ED Raids & the Widening Gehlot-Pilot Rift
An aggressive Sachin Pilot has cornered Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot for inaction on graft charges against the former Vasundhara Raje government and over paper leaks in recruitment exams which have rocked Rajasthan in the last few years. A month after Pilot’s sharp attack on the paper leak issue, this week, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) conducted raids at 28 locations across the state, including at the residence of RPSC member Babulal Katara, a prime accused in the case.
With the ED raids continuing for two days this week and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doing its best to encash the situation, the rift in the Rajasthan Congress seems to have handed a critical issue to the saffron brigade. While the Congress remains on the edge over Pilot’s next step, the ED probe on the paper leak issue has sparked a huge political row, barely six months before the Assembly Polls.
The paper leak case has hit the headlines since December 2022 after question papers of the Rajasthan Eligibility Examination for Teachers (REET) were leaked to candidates before the test. Though nearly 60 people, including RPSC member Babulal Katara, have so far been arrested, the BJP has targeted Gehlot for not having a CBI probe in the case as it may reveal the involvement of some of his favourite ministers and bureaucrats.
Beyond BJP's attacks, however, it is Pilot’s sustained campaign that has given legitimacy to charges about the paper leak scam. When Gehlot initially claimed no senior functionary was involved in the scandal, Pilot made a sarcastic comment that if papers were leaking out of safe vaults without the involvement of leaders or officials, then it must be due to some "Jadugari” (an euphemism for Gehlot who is a trained magician).
Paper Leaks Case and Pilot’s Sustained Attack
Even after several culprits had been arrested, Pilot’s demand for action against "big sharks” behind paper leaks, caused huge embarrassment for Gehlot. In May, Pilot targeted his party’s government for nullifying the hard work of students. Linking the issue with corruption and youth aspirations, he asserted, "Our children work hard for years, their parents pay for tuition… but question papers get leaked and exams get cancelled…Those who do not feel their pain are occupying high posts.” No wonder, during his recent Padyatra, Pilot listed paper leaks and reform in RPSC as his core issues, apart from inaction on corruption charges against the former BJP government in Rajasthan.
While the opposition attacks could be dismissed as purely political, Pilot’s tirade has kept paper leaks at the centre stage of Rajasthan politics in recent months. With ED raids now putting his government on the mat, Gehlot calls it a blatant 'misuse’ of central agencies for “political vendetta to win elections” by painting his government in poor light.
Claiming that the ED was "needlessly intervening” in the paper leak case when it was already being investigated by the state police, Gehlot also questioned why the agency took no action in the Sanjivani Cooperative Society scam despite repeated requests by his government. It may be recalled that Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat is one of the accused in the 900 crores Sanjivani scam that has duped thousands of people of their hard-earned money in West Rajasthan.
Despite the chief minister’s vociferous defense, ED raids have put the Gehlot government in the dock in the public eye. Also, a big buzz has erupted that ED sleuths have found links of two Congress leaders to paper leaks that could create a huge crisis for the party. Congress leaders claim they are not scared by ED raids but Gehlot and State Party Chief, GS Dotasra have warned that the Congress will hit the streets if the ED indulges in unfair targeting.
Congress seems rattled by the Paper Leak saga as it is a highly emotive issue and connects with the future of millions of youngsters. How much traction it draws is clear from the fact that despite Congress attacks, 'ED Raids’ became a top trend on social media. More embarrassingly for the Congress, 'Rajasthan-Youth-With-ED’ was also a top trend for two full days on Twitter!
How It Hands BJP a Golden Chance To Reap Electoral Gains
Clearly, the long-standing Congress feud and the ED raids are a boon for the BJP to raise a huge stink. Besides state leaders, even the BJP top brass Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have targeted the Congress rift in public meetings. At a rally in April, Shah slammed the Gehlot dispensation as the 'most corrupt government’ in the state’s history.
BJP insiders affirm the party will now make corruption and paper leaks its main thrust against the Gehlot regime. For months, the saffron party was at its wit's end to counter the popular welfare schemes of the Gehlot government. But now it plans to taint the Congress as a '50% Commission’ government, strongly echoing the Congress campaign in Karnataka. Though it’s unclear whether it can replicate the plan in Rajasthan, the state BJP is full of vigour after the ED raids.
Emboldened by the Congress rift and ED raids, the BJP will hold a 'Gherao’ of the state secretariat in Jaipur on 13 June with corruption and paper leak issues forming a central plank of its assault on the Gehlot government. With the ED even registering a money laundering case in the paper leak scam, the BJP hopes to build a narrative that there has been corruption at a high level and the strings of paper leaks are connected to the ‘big crocodiles’ in the state government and the Congress organisation.
As the BJP exults, the Grand Old Party remains crippled due to infighting. A Minister of the Gehlot government, currently in the Pilot camp, recently stated that “Corruption in Rajasthan is worse than in Karnataka.” Though Gehlot is keen to highlight the schemes of his government, public attention remains firmly focused on Gehlot-Pilot frictions and their mudslinging has given BJP a handy tool for its Rajasthan campaign.
Congress leaders and cadres are anxious over what could unfold in the feud between the Big Two. For the moment, there is intense speculation over Pilot’s next step. With his key demands unaddressed and no clarity on his role, will Pilot take some ‘drastic action’ on his father’s death anniversary on 11 June? From quitting the Congress to joining the BJP to forming his own party - all options seem open for Pilot.
As the High Command dithers, Pilot wavers, and the party rift simmers, the ED raids have provided a glimpse of how the BJP could utilise the Congress feud to its advantage in the poll battle in Rajasthan.
(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.)