From driving a bike together like 'Jai and Viru' in the Bollywood classic Sholay, to hugging each other at a Rahul Gandhi rally in Jaipur during the last assembly elections, Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot have often tried to hide their bitter feud. But the simmering tensions between the old guard and the new have been an open secret in Rajasthan politics for years. With Pilot’s eviction from the Rajasthan state government on 14 July, the cat is finally out of the bag.
Now, with the tussle between the two political stalwarts climaxing and threatening to derail the Congress in Rajasthan, many wonder how and why the Gehlot-Pilot friction exploded with such ferocity and bitterness.
What’s The Immediate Trigger For Rajasthan Political Crisis?
The immediate trigger for Pilot’s virtual revolt, that has ignited a grave political crisis, lies in an FIR registered by the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Rajasthan Police on the alleged attempt to topple the Gehlot government through horse-trading in the recent Rajya Sabha polls. Once Pilot was summoned by the SOG on 10 July for its probe into the ‘plot to destabilise the state government’, the deputy CM and his supporters saw it as a bid to defame him.
Party insiders say that Pilot was angry that the SOG probe was ‘being used by Gehlot’ to ‘create an impression’ that he was ‘working in tandem with the BJP to topple the Congress government’.
Although Gehlot loyalists point out that a similar notice was also sent to the CM to record his statement, it needs to be remembered that Gehlot holds the Home portfolio, and the police reports to him as Home Minister.
As such, many see merit in Pilot’s view that the SOG probe may target him and tarnish his public image.
Though the SOG saga ignited the current crisis, the Gehlot-Pilot tussle had been going on ever since the Congress returned to power in Rajasthan in December 2018. It took three days for the High Command to give the CM’s post to Gehlot, which happened amid Pilot supporters protesting on the streets of Rajasthan. Ever since, Pilot and his loyalists feel he was not given his due for bringing the Congress back to power in a state where it was routed in the 2013 elections after five years of Gehlot’s rule.
- The immediate trigger for Pilot’s virtual revolt lies in an FIR registered by the SOG of the Rajasthan Police on the alleged attempt to topple the Gehlot government through horse-trading.
- Though the SOG saga ignited the current crisis, the Gehlot-Pilot tussle had been going on ever since the Congress returned to power in Rajasthan in December 2018.
- Despite the compromise worked out by the High Command, the Gehlot-Pilot feud persisted, and both leaders rarely missed a chance to embarrass each other.
- Besides the rancour of missing the top job, Pilot is said to have been deeply upset at being side-lined by Gehlot in the state’s governance.
- If Pilot has a long list of complaints, Gehlot too is far from happy with his (now former) deputy.
- Given the current circumstances, it will need political finesse for the High Command to come up with a balancing act that satisfies both camps.
Pilot’s Open Criticism Of Gehlot & Rajasthan Govt’s Working
Despite the compromise worked out by the High Command, the Gehlot-Pilot feud persisted, and both leaders have rarely missed a chance to embarrass each other. Pilot was unhappy that Gehlot had both the Home and Finance portfolios, and he often made critical remarks about the law and order situation in the state in order to put down Gehlot. For instance, in the infamous Pehlu Khan lynching case, Pilot had openly targeted Gehlot. After the court acquitted all the accused and Gehlot set up an SIT on the case, Pilot commented that such steps should have been taken much earlier to prevent the acquittal, and that the government should have been more pro-active in securing justice for Pehlu and his family.
Similarly, after the Lok Sabha rout in 2019, when the Congress lost all the 25 seats in Rajasthan, Gehlot and Pilot tried to put each other in the dock.
While Gehlot asserted that Pilot, as the PCC Chief, should take responsibility for the debacle, Pilot retorted that the results would have been vastly different if CM Gehlot had campaigned all over the state instead of focusing only on his son’s constituency in Jodhpur.
Another major fracas erupted early this year, when over hundred infants died at a government hospital in Kota, Rajasthan, allegedly due to a shortage of beds and other facilities. Gehlot tried to pin the blame on the previous BJP government in the state for insufficiencies in the health department.
But Pilot publicly shamed his own government by stating it was pointless to blame the past government, and asserted that the whole issue should have been dealt with greater compassion and sensitivity.
Pilot Was Upset At Being ‘Side-Lined’ By Gehlot
More recently, in the Rajya Sabha polls in June, Gehlot had alleged that the BJP was involved in a major bid at horse-trading to topple his government. But after the Congress won two of the three seats, Pilot made a veiled attack on Gehlot, that those who were ‘indulging in wild speculations had been proved wrong’ and were only ‘making baseless charges’.
Beyond this constant slanging match, are substantive issues which have greatly soured the Gehlot-Pilot equation.
Besides the rancour of missing the top job, Pilot is said to have been deeply upset at being side-lined by Gehlot in the state’s governance.
Given his differences with the CM, Pilot's share in the decision-making process of the Rajasthan government had declined in recent times far more than what he thought was his due as the deputy CM.
Congress insiders say that Pilot is angry that all major decisions are taken by Gehlot without any discussion with him.
Pilot Was Ignored By Gehlot In A Major Bureaucratic Reshuffle
In the management of the corona crisis in recent months, Pilot was upset at being assigned virtually no role.
Pilot was also miffed at being ignored by Gehlot in a major bureaucratic reshuffle involving transfers of hundreds of IAS and IPS officers. But the buzz in the power corridors suggests that Pilot could not get any officers of his choice posted.
Pilot loyalists insist that far from implementing the power-sharing arrangement promised by the Congress High Command, CM Gehlot had subtly marginalised the deputy CM so much, that the agreement of December 2018 was in shatters in recent times.
Gehlot Could Not Digest Pilot’s ‘Abrasive Nature & Caustic Remarks’
The Pilot camp asserts that Gehlot had been trying to undercut Sachin by appointing bureaucrats even in ministries held by Pilot. They insist that in various ways, Pilot’s stature has been minimised, but the Congress High Command has largely ignored his complaints. Though Sonia Gandhi eventually formed a coordination committee in January 2020 to iron out their differences, the panel has held just one meeting till now.
If Pilot has a long list of complaints, Gehlot too is far from happy with his (now former) deputy.
A firm believer in public decorum, Gehlot was dismayed when Pilot insisted that a chair be kept for him on the dais at the swearing-in ceremony of ministers at the Raj Bhavan. Normally, only the Governor and the Chief Minister occupy this special space at oath ceremonies, and the break from tradition at Pilot’s insistence was seen as his obstinacy in not accepting Gehlot as a senior.
Pilot’s caustic comments and abrasive attitude are tough to digest for a traditional leader like Gehlot, and repeated slights, many before the media, have been seen by Gehlot and most party veterans as a deliberate affront to him.
Moreover, Gehlot believes that Sachin Pilot ‘misused’ his stature as PCC Chief to create hurdles in every decision, whereby ministry reshuffle and political appointments in the state had been stalled. Since Pilot had been the Rajasthan Congress President for over six years, Gehlot was keen to get one of his supporters appointed in that position, whereas leaders close to Pilot claimed that he wanted to either continue in the post or get his own man in the saddle after him.
Seat Of Rajasthan PCC Chief: Real Cause Of Gehlot-Pilot Rift & Political Mess?
Many suggest that the real cause of the current mess is the seat of the Rajasthan PCC chief. Party insiders confirmed that Gehlot had long been demanding a change in order to oust Pilot, and was lobbying with the High Command for a new PCC chief before the upcoming municipal and panchayat elections in the state. While the SOG summons came in as a handy excuse, party insiders say the real reason for the Gehlot-Pilot imbroglio, which culminated in Pilot’s ouster on Tuesday, is the PCC post.
Gehlot’s strategy in ensuring wins for Congress nominees in the recent Rajya Sabha polls has reportedly convinced party bigwigs that he ‘saved his government’ from being torpedoed by the BJP.
Congress High Command Must Come Up With Balancing Act To Satisfy Both Pilot & Gehlot
Moreover, Gehlot’s handling of the corona crisis in the state, especially the much-lauded ‘Bhilwara Model’, has also raised his stature in recent months. As a result, Gehlot is now confident that the party high command will give him greater freedom in the proposed cabinet reshuffle, as also the long-pending political appointments in the state.
Given the current circumstances, it will need political finesse for the High Command to come up with a balancing act that satisfies both camps.
While some see the feud as an ego clash, others have termed it as a battle between the Congress’s ‘Old Guard’ and the ‘Young Turks’.
As the battle of nerves and numbers rages on, more than Gehlot or Pilot, it’s the Congress that could prove to be the biggest loser. Unless the top brass of the party seriously addresses the deeper roots of the rift with a solution that is objective and fair to both leaders, political storms in the desert state may remain a constant threat.
(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.)