After Punjab problem, desert storm brews in Congress

Is Rajasthan heading for a change? Speculation is rife following Sachin Pilot’s extensive meeting with the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka, in New Delhi. Pilot has been relentlessly campaigning for Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s ouster.

He had raised a banner of revolt in July 2020 that led to his ouster as Rajasthan Congress unit chief and the removal of his key supporters from the Gehlot ministry. For the past 14 months, Gehlot seemed to have an upper hand as he dithered, expanding his council of ministers to take back Pilot supporters in spite of a directive from the Gandhis.

The upshot of Pilot’s deliberations with the Gandhis is that there is a sense of urgency in ending the Rajasthan impasse. Rajasthan assembly Speaker CP Joshi, who was once a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, said to have teamed up with Sachin to corner Gehlot. There are also reports of some key IAS officers working with chief minister Gehlot, seeking central deputation.

For the politically inclined, exodus of this nature is a sure sign of a sinking ship. These developments indicate that Sachin Pilot may be rewarded for his loyalty and faith in the Gandhi siblings, his patience, and silence in spite of many provocations.

Read | The shaken hand of faith: Three Gandhi family loyalists lost in Congress leadership haze

Clubbed with these developments is a curious case of Lokesh Sharma, OSD and media adviser to chief minister Gehlot, putting out a tweet, mocking and questioning Captain Amarinder Singh’s exit.

Sharma had tweeted: “Mazboot ko majboor, mamuli ko maghroor kiya jayebadh hi khet ko khaye, us fasal ko kaun bachaye!! (The strong are being made to feel helpless, the ordinary are encouraged to feel arrogant Who can save the crop when the fence itself destroys the field)?” Sharma subsequently tried distancing and even submitted his resignation to Gehlot. But till date, Gehlot has reportedly not accepted Sharma’s resignation.

The 3 possibilities

There are three possibilities now on how Gandhis would tackle the Rajasthan crisis. The likely scenario is Sachin Pilot may be reinstated as Rajasthan party chief and projected as a chief ministerial face for 2023 state Assembly polls. This scenario may unsettle Gehlot. An instant removal of Gehlot, on the other hand, would send out a stronger signal of the high command has taken charge. The third possibility is either Gehlot or Sachin has been given an important assignment at the central level, much against the wishes of both are rather remote. In this scenario, a Charanjit Singh Channi-like dark horse may prop up as a compromise candidate.

Read | Can Congress’s appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab CM be called a masterstroke?

However, state political observers in Rajasthan feel anyone other than Sachin as Gehlot’s successor would not serve the purpose of shoring up the Congress prospects in either Assembly or Lok Sabha polls.

Informed sources said Rahul and Priyanka themselves have 2024 Lok Sabha polls on the top of their mind while taking a call on Rajasthan and on Chhattisgarh [at a later state].

There are eight states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, and Karnataka where the Congress is in direct contest with the BJP. The party’s thinking is not only to try netting as many Lok Sabha seats from these states but also to keep out younger and more ambitious players such as the Aam Aadmi Party attempting some inroads. Even Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool is trying to expand its base in Goa, Assam, Tripura, etc, in the ensuing Assembly polls.

Read | Will Mamata’s expansion plans spoil the template for proposed anti-BJP coalition?

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress had won only two of the 65 seats from Chhattisgarh-Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh cluster in spite of winning the November-December 2018 Assembly polls in these states. In Gehlot-led Rajasthan, the Congress had, in fact, drawn a blank out of 25 parliamentary seats.

A sea change in power equations

For the past few weeks, the internal power equations in the Grand Old Party have undergone a sea-change. AICC’s interim chief Sonia Gandhi, a votary and practitioner of “continuity” and “status quo” seems to have taken a back seat, giving all powers to son Rahul and daughter Priyanka. The Gandhi siblings are a bit hot on heels, trying to bring about structural changes in Congress. Rahul-Priyanka duo is keen to project itself as “shockproof”, having utter disregard for defiance as a pressure tactic, cat & mouse games, and all other tools that had formed part of the survival kit so far.

Interestingly, what Gandhi’s siblings resent most is the patronising attitude, tune and tenor in the pronouncement of the old guard. Take Captain Amarinder Singh for instance. The former Punjab chief minister is never tired of reminding everyone how he was Rajiv Gandhi’s contemporary in Doon School and how Sanjay Gandhi [he says Rajiv who was nowhere near politics around 1977] had drafted him in Congress. However, this is half a story.

The other half is about how Amarinder Singh had left the Congress soon after Operation Blue Star in June 1984 and joined Shiromani Akali Dal when Rajiv Gandhi perhaps needed him most. Amarinder’s first electoral victory in the Punjab Assembly in 1970 was with active support from the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP. It took Amarinder over a decade to return to the Congress fold.

The decision-making apparatus in Congress had been tardy. Both Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi are reportedly keen to break that stereotype. After Punjab, Rajasthan is a litmus test for them.

(Journalist Rasheed Kidwai is the author of 24 Akbar Road and Sonia: A Biography)

Read | After Punjab, change of guard unlikely in Rajasthan

Read | Sachin Pilot meets Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi; Rajasthan Cabinet reshuffle likely, say sources

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