Sources said Ashok Gehlot spoke on the phone with KC Venugopal. (FILE)
As more than 90 Rajasthan Congress MLAs loyal to him threatened to resign, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot reportedly told the party's central leadership that it was "not in his hands".
Mr Gehlot, 71, is the frontrunner for Congress president as the party preps for its first non-Gandhi chief after more than two decades. Reports that the Congress leadership wants his rival Sachin Pilot to replace him as Rajasthan Chief Minister triggered a huge crisis on Sunday evening, and threats of mass resignation.
Sources said Mr Gehlot spoke on the phone with KC Venugopal, a Congress leader close to the leadership, and said, "Nothing is in my hands. The MLAs are angry."
On record, Mr Venugopal denied any such conversation. "Neither did I talk to Chief Minister Gehlot today, nor did he call me. Things will be sorted out soon," he said.
The MLAs said they wanted either Mr Gehlot or his pick to be Chief Minister and, in a meeting, told the Speaker they were ready to quit even if it meant the government falling.
They also raised Sachin Pilot's 2020 revolt against Mr Gehlot and said the next Chief Minister must be one who supported the government at the time.
The Congress had anticipated some opposition in Rajasthan to Mr Gehlot moving out but it may not have expected the scale of dissent. Sources in Delhi said the MLAs were "misled". To arrest the crisis, Congress president Sonia Gandhi sent two central leaders to Jaipur to speak to the MLAs individually.
Mr Gehlot has been reluctant to give up his Rajasthan office, especially to Mr Pilot, whose rebellion almost brought down his government two years ago.
He has yet to file his nomination for the October 17 election to pick a new Congress chief. One candidate, Shashi Tharoor, has already started the process by asking for nomination papers.
Though Mr Gehlot has denied any hand in the full-blown Rajasthan crisis, few in the Congress believe that the MLAs would go this far without his blessing.
Mr Gehlot's control over his flock is well-known and was on full display when he kept over 100 MLAs on his side during Mr Pilot's revolt and a reported BJP plan for a coup to topple his government.
The veteran had suggested to the Gandhis that he can handle the party chief's responsibility along with his Rajasthan role, but Rahul Gandhi made it clear that the party would stay true to its "one person, one post" resolve earlier this year.
Mr Gehlot had no choice but to accept it, but he apparently never gave up, as is evident with the show of strength this evening. Sources say Mr Gehlot's message, in all this, is that his replacement has to be someone he trusts, instead of Mr Pilot, whom he famously called "nikamma (useless)" in 2020.
For now, the odds seem to be stacked against Mr Pilot, who has the support of about 21 MLAs.