Ashok Gehlot is done holding his peace. In an exclusive interview with NDTV, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan took time out from campaigning along with Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat to deliver his biggest takedown yet of Sachin Pilot, who he referred to six times in the conversation as 'traitor'.
"A gaddar (traitor) cannot be Chief Minister," he said, "the High Command cannot make Sachin Pilot the Chief Minister… a man who doesn't have 10 MLAs. Who revolted. He betrayed the party, (he) is a traitor."
He was perfectly inclined to elaborate. "It must be a first for India that a party president tried to bring down his own government," he said of Mr Pilot's ill-famed revolt in 2020, a revolt which, Mr Gehlot said, without offering any evidence, "was funded by the BJP" and enabled by senior BJP leaders including Amit Shah.
Mr Pilot, reacting to the all-out attack, said: "Ashok Gehlot has called me incompetent, traitor and has made lots of allegations. These allegations are completely unnecessary at a time we need to put up a united fight against BJP… It is unbecoming for such a senior leader to say such things at a time like this."
During his revolt, Mr Pilot, who had by then served about two years as Deputy Chief Minister, decamped to a five-star resort near Delhi with a posse of 19 MLAs. It was a direct dare to the Congress: either he be promoted to Chief Minister, or he would walk out of the Congress, causing the party to split in one of the few states it controlled (the count has declined substantially since then).
But the dare, for all its journeying to the national capital, had no legs. Mr Pilot, 45, was easily bested by Mr Gehlot, 26 years his senior, who convened his own show of strength, also at a five-star resort, with a headcount of more than 100 MLAs. There was no competition, as it turned out.
Mr Pilot, having failed, had to accept the repercussions. A reconciliation with the Congress was brokered; as penalty, he was removed as president of the Congress in his home state, a role that allows significant influence over cadre; he was also sacked as Deputy Chief Minister.
Mid-revolt, Mr Gehlot alleged in his interview with NDTV, Mr Pilot met in Delhi with two senior union ministers. "Amit Shah and Dharmendra Pradhan were involved. They (Mr Pilot included) had a meeting in Delhi," he said, adding, again without back-up, that of the MLAs who sided with his rival, "some got 5 crores, some 10. In fact, the money was picked up from the BJP office in Delhi."
Mr Gehlot also said that Camp Pilot was visited by Mr Pradhan at a time when Congress emissaries were not given access.
Mr Pilot said in his first remarks on Mr Gehlot's no-holds-barred offensive: "No one should be this insecure. I am in this post today, I won't be tomorrow – this is the rule of politics and life."
The BJP described Mr Gehlot's claim as baseless.
"The Congress leadership has failed to put their house in order. The Congress is losing Rajasthan, that's why Gehlot is frustrated. Gehlot is blaming BJP for his failure," said BJP's Rajasthan chief Satish Poonia.
After Mr Pilot returned to the Congress, downsized but still an aspirant to the top job in Rajasthan, there was some sort of uneasy calm. Till August, when Sonia Gandhi, who needed to find a successor as party president, leaned on Mr Gehlot to take the job.
He made it clear that this was not an offer that interested him – nevertheless, he suggested, after days of trying to fob it off, he could perform it if he were allowed to remain Chief Minister. So, two posts for him. The rebuke was quick. Rahul Gandhi publicly said "one man one post" was the party dictum.
A meeting of Rajasthan MLAs was then scheduled in the last week of September to decide who should be made Chief Minister if Mr Gehlot was reassigned as party boss. But instead of showing up at the official meeting in Jaipur, over 90 MLAs affiliated to Mr Gehlot held a parallel session where they decreed that Mr Pilot was not an acceptable choice and that whoever became Congress President (ie Mr Gehlot) should have the final vote.
Mr Gehlot was decried by the Congress - and by Team Pilot- for now staging his own rebellion. "The MLAs were not loyal to the Chief Minister (me)," Mr Gehlot professed, "They were loyal to the High Command." Underscoring that he was not present at the controversial meeting, he said it is Mr Pilot who bears the blame because he floated the theory that he was getting the job. "A rumour was spread that Sachin Pilot will be made Chief Minister. He himself propagated this. People thought he was going to be Chief Minister…This upset the MLAs because how can he be Chief Minister after trying to bring down his own government?" He is of the same opinion. "I agree - how can a gaddar be made Chief Minister?"
Mr Gehlot emphasized throughout his conversation that his allegiance to the Gandhis is career-long. "Whatever I have is because of them," he said. The principal players who organised the meeting in his support in September were to be punished, the party said, but that remains an unfulfilled threat, as Mr Pilot complained a few days ago (his outbursts against Mr Gehlot have become a recent pattern).
When asked to reflect on the root cause of his problems with Mr Pilot, the Chief Minister said he's at a loss. In fact, he claimed, in 2009, when the UPA was elected for a second term, it was he who recommended that the junior politician be made a union minister.
The fundamental issue, as far as Mr Pilot is concerned, is that the Congress had, upon winning Rajasthan in 2018, vowed that the job of Chief Minister would be rotated between him and Mr Gehlot with the latter getting first dibs. Mr Pilot says he has been sidelined consistently by Mr Gehlot, who he says, at one time tapped the phones of his supporters, to choke them politically.
Mr Gehlot says he has never understood the oft-stated charge by Mr Pilot of "sidelining him". He also says it is a fallacy that Mr Pilot was promised an equal term as Chief Minister. "The question does not arise. But if he (Pilot) still says it, then ask Rahul Gandhi (if this condition was ever established)."
His unequivocal stand that Mr Pilot "cannot be Chief Minister" does not mean that if in fact that happens, he could engineer a new revolt, Mr Gehlot said, though it seemed more like an offering than an assurance with him aborting this line of questioning as "hypothetical" (most questions about the future of his role via-a-viz Mr Pilot were tagged hypothetical by him).
On whether the Congress will choose him to head its campaign in Rajasthan - the election is barely a year away – Mr Gehlot said, "For the first time, there is no anti-incumbency in Rajasthan." The party's choice is obvious, in other words. The rest is politics.