Opinion: Ignore The Apology. Ashok Gehlot Has Made It Work.

After a 30-minute meeting with Sonia Gandhi, Ashok Gehlot provided an efficient summary to reporters. "I apologised to her," said the Chief Minister of Rajasthan (for now). Apart from not annoying his boss, the next item on his not-to-do list: take her job. "I will not be running for President," he confirmed.

With that, it was clear that Ashok Gehlot has ended the truth-or-dare gambit he launched in Jaipur to prove to the Gandhis that Rajasthan must run per his wishes. So if, as they wished, he were to run for party president and get elected, Sachin Pilot, his long-time rival, could not be made Chief Minister in his place. Instead, the new leader would have to be of Ashok Gehlot's choosing.

All this was transmitted through the resignation of 92 Congress MLAs in Rajasthan who said Ashok Gehlot must effectively have the casting vote on his successor.

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Ashok Gehlot with Sonia Gandhi (File photo)

So from being the Gandhis' chosen one - which meant he had to offer himself up for President - Ashok Gehlot turned into their biggest problem. It was his revenge for being told categorically, no less by Rahul Gandhi in public, that a "one man, one post" rule would not be waived for him - upon becoming President, he would have to surrender his dream job as Chief Minister.

Today, it was Ashok Gehlot who appeared to wave a white flag. But he has got away lightly - he no longer has to take a shot at being President, a job he didn't really want, and so far, there's no penalty for making the Gandhis appear weakened with virtually an entire state unit thumbing its nose at their ask.

"Sonia Gandhi will decide," Ashok Gehlot said on whether he will remain the leader of the Rajasthan government. A quick top-up, intended to establish Sonia Gandhi's authority, came from KC Venugopal who forecast a decision by her on the matter "within two days."

But keeping up appearances will be tough for Camp Gandhi. For the first time in over two decades, the party's top job is being decided via an election. There are two candidates so far: Digvijaya Singh and Shashi Tharoor. Neither is seen as privately backed by the Gandhis. A third candidate, embodying their preference, is reportedly in the offing. If such person emerges, there are chances that Digvijaya Singh will withdraw from the election.

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Shashi Tharoor and Digvijaya Singh

If the Gandhis have been downsized by Ashok Gehlot - unwittingly, he claimed - the status of Sachin Pilot, 45 years old, is also running a bit ragged. For the second time in two years, he has been unable to demonstrate that the Congress in Rajasthan prefers him as Chief Minister to Ashok Gehlot. When the party won the state in 2018, he was told the position would be shared between Ashok Gehlot and him. But with just a year left on the clock, Ashok Gehlot has no intention of logging out.

I spoke to several leaders for this column from the rival Gehlot and Pilot factions, and including the central leadership, which is fumbling to find a face-saver for the Gandhis and Sachin Pilot. The Gandhi family believed that Ashok Gehlot was an "unshakable rock with absolute loyalty" said a senior Congress leader, who was firefighting the desert storm in Rajasthan, "Sonia Gandhi's beliefs are shattered today."

Sources close to Sachin Pilot made a virtue of his silence - on record, he has not said a word to push his case - and said he remains committed to the Gandhi family vision despitethem not delivering on the fundamental promise made to him. "Gehlot had been given a VRS, a golden parachute, by being the family nominee for President. We have so many ex Chief Ministers in the party - who even looks at them? Sachin Pilot had been trying to tell the family about Ashok Gehlot's intentions but now he himself has proved Pilot's point." Privately, Sachin Pilot has been seething at being shown up by his rival. But without a large base to back him, he's dependent now on whether the Gandhis are willing to risk a new round of combat with Ashok Gehlot in the largest state that the party governs.

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Ashok Gehlot, Rahul Gandhi and Sachin Pilot (File photo)

As reported by NDTV today, Digvijaya Singh made a telling comment about not speaking to the Gandhi family about his candidature. It's not clear if that was to take on the sheen of being an independent leader or whether he was a placeholder of sorts to demonstrate a fully-functional election till the Gandhis find their ideal proxy.

Interestingly, all the leaders I spoke to today, including from the Gehlot camp, were nostalgic about the smooth realpolitik skills of the late Ahmed Patel, a close aide of Sonia Gandhi who had defused Sachin Pilot's rebellion in 2020 and, alongside Priyanka Gandhi, negotiated his reconciliation to the Congress.

Sonia Gandhi aides are worried about the presidency of the party not passing into a "safe pair of hands". And are quick to claim that without a Gandhi leading the party, the disarray of the Congress, as witnessed this week, will spiral. Till he is removed from the job, Ashok Gehlot, for all his public contrition, has walked away with a sizeable upper hand. And few in the Gandhi camp can digest that.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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