It's a sign of the Congress times that the man being pushed for President, Ashok Gehlot, has morphed overnight from the "preferred candidate" of the Gandhis to full-blown rebel. Nearly 90 MLAs who say they support the 71-year-old Chief Minister of Rajasthan boycotted a meeting called by the Congress in Jaipur last night; they say they will quit if their demands are ignored.
It's actually just one demand - that Sachin Pilot not be named the new Chief Minister if Ashok Gehlot moves to Delhi to ostensibly run the party. "Anyone but Pilot" was the refrain among the group that met last night in a parallel session; the official Congress meeting, complete with delegates from Delhi, was held at Ashok Gehlot's home and included Sachin Pilot.
Ashok Gehlot was the chosen one of the Gandhis to take over as Congress President.
His time has apparently still not come. In 14 calls made to Rahul And Priyanka Gandhi, say sources, Sachin Pilot has reportedly said he cannot handle more humiliation at the hands of his rival.
So, just like in Punjab a few months ago, the Gandhis have to decide whether to risk one of the few governments of their party, or sign up to the "No Pilot" condition.
Welcome to Congress Central where crises are pathologically self-induced. Let me take you backstage as the whole crisis played out. It was meant to be a "high command" showcase of a smooth power transition in Rajasthan and Delhi, which collapsed like a sand castle.
Ashok Gehlot was the chosen one of the Gandhis to take over as Congress President, after an election to be held on October 17. Rahul Gandhi had made it clear he would not officially hold the party's top job. Ashok Gehlot was seen as a suitable proxy. Shashi Tharoor said he would run for the post. After 22 years, an election was to be held in the Congress, allowing the Gandhis and the party to posit that a thriving democracy is very much in action, not "dynastic rule" as alleged by critics including the PM.
Ashok Gehlot first tried to ensure that becoming President - a job he did not want - would not wrest from him the job that he does want - Chief Minister. Rahul Gandhi shot this down publicly, declaring the party is committed to "one man one post." The Congress high command then called for a meeting in Jaipur to decide who would be the next Chief Minister. Sachin Pilot in public said the decision would be taken by the party, but for years, he has been seething over the fact that a commitment made to him of getting a stab at Chief Minister has not materialized.
MLAs from the Gehlot camp said they will not accept Sachin Pilot as Rajasthan Chief Minister.
Then, Ashok Gehlot struck. His camp insisted that this one line - beloved of the "high command" read Gandhi family - "We authorise the Congress president to decide who will be the Chief Minister" must be adopted formally. Ajay Maken of the Congress responded today that if this is enforced, Ashok Gehlot as President could be in charge of deciding Ashok Gehlot as Chief Minister. "A conflict of interest," he said today, signalling that the Gandhis are livid with the turn of events.
Ashok Gehlot yesterday barricaded himself in Jaisalmer doing puja in the Tanot Rai Mata Mandir while simultaneously handling his MLAs to negate any chance of Sachin Pilot replacing him. Mahesh Joshi, a Gehlot loyalist and Chief whip of the Congress party, called all 107 Congress MLAs and asked them to assemble at the home of a cabinet minister who is also close to Ashok Gehlot.
Meanwhile, the "observers" from Delhi Ajay Maken and Malikarjun Kharge tried in vain to establish contact with Ashok Gehlot and were left with egg on their face as only Pilot accorded them any importance at all. The drama of MLAs saying they would only accept Gehlot as Chief Minister played out in full public glare leaving the high command thoroughly exposed as unprepared, inept and diminished.
Eventually, an unrepentant Ashok Gehlot met Sachin Pilot, Ajay Maken and Mallikarjun Kharge around midnight in his bungalow and said "Mere haath mein kuch nahi hain" (these developments are not in my control). This after 80 MLAs had handed over their resignations to CP Joshi, the Speaker.
The developments have signalled that the Gandhis are losing their grip over the party.
Sachin Pilot was systematically attacked by the MLAs who said he was a "traitor" and blinded by "personal ambitions", a reference to his failed attempt in 2020 to split the Congress unless it installed him as Chief Minister. Rajasthan votes in 14 months. Team Pilot now claims that the Gandhi family will ensure that Ashok Gehlot "neither becomes Congress president nor remains as Rajasthan Chief Minister". Sources close to the younger leader say that both the Gandhi siblings have assured him of this while Sonia Gandhi wants disciplinary action against Gehlot.
Currently it's deja vu for the Gandhi family as an identical script of familiar family mismanagement had played out in Punjab culminating in Amarinder Singh quitting and the party losing the election to Aam Aadmi Party. Clearly, no lessons were learnt after the Punjab crisis and an earlier one in Madhya Pradesh that saw Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the party and bring down the state government.
The Gehlot camp claims that he tried to raise his replacement twice with Sonia Gandhi and repeatedly urged the party to talk to MLAs to get their feedback, but typically, the Congress chose not to hold discussions till after the crisis broke. Sources say that it was Priyanka Gandhi who was set on Sachin Pilot being Chief Minister to keep her commitment made earlier to him.
If the Speaker, a Gehlot loyalist, accepts the resignations given to him yesterday, the Congress government would be history. Apparently, that's not unpalatable to Ashok Gehlot. "He will anyway prefer his friend Vasundhara Raje Scindia as Chief Minister to Pilot," a senior Congress leader sniped. For the Gandhis, the prospect of the party slipping from their grip is undeniable. The spiralling is very real.
(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.