Fighter Pilot Draws Red Line For Congress

Sachin Pilot, who is at the centre of his party's calamitous weekend, recently told me two things:

1) That the resort politics to get the two congress Rajya Sabha MPs elected last month was unwarranted and caused by his boss, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, hitting the panic button without just cause.

2) That for the foreseeable future, he will not quit the Congress.

These disclosures were made before he was proved right about the Rajya Sabha election - KC Venugopal (a Rahul Gandhi favourite) and Neeraj Dangi were elected without the Congress breaking a sweat.

Today, Pilot, publicly unflappable but privately in a long-lasting seethe about his treatment by Gehlot, is watching in Delhi as his party shoots itself in the foot, repeating all the mistakes it made in Madhya Pradesh barely three months ago.

That debacle saw another young mass leader, Jyotiraditya Scindia, moving to the BJP, dismantling the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh. The Gandhis, the epicentre of the party, made no effort to stop Scindia, who, like Pilot, had been given no operating space by seniors like Kamal Nath in their home state. Sources close to Pilot say that despite the crisis in Rajasthan reaching imploding point, the Gandhis have yet to intervene.

For a party that is permanently in PTSD, the Congress does little to protect itself.

After the party was elected to lead Rajasthan in December - a comeback that owed much to the on-ground effort of Pilot - it sidelined him, choosing Gehlot as Chief Minister. Gehlot had more experience and a sizeable number of MLAs siding with his bid for power. Pilot held his ground refusing to drop out of contention, till he was made Deputy Chief Minister. Since then, the balance of power in Rajasthan has been a constant tug-of-war with Pilot feeling he deserves much more and Gehlot determined to restrict him to a corner. Pilot's status as the chief of the Congress in Rajasthan has not been accepted by either Gehlot or his camp.

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Congress was elected to lead Rajasthan in December - a comeback that owed much to the on-ground effort of Sachin Pilot.

After squabbling and squawking, the rivalry between the two leaders cascaded into a police case with Gehlot declaring yesterday that the BJP is waving offers of 25 crores at Congress MLAs if they dump their party. The fight between Pilot and him is referenced in the gonzo FIR, which should cause the Congress some serious consternation.

Instead, Pilot has been served a notice to appear for questioning in the case which saw two BJP members being arrested for phone conversations that conspired to bring down the Gehlot government. Team Pilot says the summons was a step too far, an insult he cannot ignore. Team Gehlot points out he too has to appear for questioning but that appears a fig leaf given that the police reports directly to Gehlot in his role as Home Minister.

Pilot is currently waiting for an appointment with the Gandhis; Gehlot is reportedly holed up in the home of Congress treasurer Ahmed Patel, who is also the top aide to Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

Though he controls far more legislators than Pilot, which fortifies his position, Gehlot has overplayed his hand. The attempt was to railroad Pilot and make himself the state chief, a nifty revenge for a pilot opposing the candidature of Gehlot Junior for the Lok Sabha elections. As the Covid crisis swelled, Gehlot made it clear that all decisions were being taken by his office. For the Rajya Sabha election, Gehlot alleged "Operation Louts" and bunked off congress legislators in a resort on the outskirts of Jaipur, a sequestering that Pilot said was superfluous. Gehlot got angry when Pilot, in a particularly ace performance, sat alongside him at a press conference in Jaipur and denied any plan to topple the Gehlot government. The two men have not spoken since.

And then came yesterday's bombshell, complete with FIR.

Gehlot would have the Congress believe that Pilot is prepping to do a Scindia and therefore many requests by him for a greater share of show-running should be ignored. Pilot's camp, though, says that is patently untrue. The fact is that Pilot at most has about 20 MLAs totally loyal to him and that the Rajasthan government is far more solid in numbers than the thin margin that was held by Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh.

Apparently, Scindia has been in touch with Pilot. "What is wrong in working hard and having an appetite for political success?" asks a Congressman close to Pilot. "Gehlot is 69 and Pilot is 42. The 27- year age difference tells you all you want to know. The Congress has to decide if it is a party of the past or still has a electoral stake in the future."

Meanwhile, the Gandhis are dithering over when Rahul Gandhi should return as president of the party and end the holding operation his mother has performed.

"Gandhi is 50 and has the luxury of waiting, we don't," said a young Congress leader, adding, "he does not consult us but people like Gehlot. Why are they are a natural fit for him?"

These are not new questions for the Congress. Nor is the studied indecision on the part of its leaders. Don't give Amit Shah the credit for this Congress meltdown. This is an epic Gandhi family own-goal.

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

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