In Handling Sachin Pilot, Congress High Command Has Been Shrewd

When Sachin Pilot first rebelled against Ashok Gehlot, the issues seemed vaguely discernible. Pilot said that he had been humiliated and snubbed by the Chief Minister and was not going to take it any longer.

According to Congress mediators and the journalists he spoke to, Pilot wanted some assurances that he would be made Chief Minister after a suitable interval and that he would lead the party into the next assembly election.

This did not seem so unreasonable but apparently, Pilot also wanted a public declaration to this effect, which would amount to humiliating Gehlot - which the Congress leadership was unwilling to do.

But Pilot also gave the Congress a compelling reason to mollify him. He had the support of many MLAs, he said (at one stage, his camp claimed 30 MLAs). If the Congress did not agree to his demands, he could bring the government down.

This threat, along with the support of a sympathetic media which portrayed him as a potential Congress President who was being forced out to secure Rahul Gandhi's position, was enough to worry the Congress.


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

But the questions remained. Even if he brought down the Gehlot government, what would Pilot do next? Would he, like Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, take his followers and defect to the BJP?

Pilot must have known that within the Congress, negotiating with the BJP is one line you cannot cross. Sonia Gandhi believes that anyone who abandons the secular, liberal values the Congress stands for to join hands with the current hardline version of the BJP is not worth holding back.

So, ultimately, the revolt became about one question. Was Pilot acting on his own? Or had he been put up to it by the BJP?

Pilot answered by denying that he was in league with the BJP. He had fought the BJP all his life, he said, why would he want to join now?

Ashok Gehlot said the opposite was true. The plot, he said, had been hatched by the BJP, which had paid large sums to the dissident MLAs and hoped to topple his government. Pilot he claimed, was lying when he denied any truck with the BJP.

Phase One of Pilot's revolt failed because he did not attract enough MLAs to imperil Gehlot's government. The Congress 'high command', for once, played its cards shrewdly. While Gehlot raved and ranted, the central leadership struck to its position that it wanted Pilot to stay with the party. This was never a realistic option: how could he have re-joined Gehlot's government and what could he possibly have been offered at the centre? But it squashed the criticism that Rahul wanted Pilot out to preserve his own position.


Sachin Pilot (File photo)

Since then, however, the situation has become much more ambiguous. Pilot is generally regarded as a thoughtful and cautious man. So he must have had a Plan B. But so far, no such plan has appeared. Instead, he has sought asylum in BJP-ruled Haryana, where he is keeping his MLAs in a resort under the benign gaze of the state government.

Given that negotiations with the Congress have broken down and that the party has largely accepted Gehlot's claim that the BJP helped purchase MLAs for Pilot's revolt - Gehlot has produced audiotapes - that door is now firmly shut.

The only Plan B possible is for Pilot to sit it out till the Congress government falls. That could take time. Gehlot has held on to his majority. So the effort has to be to delay and delay till Gehlot's resistance collapses and his MLAs run out of patience.

And indeed, that is what the BJP is doing. The Governor has asked Gehlot to wait 21 days to hold a session of the assembly where he can prove his majority. Various central government agencies have raided Gehlot's donors to make it difficult for the Congress to join any kind of bidding war. The High Court (which the Pilot camp approached) has taken its time and has given no joy to Gehlot. Cases are being prepared against Gehlot's family.

If the Governor can hold firm and refuse to let an assembly session be called for three weeks, then the BJP may well succeed in toppling another Congress government. It only needs to "win over" a few MLAs for Gehlot to lose his majority.


Rajasthan Governor Kalraj Mishra with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot

So what then for Pilot? Over the last week, he has vanished from view. His MLAs seem to have been quietly grounded, like a squadron without a lead Pilot.

Instead, this has become a battle between Gehlot and the massed armies of the central government. It is hard now to even recall that this toppling operation was caused by Pilot's complaints about Gehlot. This is no internal Congress battle now. This is Amit Shah in action.

If Pilot has a Plan B, it will emerge once the Gehlot government falls. He can't join the BJP after so many denials. So he will probably form a regional party and may align with the BJP, and hope that power-hungry Congressmen will desert a fallen Gehlot and join the regional grouping.

He could once again be Deputy Chief Minister in a new BJP-led coalition and his MLAs could get ministeries. And then, who knows, one day in the future, he could align with the Congress again if he needs to, or if the next election throws up a hung assembly. Or, if the Congress leadership changes over the years, he could even come back to the party in triumph.

All these options collapse, of course, if Gehlot is not toppled by the BJP. Which is why Delhi has turned on the heat. That is why the central government is treating this like a fight to the finish.

It will take everything he has (and a little more) for Gehlot to survive this onslaught.

Otherwise, it is one more opposition government down. And one more step towards the fulfilment of Amit Shah's dream of a Congress-mukt Bharat.

(Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV anchor.)

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