The current crisis in Rajasthan, just months after similar infighting culminated in the fall of Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh, lays bare the insatiable appetite of the Congress party for self-destruction. At the root of the crisis is not just the inability to give Sachin Pilot his due but also the seeming helplessness or unwillingness of the central leadership of the party to rein in Ashok Gehlot.
Both Gehlot and Pilot have been at loggerheads ever since the latter was made the chief of the Congress unit in Rajasthan following the party's humiliating defeat in the 2013 assembly elections in which it won just 21 seats. The latest flashpoint and one that threatens to imperil the government is the notice served by the Rajasthan police to Sachin Pilot under Sections 124(B) dealing with sedition and 120(B) conspiracy. The Chief Minister, who also happens to hold the Home Ministry portfolio, has ordered the police to probe of attempts to bribe his party MLAs to get them to jump ship.
Pilot and his supporters are livid. They view this as yet another attempt to humiliate and undermine the Deputy Chief Minister. "Is this the reward for working his socks off and bringing back the party back to power after the humiliating defeat of 2013" says a minister in the Rajasthan government. If Pilot's supporters are to be believed, this is just one of a series of "deliberate and conscious attempts to undermine, undercut and humiliate" the Deputy Chief Minister.
Now Pilot and his supporters appear primed for a showdown. They boycotted the meeting called by Gehlot in Jaipur on Sunday evening and are instead camping in Delhi to ensure that the central leadership of the party steps in to resolve the issue. The BJP meanwhile is waiting on the sidelines to destabilise yet another Congress-led government, should the opportunity present itself.
Pilot for now is not willing to do a Scindia by crossing over to the BJP, but is also unwilling to wait interminably. He is still hoping that the central leadership will step in and retrieve the situation from going bust. "Nobody wants to leave his home, but can't continue to put up with this kind of humiliation; my MLAs and supporters are extremely hurt and I will have to listen to them," he told me on the phone earlier this evening. He met Rahul Gandhi several weeks ago and appraised him of the situation, he has also briefed K. C. Venugopal and Ahmed Patel in detail about the situation, the central leadership is yet to respond with am appointment to resolve the issue.
This reluctance to intervene has begun to drive even senior party leaders publicly to despair. Former union Minister Kapil Sibal tweeted this afternoon, "Worried for our party, will we wake up only after the horses have bolted". He appears to be echoing the popular sentiment in the party. Many believe that the crisis in Rajasthan was inevitable and yet, nobody did anything to stem it. The seeds of this confrontation were sown when the central leadership pitchforked the leadership of the state in December 2018 between Gehlot as Chief Minister and Pilot as his deputy. The Pilot camp believes that he was unfairly deprived of the Chief Ministership after slogging to resurrect the party in the state.
The arrangement of division of power could have worked if the central leadership had ensured that the leaders operated in tandem and Pilot was given the respect and autonomy that comes with the post of Deputy. In public, Gehlot maintains that there is nothing wrong in Pilot harbouring chief ministerial ambitions. "Every party worker aspires for the top job, there is no harm if he wants to be Chief Minister" says Gehlot. However, the reality is that Gehlot has continued to look over his shoulder, sometimes imagining conspiracies where none existed. Their relationship was dysfunctional to begin and their discomfort in each other's presence was all too evident in the few public appearance they made together.
The Gandhis can retrieve the situation by stepping in with a clear and fair demarcation of work between the two leaders. In all likelihood, the government will survive for now, but unless the central leadership sits the two leaders down to draft an amicable working arrangement, another flare-up is probable. A dysfunctional government and a leadership at war with itself will at best be lame duck.
(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst.)
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