The Congress has launched a fresh attempt to solve the leadership impasse in its Rajasthan unit. The public spats between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot are weakening the party's chances of bucking the revolving door trend.
After its bid to install Sachin Pilot as Chief Minister last year was thwarted by the canny Ashok Gehlot, the Congress leadership is approaching the problem cautiously.
Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi recently met the two rivals, who have left the decision to the "High Command".
Kharge needs to deftly balance the aspirations of both camps as their feuding is endangering the Congress's prospects in the Rajasthan election due in November-December.
If the mutinous Pilot leaves the party, it will be game over for Congress in the state as he enjoys considerable influence over the politically powerful Gujjar community, and the youth.
Kharge has three goals to achieve from any peace formula (not in order of importance):
(i) Government continuity in the next six months
(ii) A Congress victory in the election, and
(iii) A show of unity ahead of elections
Rahul Gandhi has quietly delegated decision-making on this to Kharge. Now someone needs to take the bitter pill and swallow it too. Here are six options before the party boss.
1) Replace Gehlot with Pilot as Chief Minister
This has been the demand of the Pilot camp as they claim he was promised a rotational chief minister plan in 2018. Having failed once to bring about a change, Kharge will find it tricky to convince Gehlot to step aside. Gehlot has already launched the official government campaign for a comeback and has announced a slew of welfare measures. A majority of MLAs were backing him till last year. Changing horses at this point will be a huge risk.
2) Make Pilot Rajasthan Chief Again
This could placate Pilot to some extent. If they sink their differences, the Gehlot-Pilot duo could give the BJP a run for their money. But choosing candidates would be a big challenge, with both lobbying for their loyalists. Gehlot will continue to have full control over the resources, thus making Pilot dependent on him. This option again raises the unresolved question of Kaun Banega Mukhyamantri - if Congress wins.
3) Neither Gehlot Nor Pilot
As no one is backing down, the Congress leadership could explore the option of installing a loyalist like Harish Chaudhary (Jat), CP Joshi (Brahmin) or Raghu Sharma (Brahmin) or even a dark horse from the Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe community. They do not belong to either side and belong to important caste groups. A consensus candidate can be chosen but no one has the charisma or appeal of Gehlot and Pilot. The fact that both Harish Chaudhary and Raghu Sharma were state in-charges of Punjab and Gujarat, where the Congress was hammered, could go against them.
4) Pilot As National Vice President
Moving Pilot to national politics and giving him an important position has been discussed for quite some time. But he is reportedly not so keen on moving out of Rajasthan. Pilot is a handy campaigner, as was evident during the Himachal election. The post of party General Secretary places him on par with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The party has 10 general secretaries, including the likes of Jairam Ramesh, Randeep Surjewala, and Oommen Chandy.
The post of vice president has been vacant in the Congress since Rahul Gandhi was promoted as party president. Such a job could appease Pilot. The leadership was willing to make Gehlot the national president to end the stalemate, so why can't it make Pilot vice president with real powers and authority to sweeten the deal?
5) A Gehlot loyalist As chief minister, Pilot loyalist As state chief
This option suffers from similar shortcomings as mentioned before. It is not that workable and appealing as an election strategy. This formula may not be acceptable to all.
6) Status Quo
The leadership has tried unsuccessfully to untangle this knot for the past four years. A section of party advisors believes that the Pilot-Gehlot rivalry has turned acrimonious and has reached a point of no return. With no solution emerging, the status quo looks best. The strong trend of alternating governments makes it difficult for the Congress to win the election. The party can let Gehlot lead and lose, then take responsibility and retire.
Sachin Pilot may not sit quiet, as evident in the past few months. But forming a political party is not that easy and needs huge resources. The Congress must refrain from acting against him, thus avoiding the risk of him gaining sympathy. Let him leave of his own volition - that is how the party can claim the moral high ground.
The party is looking up to Kharge, who used his political experience and maturity in handling the Karnataka tussle, to magically solve the Rajasthan muddle. The options are not easy.
(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar he was a corporate and investment banker.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.