"It's very, very sad that Jitin Prasada has quit the Congress," said Sachin Pilot to me today for this column, minutes after the news broke that Prasada had exited the party to walk straight into the BJP's open arms.
Pilot's regret was shared amid renewed speculation of his own political coordinates. Since his failed attempt at bringing down the Congress government in Rajasthan and subsequent reconciliation with the party in August last year, he has yet to be rehabilitated with any position of prominence.
In a column last week, I wrote that Pilot was preparing for Desert Storm 2.0.
For the Congress, after Jyotiraditya Scindia, Prasada is another one who got away. Pilot nearly served as the third. And yet, the party's leadership, hosted in its First Family, the Gandhis, seems unable or uninterested in stopping the bleed. The party has been in a protracted public meltdown since 2014, confused both about who is at its head and about its strategy in taking on the BJP. Given today's developments, you've got to wonder who exactly is minding the crisis.
Prasada, as I had reported earlier for NDTV in this column, nearly joined the BJP in 2019, but a car drive with Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi persuaded him to abort that plan. At that time, he was upset about being sidelined in Uttar Pradesh and a suggestion from Priyanka Gandhi that he contest against Rajnath Singh in Lucknow. This time around, sources say, Prasada did not extend even the courtesy of telling his leadership about his decision which comes just eight months before the crucial UP assembly elections. His reason for party-hopping is being totally sidelined by Priyanka Gandhi in UP.
The UP elections are being seen as a semi-final for Modi 3.0. They will gauge the mood of India's most-populous state which elects as many as 80 MPs.
In March last year, Scindia brought down the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh as an admission gift to the BJP when he switched his allegiance. Prasada, who has lost two consecutive Lok Sabha elections since 2014 does not have the flex of Scindia. His value-add for the BJP lies in allowing the party to reset its caste matrix in UP. Prasada was the Congress' Brahmin face. In Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister is widely running what is decried as a "Thakur Raj" (his caste rule). Separately, the BJP's central leadership is sensitive to the resentment against Adityanath from within the party in his home state. His leadership is seen as autocratic. The mishandling of the pandemic by him allowed dissenters coalescing against him to vocalize their complaints - enough so that top BJP and RSS officials met with party cadre in UP to assess the extent of the crisis.
Prasada's recent record is not glowing. He ran what was a Brahmin pressure group within the Congress with little effect and with nothing to show to his constituents in UP. As the Congress in-charge for the West Bengal elections, he was unable to persuade the Gandhis to allow for a strong campaign and the results were abysmal.
Scindia, Prasad, Pilot and Milind Deora are all heirloom dynasty politicians and were popularly seen as Next Gen leaders once close to Rahul Gandhi. Their equation with him dissolved during the last two years; Gandhi meanwhile has been singularly unsuccessful in electoral politics, leading his party to defeat in two general elections.
Congress leaders today say these 'Young Turks' were aggrandized through their stints as ministers in the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh, and had a charmed career in the party till the Congress's fortunes waned. "It clearly is not about ideology for these privileged dynasts. They will go where the spoils are," said a senior party leader.
But it's slightly more complicated than that. They have a common bitterness about the fact that Gandhi was non-responsive to all their suggestions, about being side-lined by veteran leaders and are deeply apprehensive about the Congress' willingness or interest in working overtime to end its career slump.
Pilot had rebelled last year against his boss Ashok Gehlot, Chief Minister of Rajasthan, and only returned with his band of rebel MLAs after the Gandhi family collectively made promises to him of a promotion as Chief Minister. Nearly ten months later, none of Pilot's grievances have been addressed by a three-member committee set up to resolve them. Sources close to Pilot say he is angry and restless as Gehlot is ruthlessly cutting down his MLAs to size.
While Pilot mulls next steps on Desert Storm 2.0, a leader close to him says "Navjot Sidhu has been in the Congress for four years. He is a turncoat from the BJP. The Gandhi family publicly cut Amarinder Singh, Punjab Chief Minister, to size and got him to meet the committee set up to redress Sidhu's problems. Pilot has campaigned for the party in every election. He even got Corona while campaigning in Madhya Pradesh, yet the party does not send a message that it is standing by him."
Sources close to Pilot rule out his joining the BJP but are also clear that that he won't quietly accept the humiliation meted out by Gehlot. While the Gandhis can't seem to sort out which member of the family will be president, leaders who are still wanted elsewhere are waiting impatiently on the exit ramp. The G-23, or the group of dissenters who wrote to Sonia Gandhi asking for a party overhaul, are planning another letter. Savvier leaders are in negotiations with other parties. The Congress needs self-help desperately. Any takers?
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.