Sachin Pilot Likely Sees Rahul Gandhi As A Cautionary Tale

The political importance of the sacking of Sachin Pilot is obvious: it paves the way for another defector-driven change of guard in a state the BJP wants to reclaim. It's also sociologically interesting for the insight it offers into the political preferences of India's English-speaking commentariat. I should specify that the reference here is to commentators and anchors who aren't explicitly invested in the success of the BJP.

It's fair to say that a majority of these commentators were sympathetic to Pilot in this falling out. They spoke of his intelligence, his openness, his modernity, the hard yards he had put in to revive the State Congress after it was demoralised by the BJP's clean sweep of Rajasthan in 2014 and, above all, his youth. The explicit contrast was with Rahul Gandhi, who is often accused of leading the Congress in his spare time. It is a contrast that is sharpened by their longstanding friendship as also the alleged kinship of youth.

In fact, both men are middle-aged. Their perceived youthfulness has many sources. They seem young partly because the Congress's current political leadership is so old; Captain Amarinder Singh, Punjab's Chief Minister, is older than Rahul Gandhi's father would have been, had he lived. Congress Chief Ministers in recent times have been closer to seventy than sixty. In the Congress, youth is a synonym for political failure because success automatically brings gravitas and maturity. Rahul Gandhi is fifty years young. He has never held ministerial office at any level. It's his politically arrested development that makes him seem juvenile. To the extent that Pilot acknowledges their membership of a common cohort, he must see Gandhi, who is eight years older, less as a contemporary than as a cautionary tale.

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Sachin Pilot (File photo)

This might explain his urgent need to displace Gehlot as the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Deputy Chief Minister, like Deputy Prime Minister, is a consolation prize, not a political office and Pilot, as sympathetic commentators have been quick to point out, is a serious politician. Ambition is a necessary quality in a politician and in recent times, western leaders like Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron, David Cameron, Justin Trudeau, Leo Varadkar and Jacinda Ardern, have scaled their Everests early. There's no reason for Pilot to wait his turn in deference to age.

But in a democracy, even one as flawed as ours, he does need to defer to the arithmetic of power. The reason Gehlot is the Chief Minister of Rajasthan is that he commanded the allegiance of a large majority of elected MLAs immediately after the assembly election in 2018 and he continues to do so now. Even if commentators were to take Pilot's claim that he has the support of 30 MLAs at face value, this amounts to less than a third of the Congress's strength in the Rajasthan assembly. That Pilot feels thwarted and denied on the strength of the 18 MLAs that he has stabled in BJP-ruled Haryana speaks of a sense of entitlement more usually found in dauphins than democratic politicians.

The rivalry between the two men pre-dates the assembly elections. Both men had a hand in filling in the Congress's slate of candidates in Rajasthan but when the dust of the elections cleared, it was evident that Gehlot exercised greater sway than Pilot did. There is little doubt that the BJP has been fishing in troubled waters as it did in Madhya Pradesh and before that, in Karnataka. Vasundhara Raje may not welcome another ambitious dynast, but Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, currently a union minister, made it clear that the BJP was open to Pilot's defection. Jay Panda who left the Biju Janata Dal to join the BJP, hoping to displace Naveen Patnaik as Chief Minister in Odisha, was drawing on his own experience when he tweeted, 'In aviation, every flight plan includes an alternate airport or airstrip to divert to...'

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

Pilot claims that he is being hounded out of the party by Gehlot on the false charge of conspiring with the BJP. No one should underestimate a veteran neta's willingness to squash a younger rival, but it's hard to believe that Gehlot would risk his narrow, hard-won majority - and his term in office - by taking the initiative to force Pilot and his followers out of the party at this time. It is more plausible that he acted to forestall a larger defection of the sort that sank the Congress ministry in Madhya Pradesh. That defection was led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, another of the Congress's young heirs-apparent, piqued at being marginalised in Madhya Pradesh despite being anointed by the High Command as the party's future.

This brings us to Pilot's current political limbo. Having weaponized his loyal MLAs on the one hand and having been stripped of ministerial and party rank on the other, he has neither left the Congress nor joined the BJP. The reasons for this aren't complicated. One could be tactical: fending off, for the time being, Gehlot's bid to have his MLAs disqualified for anti-party activity under the anti-defection law. Also, in the light of his earlier claim of 30 MLAs, Pilot clearly failed to engineer a large enough split. A report in The Hindu suggested that a dozen MLAs had misgivings about crossing over. To split the party without bringing down its government is the worst of all possible worlds for an ambitious defector.

It is unclear if Gehlot will survive the defection of Pilot's 18. He would have to hoover up nearly all the Independents in the assembly and he would have to do it despite the BJP's bottomless pockets. Pilot's problem is that many of these independents used to be Gehlot's men before the Congress denied them tickets and he might, against the odds, manage to co-opt them. Without the certainty of office on the other side, no one wants to jump first. There is also speculation that Pilot might set up a party of his own in the interim to buy time and avoid the reputational risk of moving directly from Janpath to Jhandewalan.

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Sachin Pilot with Rahul Gandhi (File photo) 

Adding to the uncertainty are reports that the Congress High Command is committed to keeping Pilot in the fold. Given that the party apparatus has been ruthless in defenestrating him, it's unclear if these feelers sent out to Pilot are genuine attempts to retain his loyalty or a form of misdirection. In recent times, the first family has put political pragmatism over personal preference in the matter of Chief Ministers. Captain Amarinder Singh's elevation, despite Rahul Gandhi's dislike of him, is the obvious example of the new realism. The High Command has been forced to recognize that its claim to political relevance depends on the political nous of its regional satraps. It is a recognition that provincial leaders like Gehlot have been quick to leverage.

But the Gehlot-Pilot meltdown also represents something more visceral than political calculation. A sign of this was the unguarded fierceness with which Gehlot rounded on Pilot on 15th July. In an improvised press conference, he first scolded the media for not reporting on the BJP impartially and then, towards the end of his little speech, took aim at Pilot. Can't you [the media] see, he asked rhetorically, that it isn't enough to be well spoken, media savvy and a pretty face; what matters is your feeling for the country, your ideology, your commitment to your party's programme. He ended with a broad insinuation: a golden knife, he said, isn't used to eat with.

Gehlot was reproving media commentators for being seduced by Pilot's urbanity, for ignoring his allegations of horse-trading because they identified with the younger man. While this was plainly self-serving, it was also substantially true. The chorus of frankly partisan solicitude directed at Pilot on social media, the hot takes arguing that this was another example of the Congress's gerontocratic machine stifling young talent, seemed driven by easy familiarity rather than political analysis. Gehlot could have been forgiven for thinking that metropolitan pundits were a brotherhood of the babalog.

Gehlot was being pointed, not rhetorical, when he asked if ideology mattered. That so many journalists and anchors saw Pilot's possible defection to the BJP as an example of a talented young politician being forced to make a career move was interesting in itself. It suggested that Hindutva had come to define India's body politic so completely that the idea that the BJP's violent majoritarianism might give a discontented Congress grandee pause was naïve. It could also mean that these commentators associated modernity and political rationality so closely with young(ish) politicians they could speak English to, that they had consigned Gehlot and his ilk to the babel of a backward hinterland.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

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