Pilot Vs Gehlot Weakens Congress Claim To Power In Rajasthan
The war for the hot seat in Rajasthan is slated to intensify with both the claimants Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot refusing to budge from their position. The Congress High Command hasn't been able to find an amicable solution acceptable to both parties. Pilot, frustrated with unfulfilled assurances, is holding kisan and yuva rallies across the state and drawing good crowds. The kisan rallies will be held in Nagaur, Hanumangardh, Jhunjhunu and Pali on Jan. 16, 17, 18 and 19. On Jan. 20, he will hold a youth conference at Jaipur's Maharaja College.
With this mass contact programme, Pilot aims to soft launch the party's election campaign and ostensibly take voter feedback on the government's performance. Pilot made an indirect attack on Gehlot in one of the rallies, asking the state government to catch those behind paper leaks, which is a big election issue in the state. The victory in Himachal Pradesh, for which he shares credit with Priyanka Gandhi, may have prompted him for a show of strength as the last weapon to realise his dream of becoming Chief Minister of the state.
On the other hand, Gehlot, who led a disastrous Congress show in Gujarat, remains defiant, even calling Pilot “gaddar" to scuttle his chances. At the fag end of his political career, the jadugar—as he is fondly called—is in no mood to leave the chair. Gehlot is holding a chintan shivir of the state cabinet before the crucial Budget session, which begins from Jan. 23 in which he is expected to announce a slew of measures including free/subsidised cooking gas cylinders. The Budget is expected to be presented on Feb. 3.
The Congress party is holding its AICC plenary session on Feb. 24 in Chhattisgarh and no decision on leadership change is expected before that. With less than a year left for state elections—due in November-December 2023—the Congress party in the state is in a state of flux.
Revolving Door Mechanism
For the past three decades, Rajasthan has witnessed alternate governments with people voting out the incumbent. While the BJP has been winning big—120 in 2003 and 163 in 2013—the Congress has been scraping through after winning a spectacular 150 plus seats in 1998.
In 2008, with 96 seats, and in 2018, with 99 seats, the Congress emerged as the single largest party—short of the magical mark of 101—and formed a government with the help of BSP, smaller parties and independents. Going by the trend, it is the turn of the BJP to win in 2023.
Why do people vote out the incumbent in the state? It seems that local anti-incumbency plays a big role in elections in the state. This can be confirmed through a high number of swing seats (100 plus out of 200). Also, Rajasthan has a very high number of first term MLAs, 50% of Vidhan Sabha strength on an average. The voting on the basis of CM face was lowest (4%) in Rajasthan among the four states which went to polls along with it in 2018, namely Madhya Pradesh (14%), Chhattisgarh (8%), and Telangana (12%), according to the CSDS survey.
Strategically, for any incumbent, it is very difficult to contest a localised seat-by-seat poll, hence, there is a change of government every five years in the state. Incumbents prefer a CM face election, highlighting state level achievements and presenting vision for the state.
Yuva Vs Jadugar
While Pilot is the future of the party in the state, he doesn’t seem to have the numbers on his side in the Congress legislature party. A 2020 rebellion failed to get him the CM chair, rather he lost both his Deputy CM chair and State President post.
High Command promised to make him CM before the state elections, attempted leadership change in September 2022, but Gehlot outfoxed the Gandhis. Supporters claim he has displayed immense maturity and calm, but Pilot has little upside on joining the BJP.
He can’t join them without being offered the CM post, as he was Deputy CM earlier. BJP can’t make him the CM—has many aspirants—unless he does a Eknath Shinde. There are limited options before him—either join AAP or float a regional party, which requires a lot of resources, or wait for his turn, which going by the trend might come to him in the next elections in 2028. Does he have the patience?
Gehlot wants to go to the voters with an emotional pitch of his last elections. Coupled with his popular schemes in the healthcare sector, restoration of the Old Pension Scheme and subsidised LPG cylinders, Gehlot hopes to break the trend.
The chain of trend in Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu—states which overthrow incumbents—has been broken in the past. So, why not in Rajasthan? The fact that everything is not hunky dory in the BJP as well, with the party ignoring the claim of ex-CM Vasundhara Raje to be its face, is giving confidence to Gehlot.
Gehlot is selling this story to the Congress High Command, while Pilot, through these rallies, hopes to show his might and prove the party can’t win without keeping him in good humour.
The Caste Consideration
Pilot belongs to the influential Gujjar community, which accounts for 9% of state population holding clout in 30 seats; while Gehlot belongs to the Mali community comprising around 3-4% of the population—both in OBC list currently. Gehlot is the lone Mali MLA in the assembly. Gujjars have been demanding inclusion in the ST list.
Today, there are few anchor voting segments in the state which vote for party election after election. Parties can’t boast of any loyal vote block as caste swings are normal in Rajasthan elections. The state is known for rivalry between Jats and Rajputs, Gujjars and Meenas, with Meenas resenting Gujjar inclusion in the ST list.
On the other hand, Mali is considered a mild OBC community, which does not pose any threat to Gujjars or Jats or any other caste group, hence, Gehlot can take everybody along, is what his supporters harp upon. Pilot is attempting a Jat-Gujjar combination to neutralise Gehlot's appeal across caste groups. He is often seen together with Jat leader Harish Chaudhary who has opened a front against Gehlot government on the OBC quota issue.
Congress is caught between a rock and a hard place. It antagonises Meenas by making Pilot CM; it antagonises Gujjars by not making him CM.
The Punjab Comparison
The High Command was able to force a change in Punjab, which gave it the confidence to call for a CLP meeting in Rajasthan and pass a resolution giving it the power to appoint a new leader. However, in Punjab, CM Amarinder resigned before the meeting; here, Gehlot’s resignation was not sought.
With a weakened High Command, having lost moral authority to make changes after successive losses, Gehlot cannot be forced to resign or give way to Pilot. This strategy could even risk the continuation of the government in Rajasthan. Unless Gehlot himself agrees to resign, Pilot should not expect miracles from High Command.
The issue also is where would you accommodate Gehlot. There is no role left. Mallikarjun Kharge is the new Congress President, you cannot expect Gehlot to accept State President post after being in contention for the National President's post. A section of Pilot sympathisers are trying to explain to him to not press for the top slot in a lost cause, as it would weaken his image, and wait it out.
In all of this, the Congress worker is in a state of confusion at a crucial time, when he should be preparing for elections.
Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist, and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was previously a corporate and investment banker.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.