Despite Sachin Pilot Rebellion, Ashok Gehlot Says He Has Enough MLAs to Weather Turbulence

Whether this is a game of brinksmanship by Pilot to wrest control of the Rajasthan government from Gehlot, or a declaration of his intent to join hands with BJP to topple the Congress itself will become clear over the next few days.

Jaipur/New Delhi: Less than a day after Rajasthan deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot threw down the banner of revolt and claimed he had the support of over 30 Congress and independent MLAs, chief minister Ashok Gehlot asserted control over the Rajasthan government by meeting with what his supporters claimed were “over 100 legislators” at his residence on Monday morning.

No independent confirmation of either leader’s claims is available.

In Rajasthan’s 200 MLA-strong assembly, the Congress has a total of 107 MLAs and the additional support of 13 independents. In addition, the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s sole MLA,  Subhash Garg, is a minister in Gehlot’s cabinet.

The BJP has 72 MLAs and its smaller ally, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party  of Hanuman Beniwal has 3.

The Bharatiya Tribal Party (2), the Communist Party of India Marxist (2) are not formally supporting the Congress government but are unlikely to back the BJP’s efforts to topple it.

In such a scenario, if Pilot’s revolt leads to the exit of 30 MLAs as he hopes, then – depending on how the anti-defection law game is played by each side  – the Gehlot government would fall six short of the 101 MLA mark it needs to stay in power, even if the BTP and CPM back it.

But if Pilot’s rebellion extends to only 20 MLAs and not 30, Gehlot will manage to survive.

In March this year, the Congress-led government in Madhya Pradesh was defeated on the floor of the house after a group of its MLAs led by Jyotiraditya Scindia defected to the BJP.

“Pilot has at best 10 MLAs”, said a senior Jaipur based political analyst. “Pilot ab Ashok Gehlot ke bichai land mines par daud padey hain! (Pilot has entered a field of land mines laid by Ashok Gehlot)”.

Police probing horse-trading

Earlier on Sunday, speculation was rife that Pilot, who had gone to Delhi for meetings with the Congress high command, did not enjoy the support of enough MLAs to mount a rebellion and would return to Jaipur to attend the legislators’ meeting called by chief minister Ashok Gehlot for Monday.

A message was circulated on social media stating, “After the intervention of Rahul Gandhi, the political crisis of Rajasthan has come to a standstill. Sachin Pilot, Avinash Pandey, Randeep Surjewala and Ajay Maken are arriving in Jaipur this evening by a special plane. They will attend the MLA meeting tonight at 9 pm and 10 am tomorrow to form a consensus on important issues.”

However, Pilot’s own statement to journalists now makes it clear that whatever patch up the Congress high command was attempting has not succeeded.

While the Pilot-Gehlot rivalry dates back to the 2018 assembly election and even earlier, it was clear matters were quickly coming to a head when Gehlot issued a tweet  Sunday afternoon that tried to slow down speculation of a Madhya Pradesh-repeat in Rajasthan.

“SOG has issued notices to the chief minister, Deputy chief minister, chief whip and some other ministers and MLAs in the context of the complaint made by the Congress party about the horse-trading by BJP leaders. It is inappropriately presented by some media,” he tweeted in the afternoon.

Ahead of the Rajya Sabha polls scheduled last month, the Congress government in Rajasthan had alleged that attempts were being made to lure MLAs and independents supporting it, without directly naming the BJP.

A month later, the Special Operations Group of the Rajasthan Police arrested two persons – Ashok Singh and Bharat Malani – who have both had a connection with the BJP in the past.

The FIR underlined that the motive of horse trading of MLAs was to put in place a new chief minister and mentioned that the two men discussed that Pilot is aiming to be the CM.

Following this, the SOG also issued notices to Gehlot, Pilot and several other MLAs in order to record their statements.

Gehlot had initially portrayed the rebellion against him as a BJP conspiracy. Unlike the Rajya Sabha polls, when he didn’t specifically name any party while alleging defections, he held a press conference and posted a series of tweets blaming the BJP for trying to topple his government. But after Pilot’s confirmation, it is possible the chief minister was only making his first move by trying to deflect attention towards the BJP, and perhaps, gather support from the Congress central leadership.

Either way, whether this is a game of brinksmanship by Pilot to wrest control of the Congress government from Gehlot, or a declaration of his intent to join hands with the BJP to topple the Congress itself ought to become clear over the next few days.

Regardless of the outcome, the unfolding crisis has exposed once again the Congress central leadership’s tenuous hold over party affairs. On Sunday, one senior party leader, Kapil Sibal took to Twitter to accuse the Congress first family of being asleep at the wheel:

Uneasy relationship

Ever since the Congress won the 2018 assembly elections, both Pilot and Gehlot have had an uneasy relationship over the chief ministerial position.

Pilot’s supporters contended that as the Pradesh Congress Committee president, he had the first right to the top post, especially since he steered the party from political oblivion in the years preceding the polls.

However, even as the media projected Pilot as the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate during the campaign – giving an impression that the party high command too favoured him – Gehlot gave put mixed responses when asked. On one occasion, he indirectly hinted at Pilot being the CM’s face, while on another said that not all PCC presidents have become chief ministers. Though he had himself once gone from being PCC president to becoming the CM, Gehlot said that this was only an exception. Gehlot was then AICC general secretary (organisation) but clearly he preferred state politics over his national role.

Finally, the fact that a majority of elected Congress legislators belonged to the Gehlot camp turned political equations in the state and the party high command’s decision in his favour.

However, sources in the Congress told The Wire, Pilot was made to give up his ambition on the promise that he would continue as PCC president, a position in which he would be able to wield considerable influence over the party, and would also be anointed Gehlot’s deputy.

But things turned awry within days when Gehlot kept the two most important portfolios for himself – home and finance – while giving the relatively less prominent PWD ministry to Pilot.

After the debacle that the Congress faced in the 2019 general elections – it lost all the state’s 25 seats to the BJP – Gehlot blamed Pilot as PCC president for the party’s loss and especially his son Vaibhav’s defeat in Gehlot’s home ground, Jodhpur.

Since then, political observers in Rajasthan believe that Gehlot has been trying to sideline Pilot in state politics. “Gehlot is an experienced hand. He takes everyone along, gives representation from all caste groups in party positions, especially because he himself belongs to a non-dominant community. But at the same time, he is also unforgiving towards his challengers,” said one Jodhpur-based politician on condition of anonymity.

“Two of his major challengers in the recent past have been Girija Vyas and C.P. Joshi. Both of them are in political oblivion now. Gehlot is seen as the primary reason for their political decimation. Such is the situation that a one-time national leader and Union minister C.P Joshi could not even win an MLA seat in his home constituency Nathdwara in the 2013 assembly polls, even while he was the PCC president. Vyas, also of similar stature, lost poorly in Udaipur City seat in the 2018 assembly polls. Both these leaders had emerged as Gehlot’s contenders and had special rapport with the central leadership of the party.”

The way events have unfolded over the past few days in Rajasthan reeks of a similar infighting, in which Gehlot is holding court with his ruthless wand and astute knowledge of state political equations.

However, this battle may not be as easy for Gehlot as his earlier factional fights as Pilot not only is a popular face among the youth but also has a solid voter base in the Gujjar community.