It’s a long-held perception that the will of the Congress high command is the final word for everyone in the party. While the composition of the high command has transitioned from Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s teams to those of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, this rule has remained a constant. The Ashok Gehlot versus Sachin Pilot fight in Rajasthan is another instance, and maybe even mark a trend of the high command realizing that it is better to go with the regional leader than impose its own favourites on a state unit.
That Sachin Pilot is a favoured face is undeniable. Pilot and Rahul Gandhi both belong to the 2004 batch of first- time members of Parliament. As young MPs, they formed a clique that would, among other things, attend live music concerts at Blue Frog (a now defunct club) where their colleague Milind Deora would be playing the blues. As Rahul Gandhi became party general secretary, Pilot also grew, becoming a minister of state in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. They both went to St. Stephen’s College, although Rahul Gandhi didn’t complete his degree there, but they also shared other, deeper commonalities. Both had fathers who were trained pilots and both lost them too early in life.
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And yet, a week after Pilot’s rebellion against Gehlot, the message to him is unequivocal: he is welcome to come back, but it won’t be by undermining his boss. Gehlot has proved he has the numbers and while Pilot may have genuine complaints against him, they cannot afford to upset a man who commands the maximum number of legislators in Rajasthan. This despite the fact that Pilot has Priyanka Gandhi’s ear. The two have spoken at least twice in the course of the week. Rahul and Sonia have also conveyed to mediators that they would like him to stay, but not at the cost of overriding party discipline.
It’s as if things have come a full circle in Rajasthan since 2014. That’s the time when the same high command handpicked Pilot to lead the party in Rajasthan after its worst-ever performance of winning just 21 seats out of 200 in the 2013 assembly elections. Pilot took on that assignment after eliciting a promise that Gehlot wouldn’t interfere in the state. And for two years or so, Gehlot held no real position other than being part of a screening committee for Punjab polls in 2016. In 2017, he was made a general secretary in Delhi, which meant that Pilot got full credit for winning the three crucial by-polls in early 2018. Despite chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia holding helm in the state, Pilot delivered the Lok Sabha seats of Ajmer and Alwar and Mandalgarh assembly seats with record margins. His word would now be the last word in the state.
That’s the reason why a contentious rule brought by Pilot for ticket distribution in the assembly polls that year was enforced despite major opposition. According to that rule, all those who had lost the elections twice would not get a ticket. Many like general secretary in charge Avinash Pandey opposed it, arguing that it was unfair as many contenders had lost in 2013 due to a wave in favour of Narendra Modi. But Pilot’s insistence on that rule led to the alienation of many Congress politicians in the state. Alok Beniwal, Laxman Meena, Mahadeo Khandela, Sayam Lodha and Deep Chand Kharia were all denied party tickets so they contested as independents and won. Zubair Khan got his wife to contest and she won, Richpal Mirdha’s son contested and won; there are several other such names. This decision became one of the major factors behind the Congress’s lukewarm win (99 out of 200 seats). When Ashok Gehlot was installed as chief minister and Pilot only as his deputy, it was after feedback that the older man would be able to command a larger group of people during a crisis. It also helped that Gehlot had won over Rahul Gandhi’s trust during the 44 days they spent together in Gujarat. Incidentally, Rajasthan’s independents now form a chunk of the support base for Ashok Gehlot.
A recap of these circumstances is perhaps necessary to understand the bewildering sequence of events in the week gone by. It explains why we’ve constantly been hearing two voices. That of Ashok Gehlot mocking his “good-looking, English-speaking” challenger while Randeep Surjewala (the voice of the high command) encourages him to come back; The Gehlot-led legislature party issuing a show-cause notice and removing him as deputy chief minister while Surjewala says “the doors of the party are always open.” At one point, it would have been unimaginable to hear two voices; the high command’s would drown out all else. Whatever happens to Pilot, this change in the emergence of regional power is here to stay.