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Sunil Gatade | Dilemma for Congress in Raj: To axe or not to axe

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Sunil Gatade

Published on: October 9, 2022 | Updated on: October 9, 2022

Rajasthan watchers had seen long ago that Mr Pilot, while attempting to overthrow Mr Gehlot as CM, had virtually crossed over to the BJP side. (Photo: PTI)

Congress president Sonia Gandhi — who will soon cease to hold that post — has a humongous problem facing her in the next few days: to axe or not to axe Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot in the wake of the unprecedented rebellion by party MLAs in Jaipur in the last few weeks.

Mr Gehlot, 71, had brought to the fore a serious dilemma for Mrs Gandhi which no other Congress chief minister had ever posed to her in her two-decade tenure.

Mr Gehlot’s closeness to the Congress president was virtually a matter of envy to several other senior leaders. He was handpicked by her and Rahul Gandhi to be in charge of Gujarat ahead of the 2017 polls, which saw the BJP being restricted to below 100 in the 182-member House on the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah.   

The Rajasthan rebellion was therefore a shock to Mrs Gandhi, who had all along believed that the phlegmatic CM was her loyalist to the core and that he would always do her bidding. That is why she had especially chosen Mr Gehlot, known to be a Gandhian, to succeed her as the party president.

Unnamed party sources had quoted Mallikarjun Kharge, who had been recently sent as an AICC observer to Jaipur, alleging that the rebellion was "sponsored" by Mr Gehlot. Assembly elections in Rajasthan are due next year and the party will face an uphill task if it fails to be united.

"When a chief minister is changed, 80-90 per cent (of MLAs) leave him and switch sides. They turn to the new candidate. I too don’t consider it wrong. But it was a new case in Rajasthan, where the MLAs got agitated just over the name of the new chief minister," Mr Gehlot had said, in a bid to absolve himself in the rebellion against the moves to make his detractor Sachin Pilot his successor.

AICC general secretary K.C. Venugopal had said that the chief minister would be changed in a couple of days. But that was some time ago. So far, nothing has happened.

Mrs Gandhi has to act with caution as a section of the party wants to add fuel to the Rajasthan fire. Mr Gehlot is not challenging Mr Pilot but the high command, so goes their argument. The truth could be somewhere in between. At present, the Congress has governments only in two states — Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

Interestingly, Mr Gehlot, who had personally apologised to the Congress chief for the rebellion by his supporters and taken moral responsibility for the indiscipline, has since indicated that he would continue.

The Rajasthan CM is now a man deeply hurt over the way his detractor was sought to be brought in his place. Mr Gehlot is a leader of the old guard and is among those who were brought into politics by Sanjay Gandhi. These leaders were known to be part of the Sanjay Brigade.

Mr Gehlot had recently sought suggestions from students and the youth for inclusion in the next Budget, indicating thereby that he would be very much in the saddle in the times to come.

A decision on the leadership issue in Rajasthan is like resolving the Gordian knot. The CM’s loyalists have been openly angry over the plans to make the former deputy chief minister and PCC Chief the successor to Mr Gehlot. They are insisting that the "gaddars" (traitors) will not be tolerated, in an obvious reference to the rebellion by Mr Pilot and his supporters fuelled by the BJP back in 2020.

Rajasthan watchers had seen long ago that Mr Pilot, while attempting to overthrow Mr Gehlot as CM, had virtually crossed over to the BJP side.

The infighting hit the Congress recently as some 90 MLAs of the Gehlot camp didn’t turn up at the Congress Legislature Party meeting and instead went to the Speaker to submit their resignation letters saying that a decision on the CM must be taken by the new Congress president, that Mr Gehlot must have a say in it, and the position shouldn’t be given to Sachin Pilot or any of his supporters.

It was like saying the high command has no locus in Rajasthan affairs and saying that let Mr Gehlot decide after becoming Congress president who should be his successor in Rajasthan.

Mr Pilot is a known close associate of Rahul Gandhi. The young leader who is leading the Bharat Jodo Yatra has been calling the shots in party affairs despite having quit as party chief in a huff some two years back, which led to Sonia Gandhi being made interim president.

The Congress is clearly a divided house on the Gehlot issue, with leaders, including some known loyalists, insisting that any decision by the high command against the Rajasthan CM would be at its peril. There are some others who want Mr Gehlot to be punished. They are insisting that action is needed against the CM if the writ of the high command has to run in the organisation. Their argument is that Mr Gehlot is not challenging Mr Pilot, but the high command itself.

The anti-Gehlot camp says the Rajasthan CM may float a regional party and that he has already started preparations. Not without reason, they also say that Mr Gehlot’s bonhomie with former Rajasthan CM and BJP leader Vasundhara Raje is helping both leaders to have their way in their respective parties. Ms Raje, incidentally, is also feeling the heat in her party, which has refused to declare her as its CM candidate.

With no word from the Congress high command, the message that has gone out is that Sonia Gandhi is in a fix and therefore is allowing matters to rest for the time being. Mr Gehlot had mystically remarked last week: "Politics is done by multiplication and division. In politics, sometimes, what is seen is not true, and what is true is not seen."

The CM, who is a magician, never fails to surprise. At last week’s Invest Rajasthan summit, organised by the state government, Gautam Adani, the chairman of the Adani Group, who is under constant attack by the top Congress leadership, was seated next to Mr Gehlot and announced huge investments in the desert state. Ahead of the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, Mr Gehlot is obviously keeping the corporate sector in good humour.