With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attempting to destabilise yet another state – their attempt was foiled in Rajasthan with the return of the rebel Congress leader and former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot to the party fold – there are clear signals for both the ruling Congress and the BJP to watch out for.
The first and foremost – for the BJP – is that the Congress may look down and out at the national level but it has seasoned politicians in certain states who can withstand threats of destabilisation as well as pulls and pressures of a menacing Centre and an obliging Governor. Rajasthan may be the first case in recent times in which an attempt at pulling down a democratically-elected state government, which enjoyed a clear majority over the BJP juggernaut, was defeated by the astute local leadership of the Congress.
The second sign for the BJP goes well with the adage: “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones”.The BJP attempt at abetting the internal rebellion in the ruling Congress, with the larger motive of replacing the government with its own, started showing signs of backfiring. The party’s two-time Chief Minister in the state, Vasundhara Raje, sensing a threat to her own leadership in Rajasthan, threw a spanner in her own party’s game-plan.
The BJP leadership in the state cut a sorry figure when, after mocking the Congress for the “bara bandhi”(herding) of its MLAs in hotels, they themselves were forced to do the same for fear of losing a few to the Congress. What accentuated the embarrassment of the state BJP president Satish Poonia, who was most vocal during the period, was that a few of the party MLAs, owing political allegiance to Raje, refused to be transported to Gujarat’s Porbandar and other cities.
It is interesting to note that throughout their careers, both Gehlot and Raje have remained critical of each other. Again, unlike some Congress chief ministers of the past, Gehlot has always kept a ‘safe’ distance from non-Congress leaders. If there had been an exception to this, it was only in the case of the late Vice-President of India, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. That relationship too developed only after Shekhawat left Rajasthan politics and took over as the country’s Vice President. In Raje’s case, she too has been indifferent, if not critical, of Gehlot. In fact, it came as a surprise when Sachin Pilot, at the outset of the current imbroglio, accused Gehlot of being lenient towards Raje in the continued allocation of a bungalow in Jaipur Civil Lines to her, despite an earlier Rajasthan High Court order for eviction.
Raje’s annoyance with her party was understandable as the BJP leadership, both at the centre and in the state, did not seemingly take her view or share their strategies as far as the crisis in the Congress government in the state was concerned.
Raje was alarmed as she could see that a change of government in Rajasthan was not going to be in her favour. Going by the involvement of Gajendra Singh Shekhawat – the Union Jal Shakti Minister – the impression was that he would be a possible candidate for Chief Minister if the Gehlot government fell and the BJP formed a new government. Even with the other possibility – that Sachin Pilot is made the Chief Minister – Raje, who claims the support of at least half of the 72-member strong BJP group in the Assembly, would have lost her claim for leadership not just now, but in the future as well. Those who made noises during the interregnum were the party president Satish Poonia and the Leader of the Opposition, Gulab Chand Kataria – and occasionally, former minister Rajendra Rathore and Om Mathur. Mathur, now a Rajya Sabha member, had said the “the doors of the BJP were open” for Pilot during a visit to the state capital recently.
The BJP, which had drawn blood in last year’s regime change in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, was visibly excited about the prospects of Sachin Pilot doing a Scindia and walking out with a sizeable number of Congress MLAs to help the BJP to form a government. Despite their geographic contiguity, Rajasthan is not Madhya Pradesh. While Sachin Pilot proved to be no “Maharaj”, Gehlot too proved to be no push-over, unlike former MP CM Kamal Nath, who had given in rather tamely. Of course, it was easier for Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the present CM, to cobble up a majority in the house with the breakaway Congress MLAs, as the difference between the two parties there was wafer thin.
The BJP leadership will not accept it but the patronage and hospitality accorded to the team of 18 rebel MLAs led by Pilot in Manesar, near Gurgaon, and elsewhere in the party-ruled Haryana, needs an explanation. Their movement within Haryana was so nimble and deft that Rajasthan’s Special Operations Group could not trace them after days of lookout in the area. The party is also in denial over the alleged involvement of Gajendra Shekhawat in alluring Congress MLAs and Independents with offers of huge sums of money.
The now-beleaguered Congress party and its government also have many lessons to learn from the traumatic, near-death experience they suffered due to their own — a person no less than the Pradesh Congress Committee president. While they cannot help the attitude of others, the party and its government in Rajasthan can always introspect on its own functioning, internal communication, inner party democracy and the relationship between the central and the state leadership. In the initial days of trouble, the Congress leadership, taken aback by the revolt by Sachin Pilot, had sought CM Ashok Gehlot to furnish proof for the former’s hobnobbing with the BJP. Once that was provided and it was made known that majority of the party MLAs were with Gehlot, the leadership did all that it could to save its government in Rajasthan—it also did not entertain the demand for a leadership change.
Now, even as the prodigal sons return to the party, there is no big feast waiting for them. While the higher leadership of the party has taken a lenient stand towards them, the MLAs who had remained with Gehlot have started grumbling about the “turncoats’” smooth return, without even a formal apology for the near calamitous crisis they created.
The author is former Vice-Chancellor, Haridev Joshi University of Journalism and Mass Communication