The largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, is in a tizzy. Reason: there is a possibility that the Congress government in Rajasthan led by Ashok Gehlot may lose its majority following a revolt by the state’s Deputy Chief Minister and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Tonk Sachin Pilot who is reportedly in talks with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Will Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi be able to defuse the crisis and prevent Rajasthan from going the Madhya Pradesh way where the Congress government led Kamal Nath was ousted by the BJP after Jyotiradtiya Scindia and his followers switched their political allegiances?
There are conflicting reports about the number of MLAs in Pilot’s camp. Most media organisations say that 16 Congress and three Independent MLAs are with him. The Times of India places this number at 25.
In the 200-member state assembly, the Congress currently has a majority with 107 MLAs and support of 13 Independents. When the assembly was constituted in December 2018, it had 100 MLAs belonging to the Congress, 72 with the BJP, 13 Independents, six with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the rest with other parties––three with the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, two each with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Tribal Party and one with the Rashtriya Lok Dal.
After the elections, the six MLAs of the BSP joined the Congress. With the Independents supporting the Congress, the party has the support of 120 out of 200 members.
If, for the sake of argument, 17 Congress MLAs stop supporting the government and are disqualified, the effective strength of the assembly would come down to 183, the majority mark to 92 and the strength of the Congress down to 83. This would make rather precarious the survival of the Gehlot government.
Gehlot has reportedly called all the Congress MLAs for a meeting which is scheduled to take place at his residence late on Sunday (July 12) night.
According to NDTV, the discussions between Sachin Pilot and the BJP started before the lockdown. The BJP is reportedly not willing to offer Pilot the post of Chief Minister. A political analyst told one of these writers that former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje would never allow such a denouement to pass and that at least 45 out of the 72 BJP MLAs are “solidly behind her.”
News reports on Sunday afternoon indicated that the rebel MLAs are currently lodged in posh hotels like ITC Grand and ITC Maurya in Gurugram and Delhi respectively. Pilot too is reportedly in the national capital.
Pilot, who is usually accessible to journalists at all times has gone incommunicado and is said to be not taking calls from Congress leaders as well. Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted: “For the last 24 hours, @SachinPilot… has not been picking up phones of journalists. Sure sign that a Rajasthani thali is being cooked. Chef is in Delhi, kitchen is in Jaipur. We wait to see how many MLAs are served! Watch this space!”
This embarrassing development for the Congress comes three months after former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia and 22 other rebel Congress MLAs defected to the BJP, ensuring the fall of the Kamal Nath-led Madhya Pradesh government. Scindia was soon afterwards given a seat in the Rajya Sabha and quite a few of his supporters have been included in the government headed by Shivraj Singh Chouhan. However, they are yet to be re-elected to the assembly.
Allegations of Bribery
It was reported by the Indian Express on July 11 that the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Rajasthan Police had arrested two individuals connected to the BJP for allegedly trying to topple the state government by bribing Congress and Independent MLAs with huge sums of money ranging between Rs 20 crore and Rs 25 crore. Their phone conversations had been tapped and recorded by the police.
The SOG had lodged an FIR on July 10, which states: “From the conversation on these numbers, it appears that attempts are being made to topple the government, and preparations were completed before the Rajya Sabha elections. In the conversation, it is said that (the) Chief Minister and (the) Deputy Chief Minister are having a fight; in such a situation, the ruling party MLAs and independent MLAs can be broken away to topple the government and a new CM will be put in place.”
There is speculation that the summons issued to Pilot by the Rajasthan Police has hurt him and upset him very much. A source close to him told Newsclick on condition of anonymity: “Something like has never happened before. You just do not summon a person who is holding the post of Deputy Chief Minister who, incidentally, also happens to head the PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee).”
A person close to Gehlot held a different point of view. He told one of the writers of this off-the-record: “Why is Pilot-ji upset? The CM is himself willing to depose before the police. The law is not above any person. This is a serious case of bribery to topple a state government.”
Gehlot has accused the BJP of trying to destabilise his government. He addressed journalists and claimed: “BJP leaders are playing the game at the behest of Central leaders. MLAs were offered money... Rs 10 crore in advance and Rs 15 crore after the government is toppled.”
However, BJP State President of Rajasthan Satish Poonia rubbished the allegations. He said, “The Chief Minister did not talk logically in his press conference. There is in-fighting in his party but he wants to blame BJP. He is a veteran leader of the Congress and his unhappiness is justified because the Congress has shrunk in the country.”
Gehlot had earlier accused the BJP of trying to “poach” MLAs before the Rajya Sabha elections which took place in June.
On June 10, the chief whip of the state government in the assembly Mahesh Joshi had complained in writing to the Director General, Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), part of which alleged: “I have come to know through reliable sources that attempts are being made to lure our MLAs and Independent MLAs who support us, in order to destabilise the government.”
Will Pilot Follow Scindia’s Footsteps?
In an article titled “Fighter Pilot Draws Red Line for Congress” published in NDTV, journalist Swati Chaturvedi wrote that Pilot had told her that he would never leave the Congress in the “foreseeable” future.
The source close to Pilot who spoke to Newsclick concurred with this view. “I don’t think Sachin Pilot will do what Jyotiradtiya Scindia did. Unlike the latter, the Congress is in his blood. Sachin-ji is not hankering after a minister’s position in Delhi. Don’t forget that he was Minister for Corporate Affairs in the second UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government.”
Chaturvedi added that Pilot nevertheless felt that Gehlot should not have pressed the panic button and resorted to “resort politics”––herding party MLAs to a resort near Jaipur to prevent them from shifting their political affiliation after being lured with money––to ensure that two Congress MPs (K C Venugopal and Neeraj Dangi) were elected to the upper house of Parliament.
Not the Best of Friends
That Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot are not exactly the best of friends is hardly a secret. Pilot clearly thought he would become the Chief Minister of Rajasthan after the Congress won 100 out of the 200 seats in the assembly against only 21 five years earlier in December 2013.
Pilot was “persuaded” to take the post of Deputy CM and PCC chief. But he sulked and kept taking pot-shots at Gehlot whenever he got an opportunity.
After those accused in the mob lynching of Pehlu Khan, a cattle trader from Alwar, were acquitted by the police, Pilot suggested that this could have been prevented if the Gehlot government had set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT).
Thirteen months in power, in January, Pilot said his government should have been more “compassionate” and “sensitive” after over a hundred children died within the span of barely a month at the J K Lon Hospital in Kota. He visited the hospital before the Health Minister of Rajasthan Raghu Sharma did. (Sharma used to be in the Pilot camp but had switched his allegiance to Gehlot.)
When Gehlot said it was a “tradition” that political leaders should not visit the homes of the bereaved parents of children who had lost their lives, Pilot said such traditions are not worth adhering to.
In April, during the nationwide lockdown, a resident of Madhya Pradesh had tweeted that his daughter staying in Kota was unwell. Both Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia were tagged in the tweet with a request to bring her back to Madhya Pradesh.
Subsequently, Scindia tweeted that he had got in touch with Pilot who had assured him of the well-being of the girl.
Gehlot had earlier held Pilot responsible for the defeat of his son Vaibhav Gehlot from Jodhpur in the December 2018 Vidhan Sabha elections. The elder Gehlot is a five-time MP from Jodhpur.
Less than five months after the Congress came to power in the state assembly elections, the BJP swept the Lok Sabha elections winning all the 25 seats from Rajasthan. Subsequently, Chief Minister Gehlot said his deputy should share part of the responsibility for his party’s humiliating loss in the national elections.
In an interview with Newsclick published on April 23, Gehlot said he was confident that what happened to the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh in March and the coalition government in Karnataka in 2019, would not be repeated in Rajasthan.
He said: “Rajasthan cannot be compared to Madhya Pradesh or Karnataka. Those in the Centre in Delhi are dreaming about toppling our government. But their dreams will remain just that. Their dreams will not become reality.”
Time will tell if Gehlot’s confidence is justified.
When questioned about his differences with Pilot, the Chief Minister was diplomatic. He said: “You have asked me an interesting question. He is my Cabinet colleague, the Deputy CM and the PCC chief. As Chief Minister, I have to maintain his maan-sanmaan (respect and dignity). That’s all I have to say.”
Part of the Elite
At 42, Sachin Pilot is more than 26 years younger than Ashok Gehlot. He is currently a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Rajasthan from Tonk. When he was first elected as a Member of Parliament from Dausa in 2004, he was the youngest MP in the Lok Sabha. He won the Parliamentary elections five years later in 2009 after changing his constituency to Ajmer, but lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 by a huge margin of over 1,70,000 votes to the sitting BJP MLA Sanwarlal Jat.
Son of the late Rajesh Pilot, Sachin Pilot was educated in elite institutions such as St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. He obtained a Masters in Business Administration degree from Wharton School in the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked with the British Broadcasting Corporation in Delhi and with the American multinational corporation General Motors.
His wife Sara is daughter of Farooq Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir and head of the J&K National Conference. She had filed a petition in the Supreme Court for the release of her brother and former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who had been detained in Srinagar under the Public Safety Act.
Like his father and grandfather who were with the armed forces and following a family tradition, Sachin Pilot became the first Union Minister to be commissioned as an officer in the Territorial Army.
Will the Congress Learn Lessons?
An independent political analyst who spoke to Newsclick on the condition that he not be identified, said that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi should hopefully have learnt a few lessons from what happened recently in Madhya Pradesh. “They had to choose between Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath and they chose the latter. They were faced with a Hobson’s Choice, a choice of taking what is available or nothing at all.”
The price the Congress paid in Madhya Pradesh was a stiff one. The analyst added: “Rajasthan may be different as Gehlot’s bargaining hand may be weaker in comparison to that of Kamal Nath who packed a lot of clout with big business and the media. The Congress ‘high command’ may be more accommodative towards Sachin Pilot.”
The source close to Pilot said the choices before him were limited. “It doesn’t make sense for him to form a regional party which is neither here nor there. If he does not aspire for the post of Rajasthan CM and still remains in the Congress, he may have to wait for many years before he fulfils his political dreams either in Delhi or in Jaipur. My hunch is that he (Sachin Pilot) will not do what his friend (Jyotiraditya Scindia) has done.”
But then the BJP has the big bucks. Meanwhile, Gehlot’s supporters are keeping their fingers crossed.
Is the finish going be nail-biting?
The writers are independent journalists.