Jaipur/New Delhi: The Congress on Tuesday cracked the whip on dissident leader Sachin Pilot, stripping him of the posts of Rajasthan's deputy Chief Minister and the party’s state unit president for revolting against Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.
Two other Rajasthan ministers Vishvendra Singh and Ramesh Meena were also sacked from the state cabinet after a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party, its second in the last two days.
The meeting was billed as a “second chance” for Pilot, who had turned down appeals from the party’s top leadership – including Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi -- to return to the fold.
Pilot has been upset since the Congress picked Ashok Gehlot as the chief minister after the 2018 Assembly polls, while his own supporters insisted that he deserved credit for the party’s victory as its state unit president.
His next move is not immediately clear. During the run-up to Tuesday’s CLP meeting, his supporters insisted that he had no plans to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. They said their aim was a leadership change in Rajasthan.
"Truth can be rattled, not defeated," Pilot tweeted in Hindi soon after he was sacked.
Gehlot accused his former deputy of playing into the hands of the BJP. “I am very sad that horse trading was going on,” he said.
Pilot had kept away from the first CLP meeting on Monday and sources said 18 other Congress MLAs had also skipped it, giving an indication of the dissident leader’s strength.
A video clip circulated by the Pilot camp appeared to show a group of 16 Congress MLAs. In a statement issued Sunday, Pilot had claimed the support of 30 Congress MLAs and “some independents”.
The numbers are large enough number to keep the Gehlot camp on edge, even if most of the 107 Congress MLAs and independents have expressed confidence in his leadership.
The state assembly has 200 MLAs and those close to Pilot are already calling for a test of strength on the floor of the House.
As soon as the meeting ended, AICC spokesperson Randeep Surjewala announced the sacking of Pilot and the two ministers close to him from their posts.
He said Pilot enjoyed the blessings of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and was given political power at a young age. Yet, he and other ministers were trying to topple the state government as part of a “BJP conspiracy”.
"This cannot be acceptable to any political party. Therefore, the Congress took the decision with a heavy heart,” he said.
Education Minister Govind Singh Dotasara, a leader from the Other Backward Classes (OBC) is the new Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief.
Tribal leader and MLA Ganesh Ghogra was appointed the new president of the state Youth Congress, a post held so far Pilot loyalist Mukesh Bhakar. Hem Singh Shekhawat replaced another Pilot supporter, MLA Rakesh Pareek, as the state president of the Congress Sewa Dal.
Abhimanyu Poonia, the president of the state unit of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), resigned.
"We cannot work with a chief minister who has worked to send heads of Jat and Bishnoi families to jail. Our honesty and conscience is still alive," he said on Twitter.
Ashok Gehlot met Governor Kalraj Mishra immediately after the CLP meeting, recommending the removal of the three ministers from his cabinet.
Police were put on alert across the state against any fallout of the political developments.
The BJP accused Gehlot of putting the blame for the crisis on the opposition.
"Dear Ashok Gehlot, closing your eyes does not make the sun disappear. There is weakness in the structure of your house, and you are blaming the BJP national leadership for this," party vice president Om Prakash Mathur said.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting Congress general secretary Avinash Pande had made another bid to reach out to the rebel leader.
"I appeal to Sachin Pilot and all his fellow MLAs to join today's Legislature Party meeting,” Pande, who is the Rajasthan in-charge at the AICC, tweeted in the morning.
“While expressing your faith in the ideology and values of the Congress, please make your presence felt and strengthen the hands of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi," he said.
In the 200-member assembly, the Congress has 107 MLAs and the BJP 72.
In the past, the ruling party has claimed the support of 13 independents, two MLAs each from the CPM and the Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP), and one from the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).
But CPM and BTP have now indicated that their MLAs could stay neutral till the Congress settled its factional feud.
In recent days, the Gehlot camp has also distanced itself from three of the independents, after their names surfaced in an alleged plot to topple the state government.
The current crisis surfaced last Friday when the Rajasthan Police sent a notice to Pilot, asking him to record his statement over the alleged bid to bring down the government.
The same notice was sent to the chief minister and some other MLAs, but Pilot’s supporters claimed that it was only meant to humiliate him.
The Special Operation Group (SOG) had sent out the notices after tapping a phone conversation between two men, who were allegedly discussing the fall of the Gehlot government.