The tale of Rajesh and Sachin Pilot, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
In the divergent stories of the father and the son, the common theme is ambition and rebellionUpdated: Jul 17, 2020 06:14 IST
Long before Sachin Pilot, there was his equally charming father, Rajesh Pilot. In 1997, Pilot senior decided to take on octogenarian Sitaram Kesri for the Congress president’s post to “save the party”. It’s a battle he knew he could not win as Kesri had “managed” the electoral college. But Rajesh Pilot was undeterred. He lost the election but stayed on in the Congress. If Rajesh Pilot’s ambitions were couched in lofty principles, son Sachin Pilot’s battle is a fairly open power struggle between him and Ashok Gehlot for the chief minister (CM)’s kursi (chair) in Rajasthan.
That’s not the only difference between father and son. Long before Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi spoke in public of his chaiwallah (tea seller) past, Rajesh would speak in private about his doodhwallah (milk seller) credentials. He told us how he started life selling milk on a bicycle in Lutyens’ Delhi. He was a self-made man, a squadron leader in the Indian Air Force who strayed into politics in 1980, and then climbed his way slowly to a ministerial position in Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1985.
By contrast, Sachin has had a relatively cushy landing than many who have had to wait decades for any recognition. Wharton-educated, he was suddenly pushed into politics after his father’s tragic death in a car accident. A Member of Parliament (MP) at 26, a Union minister at 31, a state Congress president at 36 and a deputy CM at 40, his has been a remarkably fast-track ascent in politics. He has been part of the privileged elite in the Congress, a cosy club of dynasts who have inherited a political legacy almost as if by birthright, benefitting from their close proximity to the Gandhi family. As Rahul Gandhi candidly admitted when Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the party, “He is the only one who can walk into my house at any time... he was in college with me.”
And yet, while Sachin, too, has been an undoubted beneficiary of this “entitlement raj”, he is also a good example of what a dynast should do to shake off the silver spoon tag. In the complex caste dynamics of Rajasthan, Sachin could have easily been stereotyped as a Gujjar leader like his father was, with little cross-caste support. But he has taken risks, contesting from a non-Gujjar territory in Ajmer and winning in 2009. After losing the seat in 2014, he took up an even bigger risk: Abandoning the comfort zone of Lutyens’ Delhi to become the Rajasthan Congress chief, a move that suggested a willingness to take the road less travelled. He may not have Gehlot’s grassroots connect, but as a charismatic young politician who could bridge the divide between the Khan market set and the rural heartland of a Dausa, Sachin is perhaps an even greater asset to a struggling Opposition than his father. In a party with very few popular figures who can connect with a “new” India, media-savvy Sachin has struck a chord.
Remember Sachin and Rajesh Pilot belong to very different eras in Indian politics. Rajesh cut his political teeth in the age of Congress dominance while his son is now doing his politics in the age of a rampant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when the Congress has been seriously downsized. Which is why Sachin’s possible exit from the party is seen as another wake-up call for a fossilised organisation.
A pugnacious Rajesh was unafraid in taking on the powerful like the VVIP godman Chandraswami, who he jailed. He even took on the BJP after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 at a time when other members in the PV Narasimha Rao government were willing to compromise. By contrast, while Sachin has maintained that he has no secret deal with the BJP, the possibility of him being attracted by the idea of flirting with the BJP to topple the Gehlot government can’t be ruled out. Sachin versus Gehlot is, after all, a collision of both generation and culture: The 42-year-old urbane sophisticate versus the 69-year-old rustic son of the soil.
Interestingly, both Gehlot and Rajesh were beneficiaries of a generational change in the Congress effected by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. The then PM consciously sought out talented young leaders like a Gehlot in Rajasthan, a Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh, an Ahmed Patel in Gujarat, all of them then in their 30s and gave them the space to build successful political careers. Rajiv himself had become PM at 40 suggesting a marked demographic shift in India’s politics. His team was packed with dynamic young ministers such as Pilot senior, P Chidambaram and Arif Mohammed Khan. In his initial years as Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, too, tried to give the Congress a more youthful flavour but couldn’t quite make it work. Sachin was, in a sense, the last survivor, and now, he too is gone — further evidence that the old guard has reasserted itself.
But if there is one thing that the father and son have in common, it is their fierce ambition and a rebellious, if slightly impetuous, streak: Neither succumbed to the Congress’ sycophantic culture . Which is why just as Rajesh kept bouncing back from every setback, expect Sachin not to give up so easily. Oh yes, there is another unifying factor: The media-friendly Rajesh Pilot would host an annual kisan lunch for journalists in the capital, a tradition which the son has faithfully followed right down to serving delicious makki di roti and sarson da saag!
Post-script: Since we started the column with Sitaram Kesri, let’s end with him too. When Rajesh Pilot took on Kesri, I asked the veteran Congressman how he viewed the 52-year-old Pilot’s challenge: “Garam khoon hai, theek ho jayega!” was the ever-smiling response. Guess the hot-blooded instinct for a joust runs in the family!