Rajasthan turmoil continues as Ashok Gehlot, Sachin Pilot dig in heels
The political face-off between Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot persisted on Monday — with the CM mobilising legislators to claim he has a majority, the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) seeking “action” against the rebels, and Pilot and his loyalists dismissing the projected numbers while asking for a change in leadership.
Observers sent by the party’s central leadership to Jaipur, while contending that the Rajasthan government was stable, made a public appeal to Pilot, who is also the state unit chief, to return to the fold and attend a second CLP meeting on Tuesday. The invitation was turned down by Pilot late on Monday night.
Monday witnessed dramatic political developments in both Jaipur and Delhi as the situation remained fluid due to three factors -- the shifting arithmetic in the assembly; the lack of clarity about steps Congress would take against Pilot and the nature his next move; and uncertainty about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) plan of action.
One key area of contestation on Monday was the arithmetic.
In Jaipur, the Congress general secretary in-charge of the state, Avinash Pande, first claimed that the government had the support of 109 legislators in the assembly of 200 (the majority mark is 101).
But a meeting of the legislative party, held at the CM’s official residence, saw the presence of 102 MLAs, according to multiple Congress leaders present there. These included 88 Congress MLAs, 10 independents, two Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP) MLAs, and one legislator each of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The national leadership of BTP, based in Gujarat, later asked its legislators not to take sides in the battle — but the MLAs have said they will stick to the government.
The legislators were then taken to a private resort, Fairmont Jaipur.
The Congress has 107 MLAs in the house, out of whom 105 could have attended the meeting in principle (barring the speaker and an ailing minister). This meant that 17 legislators from the party, including Pilot, did not attend the meeting.
Out of these 17, three were reported to have joined the legislators who pledged their support to the government, on the way to the hotel. This, along with an additional CPI(M) legislator’s support, appeared to take Gehlot’s count to 106 on Monday.
Pilot’s camp, however, dismissed the numbers.
Pilot loyalist and Ladnun MLA, Mukesh Bhakar, claimed that over 30 legislators were still with them. He said their only demand was to replace Gehlot with Pilot, who was instrumental in the party’s victory in the 2018 assembly elections. “We will not budge from that demand,” Bhakar said. He added that the CM’s garden isn’t the place to prove the majority.
A second leader close to Pilot said: “If they have the numbers, then why are they after Pilot? Why were these legislators not taken to the governor’s house? If they have 109 MLAs, why are only 84 rooms booked in the hotel? And if you have counted them, why are you holding them back? Let them go back to their constituencies. This is false bravado.”
A Congress leader, backing Gehlot, said the option of proving legislative majority in other ways was being considered.
Political experts, however, saw this as a thin majority in a volatile situation. “It is not over, till it is over,” said Jaipur-based political commentator Prakash Bhandari. “Many of the legislators present in the meeting today have the reputation of jumping ship. So one should not be sure of the numbers until the last word on the crisis is written.”
The second area of contestation was the Congress’s mixed approach to Pilot and his defiant stance.
The party’s legislative wing in Rajasthan, in a strong resolution, while supporting the Gehlot-led government, recommended strong disciplinary action against any Congress MLA and office-bearer who conspires against the government.
“This meeting urges that strict disciplinary action be taken against any office bearer or member of the legislature party who indulge in activities against the Congress government, party or gets involved in any conspiracy,” read the resolution. While the resolution did not mention Pilot, it is being seen as a reference and warning to him. The resolution also blamed the BJP for perpetuating the “political crisis” in the state.
The central Congress functionary said the strongly worded resolution is an indication that Gehlot wants tough action against Pilot and his supporters.
At the same time, the party also sent out reconciliatory signals.
When asked if former party president Rahul Gandhi had been in touch with Pilot, Gandhi’s office responded, “He (Sachin Pilot) is always in his heart. And they speak often and directly. They have great respect and affection for each other.” Other reports suggested that party general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi, too had reached out to Pilot.
But a legislator close to the deputy CM insisted that no one spoke to him. “There has been no conversation between Pilot and the Congress high command,” he said.
Both on Monday morning and late at night, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala and leader Ajay Maken reached out to Pilot. In the morning, ahead of the meeting, Surjewala said: “On behalf of Congress leadership, including Sonia ji and Rahul ji, I convey that doors of Congress party are always open for Sachin ji or any member.”
At night, Surjewala said that another CLP meeting was scheduled for Tuesday morning at 10am, and invited all legislators, including Pilot, to attend it. “We in writing have urged deputy CM Sachin Pilot and others to come and discuss the political status-quo and how to strengthen Rajasthan. I am hopeful that all MLAs, CM, deputy CM and ministers will participate.” He added that if there were “some differences with someone”, then they could say that with an open mind. “Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are ready to listen to everyone and find a solution.”
But Pilot, a person associated with the deputy CM and familiar with his decision said, rejected the invite and will not attend the meeting unless issues raised by him are addressed.
He also refuted reports suggesting that a compromise formula is being worked out to iron out the differences, maintaining that they will not agree on anything less than change of guard in the state. He also ruled out the possibility of Pilot joining the BJP. “That is not in his DNA. He cannot join the BJP,” added the legislator quoted above.
However, the central Congress functionary cited above insisted that the CLP meeting has been called to give Pilot and his supporters another chance to explain their position.
Asked if the party will take any action if he and his supporters again do not attend the CLP meeting, the functionary said, “We will take that call tomorrow. Pilot will then not be in a position to say that he had not been given a chance to be heard.”
The third variable in the equation remains the BJP.
The party has officially kept a distance from developments in the state. Talking to the media, party leader and Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament (MP), Om Mathur, dubbed the fallout between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy, Sachin Pilot, as an “internal issue” of the Congress. He added that the discomfort between the two was evident from the day of the government taking oath. A second BJP functionary said that this caution was driven by the uncertainty over whether Pilot had the numbers, and the party would prefer to wait and see a clean break in the Congress first.
But on Monday, there were Income-Tax raids on three groups assumed to be close to the CM -- this, the Congress alleged, was a part of the BJP “conspiracy” to destabilise the government. The IT department said, in a statement, that it carried search and survey operations and found “incriminating evidence”. The BJP declined that action was connected to the turmoil in Rajasthan.
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