Tug-of-war in Rajasthan casts shadow over Congress poll | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Tug-of-war in Rajasthan casts shadow over Congress poll

By, Jaipur/new Delhi
Sep 27, 2022 04:48 AM IST

Rajasthan is one of only two states where the Congress is in power on its own, and goes to the polls in 14 months. In the 200-member assembly, the Congress has 108, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 71 and others eight, apart from 13 independents.

The Congress party’s Rajasthan turmoil on Monday threatened to derail its national plans, with an unprecedented rebellion by lawmakers in the state casting a cloud over the party’s upcoming presidential election, as the top leadership scrambled to contain a spiralling crisis of its own making.

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot (right) and former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot.
Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot (right) and former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot.

Until the weekend, it appeared all but certain that Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot will take over as the next president, and step down from his current job. But the party’s future is now in flux both in Jaipur and New Delhi.

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Central Congress observers Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Maken flew back to the Capital and apprised party president Sonia Gandhi about the dissident lawmakers, who demand that former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot not be named for the state’s top job if Gehlot is elected Congress chief in next month’s internal poll. A scheduled legislature party meeting on Sunday evening had to be cancelled after around 90 of them threatened to resign if they didn’t get to pick Gehlot’s successor.

“The kind of attitude shown by the MLAs from the Gehlot faction is completely wrong,” Maken said, accusing them of “gross indiscipline” .

In Delhi, the nomination process for the October 17 presidential poll appeared stuck in limbo even as Madhusudan Mistry, the man in charge of the exercise, ruled out any change or deferment at this stage. People aware of developments said unless an amicable solution to the rebellion — seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the Gandhis — was found within the next few days, Gehlot may not even be a candidate, or at least may not have the backing of the Gandhi family.

A section of the party believes Gehlot should not be considered for the presidential poll and other candidates be explored. Some other leaders maintain that the poll could be held later, after the Rajasthan issue is resolved. “For the first time in the recent past, MLAs have challenged the authority of the Congress president. Now the key issue is whether the party high command accepts an alternative to Sachin Pilot as Gehlot’s replacement,” a senior leader said, requesting anonymity.

A leader considered close to Gehlot said the chief minister had not decided when to file nomination papers as the situation was “fluid”.

Senior leader Kamal Nath flew to Delhi on Monday, and is expected to play peacemaker, or perhaps even emerge as a surprise contender. Nath met Sonia Gandhi on Monday evening, and is scheduled to meet the Gehlot and Pilot camps on Tuesday. “He has been called to control the damage caused to the party due to political turmoil in Rajasthan,” said a close aide, requesting anonymity.

Rajasthan is one of only two states where the Congress is in power on its own, and goes to the polls in 14 months. In the 200-member assembly, the Congress has 108, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 71 and others eight, apart from 13 independents. The Gehlot government has the backing of 126 lawmakers.

Gehlot and Pilot were both unavailable for comment, despite repeated attempts to reach them.

At the core of the crisis is the question of whether Gehlot can keep his job as chief minister if elected Congress president. He was initially keen to juggle both responsibilities but seemed reconciled to stepping down as chief minister after former president Rahul Gandhi reiterated that the Congress would stick to the one person, one post rule. Pilot was widely seen as the leadership’s choice to replace him.

The crisis began late on Sunday when Maken and Kharge landed in Jaipur to hold a Congress legislature party (CLP) meeting, which was to virtually formalise the transfer of power from Gehlot to Pilot in the state by passing a resolution authorising Sonia Gandhi to pick the next CM. But 92 lawmakers, ostensibly loyal to Gehlot, gathered instead at the residence of minister Shanti Dhariwal, a Gehlot loyalist who also has chief ministerial ambitions. Some wanted the party to make an exception and allow Gehlot to continue and others wanted someone from Gehlot’s camp as CM. Eventually, even as the Congress leaders and Pilot waited at the chief minister’s residence, the CLP meeting was scuttled as the lawmakers drove to the residence of speaker CP Joshi and handed in a joint resignation letter.

On Monday, Maken took on the rebel lawmakers, saying they put forward three conditions — a decision on the selection of the chief minister should be taken after the Congress presidential poll, the chief minister should be from among those MLAs who stood with the government during the political crisis in 2020 and not from the Pilot camp, and the observers should hold meetings in groups, instead of one-on-one as sought by the high-command. This, Maken said, was a conflict of interest.

“In Congress’s history, there has never been a conditional resolution. A resolution is only a one-line document… a resolution should not have any conflict of interest. Those who are contesting elections and tomorrow, might become the party president, if they get to decide on the resolution, it is a conflict of interest. So, it is wrong,” he said, without naming Gehlot. Kharge met the CM before leaving Jaipur but maintained that it was a courtesy visit.

But the rebels hit back. “It was 100% a conspiracy to remove the CM and the general secretary in-charge was a part of it,” said Dhariwal, referring to Maken.

But they left a window of reconciliation open. Gehlot loyalists Mahesh Joshi and Pratap Khachariyawas said that they will abide by the high command’s decision on the next chief minister. “We stood with the government when some leaders joined hands with the BJP to topple the Congress government. I hope the high command will look at that also,” Khachariyawas said. He was referring to an unsuccessful rebellion by Pilot in 2020 against Gehlot’s leadership.

A senior Congress functionary said the party will take disciplinary action against leaders who organised a parallel meeting on Sunday. “Such indiscipline cannot be tolerated,” the leader said, expressing confidence that the issue will be sorted out soon.

In Rajasthan, the Pilot and Gehlot camps exuded contrasting moods. A senior MLA belonging to the Pilot camp said they have decided not to respond to the actions of legislators who are opposing his nomination as chief minister.

“We will not confront the MLAs and will wait and watch the decision taken by the party high command. We believe that the party high command will fulfil its commitment to make Pilot the chief minister and fight 2023 assembly elections under his leadership,” the MLA added, asking not to be named.

A leader close to the chief minister said that the decision of MLAs in Gehlot camp to resign if their demand is not met was “spontaneous”. Pilot had been calling them for the past fortnight, claiming that the party high command has decided to make him the next chief minister, the leader added, not wishing to be named.

The leader said the rebel MLAs feared they would be “left out in the cold” if Pilot made it to the top post – a claim denied by Pilot faction.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), meanwhile, said it is keeping a close watch on the events.

The party will not precipitate any action, BJP functionaries said, or make a bid to form government in the state. “The party is always prepared for polls. We have been focusing on strengthening the party’s presence at the booth level and whatever will be the outcome… we will take a call based on the situation,” a functionary said on condition of anonymity.

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