STATE OF PLAY
Having faced the umbrage of the Congress high command over the fiasco at a Legislature Party meeting two months ago, an embarrassed Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is going through an uneasy situation just a year before the desert State goes to the Assembly polls in 2023. Some of the Ministers and MLAs of his own camp in the ruling party seem to have opened a front against him.
Mr. Gehlot will be subjected to a double whammy if the disgruntled elements in the rival faction of the Congress join hands with the leaders, aides and party workers considered loyal to him while demanding resolution of the leadership issue in Rajasthan. This will throw a new challenge to the veteran leader before the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra enters the State in December.
The once-strong grip of Mr. Gehlot on the party is gradually loosening with his inability to deal with those who are virtually questioning his authority by raising a host of issues ranging from centralisation of power to discrepancies in reservation for Other Backward Classes, formation of new districts and the Ministers’ power to write annual confidential reports of bureaucrats.
The Gandhian leader’s troubles seem to be increasing with the voices of dissent emerging from the rank and file of the party at the district and block levels. Amid the signs of disenchantment among local leaders waiting for the formation of district and block committees dissolved in 2020 following the then Deputy CM Sachin Pilot’s rebellion, the clamour for a change of guard is rising with more and more members of the Gehlot camp shifting to the rival faction.
Mr. Gehlot had tendered an apology after a CLP meeting to pass a one-line resolution giving the high command the right to pick the next Chief Minister could not take place in Jaipur on September 25, as 90 MLAs boycotted it and submitted their resignations to Assembly Speaker C.P. Joshi. Mr. Gehlot was then a frontrunner for the post of Congress president.
After withdrawing himself from the party presidential election, Mr. Gehlot has sought to consolidate his position in the State, while sending across an explicit message that the Congress can form the government again if the next year’s Assembly election is fought under his leadership.
As Mr. Gehlot has held on despite the Gandhi family calling for him to become the party’s chief, new Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has his task cut out to decide whether to let Mr. Gehlot continue as the CM or bring about a regime change. With AICC general secretary Ajay Maken expressing his unwillingness to continue as Rajasthan in-charge, Mr. Kharge will have to find another trustworthy leader who may help him deal with the stand-off.
Mr. Maken had accompanied Mr. Kharge to Jaipur as an observer for the CLP meeting, which triggered the latest spell of crisis in the Congress-ruled State. Political observers feel that the party’s focus on the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat has delayed a decision on the issue.
Meanwhile, Sachin Pilot’s supporters have raised the demand for replacing Mr. Gehlot with his former deputy, who represents Tonk Assembly constituency. The issue of the State leadership should be addressed through one-to-one interactions between the central leadership and party MLAs that will make the legislators’ sentiments clear, according to the Pilot camp, which also says that the matter should be resolved before the Bharat Jodo Yatra enters the State.
On his part, Mr. Pilot has been touring different regions across the State and speaking up in support of giving “respect and recognition” to the party workers.
Amid all of this political one-upmanship and veiled messages, both Mr. Gehlot and Mr. Pilot have joined Rahul Gandhi during his yatra on different days.
The leadership tussle has been accentuated by Mr. Gehlot’s failure to remove a discrepancy created by 12.5% horizontal reservation granted to ex-servicemen in the ministerial and subordinate services within the OBC and other reserved categories. It is evident that the Congress high command will have to take a decision on the leadership in Rajasthan immediately after the Assembly election in two other States, in order to avoid the creation of new flashpoints of conflict within the party.