A truce formula, assurances of an honorable return for Sachin Pilot, and a stern message to Ashok Gehlot to back off may have settled the dust storm in the Rajasthan Congress unit for now.
The return of the group of 19 Congress MLAs led by Pilot after a month-long stand-off brings back the Gehlot government from the precipice. It also ends the BJP’s hopes of regaining control of Rajasthan riding on the back of Pilot’s rebellion.
Announcing the “return”, AICC general secretary KC Venugopal said in a statement, “Sachin Pilot has met former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and expressed his grievances in detail. They have had a frank, open, and conclusive discussion. Sachin Pilot has committed to working in the interest of the Congress party and the Congress government in Rajasthan.”
— Congress (@INCIndia) August 10, 2020
Venugopal added, “Following this meeting, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has decided that AICC will constitute a three-member committee to address the issues raised by Sachin Pilot and the aggrieved MLAs and arrive at an appropriate resolution thereof.”
Sources said “the announcement of Pilot’s return” came after the Congress high command provided concrete assurances, some of them visibly.
Sources said Pilot broadly agreed to a “truce formula” crafted by Rahul after the Congress’s first family finally stepped in to save the Rajasthan government ahead of the August 14 trust vote proposed by Gehlot.
With this “positive outcome”, there is a likelihood of Gehlot withdrawing his proposed trust vote. The Rajasthan assembly session is to start from August 14 and Gehlot was likely to seek a trust vote during the session.
Top sources close to Pilot said he met Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi for two-and-a-half hours. The Gandhis are said to have promised to address all the issues that led Pilot to rebel, and thus, create grounds for his honorable return to the party and government.
A source close to Pilot said, “The intervention by Rahul and Priyanka laid the ground for Sachin’s return to the Congress fold and thus the threat faced by Gehlot is virtually over.”
The Gandhis’ primary aim was to quell the rebellion by Pilot and ask Gehlot to back off and stop attempts to oust the young challenger.
Providing point-by-point detail of the meeting, Congress sources said an emotional Pilot clarified that at no point did he stage a “rebellion against the Congress or speak negatively against Gehlot”, while the CM indulged in mudslinging and pushed cadres to demand his ouster from the party.
The pilot is said to have provided the Gandhis with a long list of “Gehlot’s attempts to sideline him and the impact that may have on the party’s future”.
Details of the fine print of the power-sharing agreement between Gehlot and Pilot aren’t known yet. But sources confirmed that beyond the setting up of a coordination committee, MLAs loyal to Pilot may be offered ministerial berths and to lead lucrative state corporations.
As a face-saving exercise, the Pilot camp was adamant about extracting an assurance from the party leadership on either a change in chief ministership from Ministry Gehlot to Pilot after some time or a public announcement that Pilot would be the CM face in the next election.
Sources say Rahul Gandhi seems to have asked Pilot to return to the two posts of deputy chief minister and Rajasthan Congress chief. The pilot was sacked from both posts after he skipped two Congress Legislative Party meets.
The Gehlot camp is said to be resisting both, claiming that any such move may undermine the position of the incumbent CM. They fear any such step would make Pilot the bigger power-center which can arm-twist the party to edge out Gehlot.
There is no clarity yet but sources close to Pilot say his return would hinge on some concrete assurances for the future. The Congress high command, as part of the deal, has assured Pilot that they would not initiate any action against him or his loyalist MLAs.
However, late in the day Pilot and camp of MLAs meet Priyanka Gandhi as well as senior party leaders Ahmed Patel and KC Venugopal at the Congress war room office in New Delhi. Later, the rebel leaders also met Rahul Gandhi.
Coming out of the party, Pilot struck a conciliatory tone, thanking Congress president Sonia Gandhi for setting up a committee to listen to his grievances.
“The party gives us a post and can also take it back. I’ve no desire for any post but I wanted our self-respect to remain intact. I’ve contributed to the party for 18-20 years now. We’ve always attempted to ensure the participation of people who worked hard to form the government,” he added.
How Pilot was grounded
A number of developments forced Pilot to return to the discussion table.
The Congress high command forced Gehlot to order the special operations group (SOG) of Rajasthan police to close investigation in three cases of sedition. The cases were related to attempts to topple the Gehlot government.
Despite the posturing, the Pilot camp could not muster enough numbers to dislodge Gehlot. The wily CM marshaled his forces to ensure that the Pilot camp remained restricted to 19, plus two Independents and one CPI(M) MLA.
The group had explored the option of forming a regional outfit. But given that it does not enjoy support from across the caste spectrum, and in the past regional outfits have flopped, the idea was junked.
The biggest reason behind Pilot’s retreat was the BJP’s refusal to get the blood of the Gehlot government on its hands, especially when Pilot, unlike Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, failed to draw out an adequate number of MLAs.
The other big stumbling block for both Pilot and BJP was former CM Vasundhara Raje, who was unhappy over the BJP hobnobbing with Pilot without keeping her in the loop. She is averse to the BJP supporting Pilot’s coup attempt as that would make Pilot a challenger to her, as in Rajasthan, she and Gehlot have shared an alternating stint in power.
The BJP top brass, however, didn’t want to lose the opportunity to dislodge Gehlot. Party president JP Nadda, according to sources, had threatened action against leaders attempting to bail out Gehlot if Pilot’s breakaway group threatens the CM’s numbers.
The BJP’s worries were heightened by the fact that several MLAs loyal to Raje refused to reach the safe-house created by the party to thwart poaching attempts by Gehlot, who on Sunday had issued a letter to all 200 MLAs to vote in the floor test as per their conscience. Ahead of the session, the BJP had shifted half-a-dozen of its so-called “vulnerable MLAs” from Rajasthan to Porbandar in Gujarat.
Gehlot will live to fight another day
Gehlot is all set to remain CM, but the stand-off and the compromise formula will deliver him a body blow.
He tried his best to oust his challenger and reduce any future turbulence. But the party high command, while not edging him out, may clip his wings. The days of having a free run in administrative and party matters are over for Gehlot
The special committee for coordination will democratize decision-making. If Pilot re-enters the party on honorable terms without a reprimand for rebellion and gets positive assurances for the future, he would gain in stature.
Signs of Gehlot backing down were visible on Monday morning when he left the Jaisalmer MLA’s safe-house without meeting the media. His loyalists indulged in no saber-rattling throughout the day.
Just on Sunday, he had staged an open “oust Pilot” show at the CLP meeting at Suryagarh Hotel in Jaisalmer. MLAs loyal to him raised hands favoring stern action against Pilot-led dissident MLAs.
Avinash Pande, Congress’s in-charge of Rajasthan, while communicating with the MLAs at the hotel, told them that the party will not be soft towards the rebels. Shanti Dhariwal, Congress’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister, lashed out at Pilot loyalists.
The developments came despite the Congress high command’s attempts to reach out to Pilot and woo him back into the party fold.
(With inputs from IndiaToday)