It was after many months that Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot appeared in the same frame. Following a marathon four-hour meeting on May 29 at the residence of Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge in Delhi, the Rajasthan chief minister and his bête noire walked to the gate for a joint photo op in front of the media. The last time they were seen together was during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, when they had called a temporary truce while the walkathon passed through Rajasthan.
They stood, smiling awkwardly on either side of party general secretary in charge of organisation K.C. Venugopal, who declared that the duo had unanimously agreed to the proposal by the party high command that they should fight the assembly elections as a team. “Both of them are in agreement that the Congress party has to go together, and definitely we will win elections in Rajasthan,” Venugopal said.
The party’s keenness to project a picture of unity ahead of the assembly elections in the state was evident. The meeting happened in the backdrop of Pilot’s one-day hunger strike on April 11 and then a five-day padyatra that began on May 11 to highlight the Gehlot government’s alleged inaction on issues of corruption in the Vasundhara Raje government and paper leak in recruitment exams. It was his way of signalling that the tussle between him and Gehlot had entered the end game. There was intense speculation whether Pilot would follow this up with a big announcement on June 11, the death anniversary of his father, Rajesh Pilot.
On the other hand, Gehlot’s provocative barbs against Pilot, like his references to the Pilot-led rebellion in July 2020 against his government allegedly in collusion with the BJP, had only added fuel to fire. Political observers wondered if Gehlot was pushing Pilot to the brink.
Significantly, the meeting of the two leaders with Kharge and Rahul took place just a day before the deadline set by Pilot for Gehlot to meet his demands. It also took place just hours before Rahul left for the US. Rahul is learnt to have been keen that the two leaders come out in public as a team.
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It was not easy, though. Apparently, the two leaders faced each other only at the end of the talks. Kharge and Rahul had met them separately, and the two leaders were together in the same room only for a brief while before leaving.
It is learnt that no specific proposals to resolve the differences were discussed. However, it was conveyed to Pilot that his wish for a dignified role in the party would be taken care of by the high command. On the table is the possibility of Pilot making a comeback as state Congress president. Another possibility is making Pilot the head of the campaign committee.
The message from the central leadership was about going into the elections focusing on the welfare measures of the Gehlot government. A change of leadership was ruled out. However, it is learnt that Gehlot was made aware of the feedback from the grassroots level that infighting was casting a shadow on the image of the government.
Leaders close to Pilot believe that the impression that Gehlot enjoys the support of a majority of MLAs is a myth. “Not a single Congress MLA has spoken out against Sachin Pilot in the recent past. The right way of looking at it is that all MLAs support the party high command,” said state Congress vice president Rajendra Chaudhary.
A lot would depend on how the two leaders take forward the sentiment of unity stressed upon in the meeting. It is learnt that Kharge pointed out how the unity in the state unit was an important factor in the Congress’s victory in Karnataka.
The discussion happened on the basis of the party’s own internal assessment that the Gehlot-Pilot tussle was causing a huge damage to the party’s image. It was also reflecting in a divide among the workers at the grassroots level. As per surveys conducted by the party, it would fare badly if it goes into the elections with the schism between the Gehlot and Pilot camps intact.
However, according to sources in the two camps, the differences between the two leaders have not been resolved. A Pilot associate said there was no clarity on the three demands that he had put forth. It is felt that more discussions with the party high command could be in the offing. And, at the same time, the possibility of another flare up cannot be ruled out.
Pilot remains steadfast on his demands. “Corruption and the future of the youth—on these two issues it is not possible for me to make any compromise,” he said. “The Congress party has always been against corruption and in favour of the youth. So I feel action should be taken against the allegations of corruption and the youth should be given justice.”
Gehlot, on the other hand, spoke about the virtue of patience when he was asked about the possibility of working with Pilot. “I remember the words of Sonia Gandhi ji, who at the Congress convention had asked party workers to have patience and they would get to serve the party in some way,” he said. “I keep this in my heart and tell all partymen to have patience. They would get the opportunity to serve the party in some way. So, I call for patience, patience, patience.”