A few months ago, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and former party chief Rahul Gandhi called a meeting to bring about a truce between Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot. At the meeting, Gehlot is learnt to have remarked that he had seen the 46-year-old Pilot grow up. An uneasy truce was brokered, but it remains tenuous against the backdrop of the unrelenting rivalry between Gehlot and Pilot.
In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Pilot says he has never responded in kind to Gehlot’s harsh criticism of him. He says he believes that, in the event of a Congress victory, the race for the chief minister’s post is open. He points to Gehlot’s failure in 2013 as an incumbent to win, reminding that the party had plummeted to 21 seats in that election and that he helmed the uphill task from 2013 to 2018 to bring the party back to the majority mark.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q/ What makes you confident about a Congress victory?
Rajasthan has in the last three decades seen revolving door politics. But I am confident that this time we will break that trend. After our victories in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, we have strong tailwinds in the Congress organisation. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra energised workers across the country. We have implemented most of the promises made in 2018. Also, the BJP is not a united force and is in total disarray in Rajasthan, while we are working unitedly.
Q/ Do you see any difference between 2018 and now? You were state party chief in 2018.
The difference is that now we are fighting as an incumbent. The last time when we fought as an incumbent, when we had a Congress chief minister in 2013, we came down to 21 seats in the 200-member assembly. From 21 to go to the majority mark in five years was a constant struggle. As far as my role now is concerned, I am working as hard as I can to ensure that the party wins.
Q/ How united is the Congress, given the backdrop of bitterness between you and Gehlot?
I raised some issues that needed to be addressed. I am glad that the AICC took cognisance of those issues. For example, paper leaks. The AICC leadership recognised it is an important issue and directed the Rajasthan government to take steps. It is not about individuals as much about the organisation and the Congress party’s prospects in the elections.
Q/ So you are putting all the bitterness behind.
Some unkind words were said against me. But I don’t want to dwell on that. I have always believed that a certain level of decorum should be maintained in our discourse in public life, and I have never responded in kind. As Kharge ji and Rahul ji advised me, it is important to forget, forgive and move on.
Q/ Have your demands with regard to paper leaks and corruption in the Vasundhara Raje government been met fully?
I raised these issues because they were important to be considered since we were going to the polls. Some legal recourse was sought on some of the issues. Issues like reforming the Public Service Commission―we couldn’t do it in time because elections were declared, and one of the appointments made recently, just one day before the elections were announced, was an individual for whom the chief minister had to apologise for making that appointment.
Q/ The BJP has no CM face and their campaign is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi had led the campaign in 2018, too. We saw that happening in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka also. The BJP is getting pulled in many directions and they are going back and forth as far as their campaign strategy is concerned. The BJP is hoping that by default they will get to win the state, but that is not the case.
Q/ The de facto face of the party in this election appears to be Gehlot since it is his face we see on all the publicity material.
We have a Congress chief minister, obviously his picture will be carried. But as far as the Congress party is concerned, we have an age-old, tried and tested method as per which the elected MLAs together decide along with the leadership in Delhi who will get what responsibility. In 2018, I was the PCC chief and we all passed a one-line resolution authorising the Congress president to decide who will lead the government. Exactly the same thing will happen this time.
Q/ Gehlot keeps saying the chief minister’s chair is not letting him go.
We must realise that it is the party that makes the government; governments don’t make parties. If the chair is with the party, the party’s ideology, manifesto and policies can be implemented. And that should be the reason for us to want that chair. I am sure that is what he had in his heart when he said that. To say that I want something for my own personal gratification, that should not be the idea.
Q/ Are you an aspirant for the chief minister’s post?
I am lucky I got a chance to work in the state, in the Government of India, in Parliament, in the state assembly. I am now working to try and deliver the state and wherever I can contribute. What role I will have and what position I will be given, it all depends on the Congress leadership.
Q/ The Congress won Rajasthan in 2018, but did not win any Lok Sabha seat.
Last time, some unique circumstances came into play just before the polls. I don’t think that is the situation today. Ten years is a long time. There is a fatigue factor. There is a lot of unrest among young people, farmers and others. The people are looking for an alternative, and the INDIA alliance is that alternative. After winning the state elections, we are well on track to defeat the National Democratic Alliance government in 2024.