Pilot-Gehlot tussle: Congress wary of making radical leadership changes

Sources close to Pilot reject the idea that he is leaving the party

30-Sachin-Pilot Sachin Pilot | Sanjay Ahlawat

SEATED ON A small stage, occasionally resting his elbows on an old-fashioned wooden half table, Sachin Pilot was a picture of calm. The space in the middle of Shaheed Smarak, a war memorial in Jaipur, was an oasis of quiet; outside it was an excited crowd of supporters who launched into cheers at regular intervals.

I will continue to campaign against corruption, regardless of what it costs me. ―Sachin Pilot, Congress leader

This was the “controversial” anshan (fast) that Pilot held against the alleged corruption in the previous Vasundhara Raje government, on April 11. It was the latest episode of the power tussle between Pilot and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, which has become a major headache for the Congress’s central leadership.

Just days earlier, Pilot had held a news conference on the purported inaction of his party’s government against corruption. And now with the fast, it is evident that his real target is Gehlot.

The 45-year-old wants to come across as a crusader against corruption, emphasising the popular perception that Gehlot and Raje have helped each other and are two sides of the same coin.

That Pilot was alone on stage during his fast was intentional. It was to put the focus on him as an individual fighting the system. He wants to be seen as an alternative to Gehlot and Raje as chief ministers. The assembly elections are due in December.

At the protest site, Pilot was being portrayed as the chief minister Rajasthan deserves. Slogans of “Hamara CM kaisa ho, Sachin Pilot jaisa ho (Our chief minister should be like Sachin Pilot)” and “Sachin tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhare saath hain (Sachin, you keep fighting, we are with you)” were raised.

“There is a need for change in Rajasthan,” said Sanjana Jatav, a councillor from Samuchi in Alwar district. “How long can we have Gehlot and Raje as chief ministers?”

A majority of the crowd was young and they passionately defended Pilot, asking how it was objectionable to demand action against corruption. “He is a leader we youngsters admire and look up to,” said Ravi Kumar Sigadar, a Congress worker from the Bagru assembly constituency in Jaipur. “He is doing nothing wrong by reminding the elders in the party of the promises they had made.”

Pilot has been getting restless with the delay on the high command’s part to resolve the leadership tangle. Many see his fast as a signal of the endgame in his fight with Gehlot. Speculation is rife on what he does next.

Pilot was state Congress president when the party won the 2018 assembly elections, and believed the chief minister’s post was rightfully his. Gehlot, however, was in no mood for a generational change and proved that the numbers were with him.

Pilot then rebelled against the Gehlot regime in 2020 and lost his title of state party president and deputy chief minister. Two years later, when there was an attempt to bring Gehlot to Delhi as Congress president and make Pilot the chief minister, the veteran was defiant. The Pilot camp thought Gehlot’s actions meant that both leaders were now at par in terms of loyalty to the party. However, Gehlot soon launched a flurry of welfare schemes, which seems to have made the central leadership wary of bringing any drastic change in the leadership structure so close to elections. Especially as a similar exercise in Punjab before the 2022 assembly elections had failed miserably.

However, the fight is still on and the younger leader is running out of patience. That the party has backed Gehlot and even called Pilot’s fast an “anti-party” activity has added to the latter’s unease. In a statement issued after Pilot’s news conference to announce the fast, Congress general secretary in charge of communications Jairam Ramesh said, “Later in the year, the Congress will seek a renewed mandate from the people on the strength of the landmark achievements and the collective efforts of our organisation.”

Asked about the “anti-party” comment and why he had not raised the issue of corruption earlier, Pilot told THE WEEK: “I had been raising the issue for a long time. In the past 14 months, I twice wrote to the chief minister about the need to act against corruption in the Raje government. But there was no response and no action was taken. I will continue to campaign against corruption, regardless of what it costs me.”

Sources close to Pilot said it came as a big surprise to him that Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, the Congress in-charge of Rajasthan, called his fast “anti-party”. How could a call for action against corruption in the Raje government, they asked, be called “anti-party” when the Congress in Delhi had made it a central issue on which to attack the Narendra Modi government.

The sources also asked why, given the fact that the Congress had not prevented Pilot from holding the fast, should it be called “anti-party”?

There was also talk about whether Pilot going ahead with the fast could invite action against him. The Congress had announced that Ramesh would issue a statement on the issue. However, no statement came. Pilot’s cautious remarks while ending his fast, where he steered clear of controversy, helped calm matters. The central leadership, it is learnt, wants to hear him out.

There is also speculation on whether Pilot would try to find a future outside the Congress. Rashtriya Loktantrik Party chief Hanuman Beniwal has asked Pilot to form a new party and ally with him for the elections. There is also buzz in political circles that the Aam Aadmi Party, looking to make a mark in Rajasthan, would want to have Pilot as its chief ministerial face.

Sources close to Pilot, however, reject the idea that he is leaving the Congress. They say the rumours are just because many prominent young leaders had left the Congress and Pilot is the only one remaining. They do say, though, that he is hurt by the “anti-party” tag, and has questioned why the Congress had not described Gehlot as “anti-party” for calling him names.

He may or may not leave the party, but Pilot’s latest move is a call to the central leadership to act fast and not keep him in limbo. However, as the past four years have shown, this is easier said than done.