Cornered Gehlot will not give in without a fight

Gehlot is on the back foot after poll debacle, but he won't give in without a fight

PTI4_16_2019_000107B Uneasy relation: Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot | PTI

SOON AFTER he was appointed chief minister of Rajasthan in December last, Ashok Gehlot held a griha pravesh puja at 8, Civil Lines, Jaipur, the official residence. The Gehlots moved into the plush bungalow only on June 6, as the intervening period was marked by hectic electioneering for the Lok Sabha polls. The homecoming, however, has been anything but happy and peaceful for the veteran politician.

Many Congress leaders are worried that the infighting would affect the preparations for the assembly byelections and the local body polls, which are scheduled to be held in November.

The Congress’s dismal show in the elections has deepened the existing divisions in the party, and Gehlot baiters have become more vocal. The party lost all 25 Lok Sabha seats in the state. What was even more embarrassing for Gehlot was his son Vaibhav’s loss in his stronghold Jodhpur. At the Congress Working Committee meeting held on May 25 in Delhi, party president Rahul Gandhi reportedly criticised three senior leaders, including Gehlot, for having put their sons before the interests of the party.

Voices seeking that accountability be fixed were also heard in Jaipur, which included ministers Udailal Anjana and Ramesh Meena. Legislator Prithviraj Meena went to the extent of seeking a change of guard. He has been issued a show-cause notice by the party leadership.

Four ministers have gone public with their complaints against the ‘high-handedness’ of the bureaucracy, a thinly veiled attack on the chief minister. “I toured seven districts during the election campaign and found that bureaucrats were not paying heed to the issues raised by the Congress workers or the people. The bureaucrats are dominating the show in the state. This should come to an end,” said Ramesh Meena.

Former director general of police Harish Meena, the Congress MLA from Dausa, has been on the warpath against the Gehlot government, criticising the law and order situation in the state. Tagging Rahul Gandhi, he tweeted that the response of the Rajasthan Police in the Thanagazi gang-rape case and to a murder in Tonk were shameful. He had earlier sat on a hunger strike against police atrocities. Gehlot holds the home portfolio.

But soon, a cornered Gehlot countered the attacks. In a television interview he said Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, who is president of Rajasthan Congress, should at least own responsibility for the loss in Jodhpur since he had guaranteed Vaibhav’s win. It was clear that the gloves are off in the intense tussle for power between the two leaders.

The genesis of the face-off between the two was Gehlot’s ascension to the top job. Pilot and his supporters felt cheated, as he had worked hard to bring the Congress back from the brink by taking up people’s issues. He was the face of the party in the assembly elections. “Pilot worked really hard,” said Rajendra Chaudhary, vice president of Rajasthan Congress. “When he was not made chief minister, the people felt cheated. The youth turned away from the party. So did the Gujjars. The change of face led to our support base getting eroded.”

Many Congress leaders are worried that the infighting would affect the preparations for the assembly byelections and the local body polls, which are scheduled to be held in November. “The party needs to form a new strategy so that the workers will get a new direction and get down to work,” said Archana Sharma, the party’s state vice president.

Those who support Gehlot have adopted a cautious approach. However, a leader close to the chief minister said that replacing him at this juncture would send a wrong message. “It will look like the party leadership is making him the scapegoat,” he said.

The Gehlot camp discounts any threat to his chair, as he enjoys the support of 12 independent MLAs. The Congress won 99 seats in the Assembly elections, and one more in a bypoll, barely making it to the majority mark in the 200-member Vidhan Sabha. Also, the Gehlot camp says, Pilot failed to win Lok Sabha seats for the party in eastern Rajasthan, his stronghold. “So fingers cannot be pointed at any one person. The entire leadership is responsible,” said a party leader.

Owing to the infighting, the government did not get the kind of start that it wanted. Despite the big-ticket schemes of waiving off farm loans and giving unemployment allowance, the regime has not been able to capture the imagination of the people. Health Minister Raghu Sharma said it would all change soon. “Governance will begin only now,” he said. “We have just come out of three months of model code of conduct. We had only made a vote on account. We will come out with our actual budget.”

On the cards are an expansion of the loan waiver scheme, a right to health bill and fulfilling a manifesto promise to medium and small scale industries of allowing new enterprises with mere self-declaration. “Twenty-one major decisions related to the welfare of the people were taken by the government within ten days of coming to power,” said Lokesh Sharma, officer on special duty in the chief minister’s office. “I believe, six months need to be given to assess the work done by the government. And, for all practical purposes, the government’s time starts now.”

Pilot, meanwhile, has begun a rural outreach. The first leg of the programme involved field visits to western Rajasthan and the areas of focus included the progress made under MNREGA and the schemes for water supply. “Rajasthan is one of the few states in the Hindi heartland where we are in power,” said Raghu Sharma. “And it affords us the opportunity to showcase our commitment to our manifesto promises.”

The tussle for power between Gehlot and Pilot, however, could throw a spanner in the works.