“Ashok ji ko 100 se zyada speed mein gadi chalana pasand nahi hai,” said a close confidante of Ashok Gehlot as results of the last assembly polls in Rajasthan started pouring in. Just one short of 100, the half way mark in the state assembly, Gehlot was back in the driver’s seat for the third time.
And every time he has taken oath as CM, Gehlot had managed to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. In 1998, he trounced the Jat strongman from Jodhpur, Paras Ram Maderna, with a little help from the central observer and former LS speaker Balram Jakhar. It was obvious a section of the local Jat leadership backed Gehlot, the then Pradesh Congress President to thwart Maderna’s prospects.
In 2008, Gehlot’s closest challenger was CP Joshi. Considered a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, Joshi lost his own seat and chief ministership by a single vote. He is now the speaker of the state assembly.
In his third innings, Gehlot had a shaky start. He was up against a young and tenacious Sachin Pilot. As Pradesh Congress Chief, Pilot had built his own team of loyalists and pushed their nomination in Central Elections Committee meetings.
Congress’ list for Rajasthan was delayed by almost a week in November, 2018. The bone of contention remained Sardarpura seat in Jodhpur held by Gehlot for more than two decades.
Pilot group demanded the prime contenders for CM’s post- Gehlot and Pilot- should not contest elections and focus on campaign instead. Gehlot, who was then general secretary organisation at the AICC, prevailed to retain his ticket from Sardarpura. Pilot got a nomination from Tonk.
So the battle lines between Gehlot and Pilot were already drawn even before the first vote for the Rajasthan assembly polls was cast.
In an interaction with this reporter before the counting on votes, the generally under-stated Gehlot was candid on his claim for the chief ministership.
“Jab Sachinji PCC president bane woh mujhse milne aye. Unko maine ye baat kahi thi aap is bare mein dhyaan rakhna ki PCC president bante hi kuch log CM bana dete hain (When Sachin Pilot became the PCC president, he came to meet me. I asked him to be cautious of friends who make the PCC president chief minister in waiting),” Gehlot said pulling at the cuff of his white kurta.
With 99 on the scoreboard for Congress in the elections, it was advantage Gehlot when it came to picking CM in the legislature party meeting. Congress needed a few more to make up for the numbers and a seasoned hand to run a government resting on a wafer this majority.
In a truce struck after a hard bargain, Pilot became the deputy chief minister and retained the PCC president’s post. Gehlot was sworn in the state chief minister for the third time: the fourth politician to achieve this feat in Rajasthan after Mohan Lal Sukhadia, Hardev Joshi and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.
The rapprochement between warring factions remained tenuous. After presenting his first budget last year, Gehlot reiterated that “people wanted him to be the chief minister”. Gehlot underscored that the last elections were won and contested in his name and face, and hence, he should continue to lead the government for its full five-year term.
“Respecting sentiments of the people, Rahul Gandhi as Congress president gave me this opportunity to work,” he added.
Pilot also did not shy away from criticising his own government. He sought accountability after reports of high infant mortality in a hospital in Kota hit media headlines.
The drubbing in 2019 general elections, especially in the three states which Congress had won just ahead of general elections were an embarrassment for both Gehlot and Kamal Nath. Gehlot’s son’s loss from Jodhpur put a question mark on the premise over which the veteran leader was chosen to lead the state: delivery in Lok Sabha polls.
Post the debacle, and quite unlike Kamal Nath, Gehlot was quick to grasp the danger to his leadership- both from within and outside.
Scindia’s successful revolt in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh was a warning sign. The dress rehearsal for the show of strength happened during Rajya Sabha polls. MLAs were taken to safe houses to ‘prevent horse-trading’, Gehlot alleged.
In the last one month, his supporters have been seeking appointment of a new PCC President, invoking ‘one man- one post’ principle. A Gehlot aide, cabinet minister Harish Choudhary, camped in Delhi for a few days to apprise central leadership of the demand.
Amidst the wrangling, Gehlot at the first sniff of dissidence decided to throw the gauntlet. Special Operations Group of Rajasthan made arrests and send notice to Pilot and Gehlot over allegations of alleged horse trading to topple the government. A cornered Pilot was forced to strike back.
The crisis was also an opportunity for Ashok Gehlot to call for a show of strength and demonstrate his support base in the Congress Legislature Party and in the assembly.
On Saturday he was asked to respond to Pilot’s claim on CM’s post. “There are 5-6 people in our party who have the ability to become Chief Minister. But once the CM has been decided, we all work together,” Gehlot responded.
Around 48 hours later, amid claims and counter-claims, he buttressed his claim by parading 107 MLAs in Jaipur and whisked them away to a safe-location.
Pilot continues to dig in his heels despite attempts by Congress leadership to placate the dissident groups.