As most exit polls say the Congress is likely to lose power to the BJP in Rajasthan, the Grand Old Party may have to do more than just nurse its wounds. It could actually land in the middle of a fresh round in the internal fight – Ashok Gehlot vs Sachin Pilot. This time, not over credit for a win, but over who is to blame for the loss.
If it wins – as only one prominent exit poll suggests – it will, of course, have a big victory to celebrate but also one less problem to deal with ahead of the big fight for the Lok Sabha in 2024.
The generational feud between chief minister Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot has been on relatively low flame for the weeks leading up to the polls. United for now, for the party’s cause, they appeared.
A loss is likely to change that immediately.
In fact, their feud has its roots in a loss, when the Congress hit its lowest ebb in Rajasthan – winning only 21 out of 200 seats in 2013. “Young gun” Pilot was tasked with reviving the party’s fortunes. Gehlot reportedly promised non-interference.
Yet, when the party won the 2018 election, Gehlot was made CM citing higher overall popularity and seniority.
Pilot, reportedly backed by the younger Gandhis, became his deputy and got major credit for organisational work.
To settle all ends, the party purportedly worked out a 50:50 deal – two and a half years each for Gehlot and Pilot. But Pilot and even the party were unable to make that formula happen despite attempts, as Gehlot remained the top choice of Congress MLAs.
Pilot even fashioned a rebellion in 2020, insisting that the party keep its promise of making him the CM for half the term. But his revolt ran out of steam; he lost the position of deputy and no longer remained the state party chief.
Gehlot was furious, and vocal – he called Pilot a ‘gaddar’ (traitor) then and later. The party high command, torn between two brands of loyalists – one a veteran “magician” who rose through the ranks, the other with family pedigree thanks to his late father Rajesh Pilot – let things be.
So, they coexisted under the Congress umbrella – thanks to both having direct channels with the Gandhi family.
In 2022, when the party high command sought to make Gehlot the national chief, Pilot saw an opportunity to get the Rajasthan chair. Observers saw it as a ploy by the younger Gandhis to seat a veteran Gehlot on the national chair and give Rajasthan to Pilot as promised.
But Gehlot loyalists rallied and forced the party to keep him in Rajasthan. Pilot continued to wait. Gehlot kept the chair, but apologised to Sonia Gandhi for his “predicament”.
Mallikarjun Kharge became the party chief and met both sides soon after. That’s when the Gehlot and Pilot factions seemed to have calmed down a tad, also because state elections were looming.
‘Win the election first, fight for the chair later’, it seemed.
If Gehlot now loses the overall popularity test in the assembly election, equations are likely to change. Not that one loss may dent his long career, but he might then consider a national role instead.
And if the party wins Rajasthan, then again equations might change – maybe even a bigger projection for Gehlot ahead of 2024?
It appears Gehlot may not have much to lose either way. Pilot may be eyeing another shot, but politics does not work in straight lines. He would know.