Sachin Pilot is the latest Rajasthan Congress President, wielding substantial power, who has been cut to size after his rivalry with Ashok Gehlot, three-time Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Pilot’s fall from grace is similar to the story of other powerful Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chiefs who were sidelined in the party after a tussle with Gehlot.
The wily 69-year-old Gehlot, known for his Gandhian style of politics, has remained the tallest Congress leader in Rajasthan in the last three decades with his shrewd brand of politics and capability of silently piping his party rivals without outrightly opposing anyone.
Gehlot has survived rivals and internal conflict in the past where he has scored over the likes of other stalwart Congress leaders such as Parasram Maderna and CP Joshi.
Back In 1998, the Congress was led into the elections by Parasram Maderna, a powerful Jat leader from Rajasthan with a consolidated vote base of voters from his community.
When the results of the elections came in, the Congress won a landslide victory by winning 153 seats and decimating the BJP under Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a feat which was filled by the fact that the Jat community voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Grand Old Party, believing Maderna, who was the face of the campaign, will become the Chief Minister.
But at the end, the top post went to Gehlot, who at that time headed the party in the state and was also an MP from Jodhpur. Despite not contesting the 1998 Assembly elections, Gehlot, who shared a good rapport with Sonia Gandhi, was made the Chief Minister while Maderna had to be content with the post of the Assembly Speaker.
Gehlot, who comes from the Mali community, which has negligible clout when it comes to the caste-driven electoral politics of Rajasthan, had back then stunned everyone with his coup by outsmarting Maderna, who not only came from a dominant caste such as the Jats but also is regarded as Gehlot’s mentor.
More than a decade later, in 2011, Mahipal, the son of Maderna who was also a minister in the Gehlot government of 2008-2013 was arrested after his alleged involvement in the Bhanwari Devi murder case. He remains in jail as the case is sub-judice.
Prior to Pilot, the last noteworthy Congress leader to challenge Gehlot for supremacy in Rajasthan was CP Joshi, the current Speaker of the Rajasthan Assembly, and ironically the person to whom the Congress has submitted petitions asking for the disqualification of Pilot and his loyalist MLAs.
Joshi, a former protege of Gehlot and who had been an MLA in the Congress multiple times, emerged a separate power centre inside the state Congress during his tenure as the president of the PCC before the 2008 Assembly elections.
Joshi, who is a leader from the Mewar region of the state is known to be temperamental with poor interpersonal skills but has a strong grasp of the desert state’s politics.
He was the face of the Congress at the time when Gehlot’s government had suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Vasundhara Raje in 2003 and many Congress leaders felt that Joshi would become the Chief Minister after leading the party to victory in the 2008 elections.
In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, it was discovered that even though the Congress emerged as the single largest party, Joshi had lost from his Assembly constituency of Nathdwara by just one vote.
That ended his ambitions of becoming the Chief Minister as Gehlot stitched together the numbers required to form the government with the help of BSP MLAs, all of whom later joined Congress.
Joshi, who had challenged the election results in his constituency, got some solace a few years later when the Rajasthan High Court declared the election void, but by then Gehlot was firmly established as the Chief Minister.
When Pilot took on the reins of the Congress in January 2014, the party was reduced to just 21 seats in the Assembly after the defeat.
Ambitious and suave in his presentation, Pilot became the face of the Congress in Rajasthan, holding dharnas, demonstrations and playing the role of opposition to the Vasundhara Raje government, while Gehlot stayed away.
However, the three-time Chief Minister, who was holding the important post of Congress’ organisational General Secretary at the Centre, became active in state affairs from around a year before the 2018 Assembly elections, which started ringing alarm bells within the Pilot camp.
The clout of Gehlot was apparent in the candidate list of the Congress for the Assembly elections when most of his loyalists were accommodated. It was also seen after the results were announced that several Gehlot supporters who were denied tickets by the party had defeated the candidates fielded by the Pilot faction, contesting as independents, giving Gehlot the edge as most of these independents supported his candidature for the top post.
Finally, after four days of deliberations by the party high command following the election results, Pilot was made the Deputy CM and asked to continue as PCC chief in Rajasthan. Whereas Gehlot, born into a family of professional magicians with four decades of political experience on his side, was preferred for the chief minister’s post over Pilot.
In the last few months many people in the party, especially those from the Gehlot camp had shown their dissatisfaction over Pilot holding deputy CM and PCC chief posts, which resulted in increased friction between the two, finally culminating in Pilot’s ouster from two key posts.
Another major rift between the two leaders came out in public after the 2019 General Elections when Congress lost all 25 MP seats in Lok Sabha polls. The MLAs then close to Sachin Pilot doubted the popularity of Ashok Gehlot, the reason he was preferred over Pilot for the post of Chief Minister. “In 2019, he had asked the party high command to give him the chief minister post. But his request was declined and he was asked to continue as the Congress party chief in the state,” a former cabinet minister close to Pilot told Outlook.
After Pilot did not show up at the Congress Legislature Party meeting, he was removed from the post of Rajasthan Pradesh Congress committee chief and ministerial posts amidst the growing political crisis in the state. Besides Pilot, two of his close aides were also removed from their posts.