Rahul Gandhi has a severe headache building up in Rajasthan. It is called Ashok Gehlot.
The headache that has erupted in Rajasthan is a symptom of the deeper maladies in the party — that of raging ambitions, envy and rivalries. Unless Rahul finds a cure for it, the Congress would struggle in the state Assembly elections scheduled in December.
The malaise within the party came out in the open last week when Gehlot uncharacteristically voiced his ambition and desperation in front of the media in Sikar, around 120 km from Jaipur. Gehlot is known for weighing every word a dozen times and then again. His style of politics makes him ponder the “message” that would go out with every line he speaks in public. (His favourite political line is: ‘Isse message theek nahin jayega.’) So, it was indeed a watershed moment in his politics when, at Sikar, he said that people appointed as presidents of the state unit of the Congress (PCC) start thinking of themselves as future CMs. “They start believing the media spin and start building castles in the air,” he said.
Ghelot’s “message” basically meant this: He feels the current PCC president Sachin Pilot visions himself as future chief minister of Rajasthan. He, according to Gehlot’s theory, is building castles in the air that would come crashing down.
The venue and timing of Gehlot’s message is significant. Campaigning for Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha and Mandalgarh Vidhan Sabha seats, where by-polls are to be held on 29 January, is currently on. Ideally, Gehlot should have been in either of these constituencies, campaigning for the party. But, he chose to address the media in far away Sikar, subtly underlining the ”message” he is not part of the electoral battle.
In the past too, Gehlot has attacked the PCC chief. After the party lost an assembly by-election in Dholpur, he decided to address the media in Ajmer, Pilot’s constituency, to argue the Congress lost because of shortcomings in the organisation. Gehlot’s another favourite line has been the reminder that he became the chief minister (2008-2013 and 1998-2003) 14 years after becoming the PCC chief, thus, signalling to Pilot that precedence suggests a long incubation period. That PCC chiefs have to wait was his argument even after the Gujarat results when he told a TV channel that young leaders should learn from his own history and not be too ambitious.
The problem with Gehlot is that he is like a banyan tree that has not allowed anybody else to prosper in the Congress over the past two decades. With his round-the-clock art of ”breathing, eating, sleeping politics” he has constantly controlled the state Congress through his minions and friends in media. All this has helped him sustain his aura and create the perception that ‘Gehlot is Congress and Congress is Gehlot’ in Rajasthan.
Two resounding defeats, each bigger than the other, have not curtailed his ambition.
In 2013, when he led the Congress to an all-time low of 21 seats in the 200-member assembly, Gehlot should have ideally made way for new leaders and started a margdarshak mandal in Rajasthan. But, he never ruled himself out of the race.
So far, the Congress high command has done everything possible to both keep him out of Rajasthan and retain honour and dignity. After the Assembly debacle, Rahul gave Pilot the licence to run Rajasthan Congress, signalling a generational change. Simultaneously, it gave Gehlot the charge of electorally-significant states like Gujarat. But, like a bee that keeps returning to its favourite garden, Gehlot always comes back to Rajasthan, buzzing with ambition.
To his credit, Gehlot is indeed the most popular Congress leader. But this is primarily because of two terms as chief minister and two decades of tight grip over the state organisation and access to Sonia Gandhi and her coterie. His network in the state is so well entrenched that it is often said Gehlot knows at least five persons in every village by name. Also, whether he can win an election for the Congress on his own may be doubtful but there is not an iota of doubt over his ability to harm the party with his sleeper cells and grip over Mali (a powerful OBC group) votes. All this makes him both an asset and a liability, the proverbial albatross around Gandhi’s neck.
Gehlot has the potential to become, both, Captain Amarinder Singh and Shankersinh Vaghela, of Rajasthan. If he continues to flex his muscles, Rahul could anoint him as the face of the Congress fearing backlash, or, alternately, the Congress president can stare him back in the eye and not give in to the pressures.
What Rahul can’t do can be best narrated through an anecdote.
Two years ago, the then Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma had approached Rahul with his grievances and ambitions. Rahul, as Sarma claims, did not pay any attention. Instead of listening to Sarma, he kept playing with his pet Piddi. Incensed by the “humiliation”, Sarma walked out of the Congress and plotted its downfall in the northeast.
Gehlot’s ambition and desperation may soon get him an invitation from Gandhi. Considering Gehlot’s experience, networking skills and potential for sabotage, the Congress president would be advised to keep Piddi away while dealing with the developing headache in Rajasthan.
The dog-eat-dog politics in Rajasthan Congress deserves immediate and undivided attention.
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