Sachin Pilot (left) and Ashok Gehlot: Who would be leading Congress for the November-December 2023 Rajasthan Assembly Polls? Image Credit: PTI

Ashok Gehlot, Chief Minister (CM) of the Indian state of Rajasthan, has been told “firmly” by Sonia Gandhi, the interim Congress president, that he should play ball with his bête noire Sachin Pilot (who rebelled against him) and accommodate Pilot “loyalists” in a cabinet reshuffle.

This comes after Pilot met Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi over two days while Gehlot also had meetings with Sonia Gandhi.

After dodging the accommodation of Pilot in the Rajasthan power share for nearly six months with various excuses, Gehlot is now looking at what transpired with Amarinder Singh as a “cautionary tale” as his intransigence and the Congress’s short fuse with him.

Meanwhile, Pilot has been standing his ground, watching as his loyalists are weaned away by Gehlot.

The jury is out

Will the cabinet reshuffle end the rivalry between the two Congress leaders who have been locked in a clash for years now? The jury is out on that, as Gehlot also wanted that the Congress high command (euphemism for the Gandhi family) to move Pilot out of Rajasthan.

Pilot, who has been patient all along — occasionally reminding the Gandhi family of their promise to make him the CM — has wisely decided to not move out of Rajasthan.

Pilot is believed to have conveyed this to Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and K C Venugopal, the general secretary (organisation), who also joined the meetings.

Gehlot is a firm favourite of the Gandhi family though currently he does miss having the support of late Ahmed Patel, the master strategist of the Congress party.

Both Pilot and Gehlot tried through proxies to get the other leader out of Rajasthan. For instance, Pilot put it about that Gehlot, a Dalit would make an excellent Congress president. Gehlot, in turn, wanted Pilot to take his “excellent managerial skills” to help the central organisation or become the Congress in-charge of Gujarat.

Both leaders essentially fought themselves to a standstill. So what does all this power play mean for the larger Congress and the opposition?

The main takeaways

The first big takeaway. Rajasthan is a bi-polar polity where Congress and the BJP take in turns to be in the government. But, because Vasundhara Raje Scindia, former CM of Rajasthan, is locked in a battle with central BJP and because of the endemic factions of the BJP, the Congress is hoping to defeat the Saffron party in the Rajasthan elections due in 2023.

A senior BJP leader told Gulf News, “Raje and Gehlot are on better terms, ensuring that all former CMs get official bungalows. Raje is ensuring that no other leader be groomed in the BJP as a replacement for her while throwing public tantrums.”

The other takeaway is more fundamental and applies to the Congress party across the country as it fights to keep the tag of the national opposition to the BJP. It is the fact that the Gandhis are not going to go away and will continue to call the shots in the Congress party.

This realisation seems to have sunk in across the board in the Congress, including the leaders of the rebel group — G23. The Gandhi family cracking the whip and ousting Amarinder Singh as the Punjab CM seems to have gotten the message across.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s absolute control of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh — the country’s most important political state with 80 Lok Sabha seats — is indicative of that.

The Congress is unlikely to perform well in the UP contest, which is barely four months away but Gandhi is grabbing the eyeballs with political optics signalling that the party is here to stay for the longer run.

Writing on the wall

The third takeaway is that the Congress party seems to have ensured a pretty messy iteration of a generational change in the party — the Congress’s version of the BJP’s Margdarshak mandal — an old age home. Unlike the BJP, Congress has no fixed retirement age of 75 but, older leaders in the party can see the writing on the wall.

The coup against Amarinder Singh asserted both the authority of the Gandhi family and the fact that the party was undergoing a generational handover from Sonia Gandhi to her two children.

Adds a Congress leader, “we will not have to live a life without the Gandhi family. Now that they have asserted their authority, let them also win elections for us”.

This clearly is the missing link in the Gandhi portfolio if they want to give a serious challenge to the BJP. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have never convincingly won an election for the Congress. This ensures that the other opposition parties don’t take them seriously.

For the Congress to matter, an ideological focus as demanded by Rahul Gandhi is fine but a political party exists to win power in a democracy. This is still a question mark around the Gandhi-led Congress 2.0.