WHEN ASHOK GEHLOT made one of his rare appearances in the Rajasthan Assembly, sometime after the Congress’ defeat in the 2013 Assembly election, every single member from Jodhpur division, cutting across party lines, made a beeline for him. Among them was Manvendra Singh, then still with the BJP, for whom that image of Gehlot’s popularity remains etched in the mind.
At that time, the Congress, under Gehlot, was down to 21 seats in the 200-member Assembly, its worst-ever performance. Six months later, in 2014, the BJP—with Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate—swept the state, wiping out the Congress in the Lok Sabha election. Gehlot survived the electoral losses, being made Chief Minister again in 2018, despite the emergence of Sachin Pilot, 26 years younger than him, on Rajasthan’s political chessboard. But ever since, Pilot, who reluctantly accepted the post of Deputy Chief Minister, has resented playing second fiddle to the veteran.
The dissimilarities between the two are unmistakable. Jodhpur-born Gehlot, who was handpicked by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s as a youth helping refugees in what is now Bangladesh, rose in the party from the grassroots. Pilot, the son of late Congress leader and former Union minister Rajesh Pilot, is more of a Delhiite, having studied in the city. He emerged on the political scene after his father died in 2000 and became the youngest Member of Parliament at 26 in 2004, joining the Congress’ brigade of next-generation leaders who were nicknamed ‘babalog’. Yet, Pilot chose to leave Delhi and go to Rajasthan, politically investing in the state.
The unlikeness between Gehlot and Pilot are reflected in their equations within the party. After the 2018 state Assembly election, when Gehlot won from Sardarpura and Pilot from Tonk, both landed in the capital. While Gehlot went to Mother Teresa Crescent, where senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel resides, Pilot headed for Tughlak Road to meet Rahul Gandhi, who was then the Congress President. The numbers stacked in favour of Gehlot, who had a larger share of the MLAs’ support—as in Madhya Pradesh, where Kamal Nath was made Chief Minister, leaving Jyotiraditya Scindia disappointed.
A quintessential Congressman, always in white kurta-pyjamas, Gehlot’s grassroots experience, political acumen and backing from the Gandhi family gave him an edge over Pilot. Unassuming, in stark contrast to his rivals within the party, Pilot, and Vasundhara Raje in the opposition, Gehlot is not daunted by his origins. Rather, he revels in his humble background. A teetotaller and vegetarian, he has his last meal of the day before sunset. It is said that Gehlot had to sell his motorcycle to fight his first election in 1977 when he lost to the Janata Party’s Madhav Singh in Jodhpur’s Sardarpura Assembly seat. Later, he went on to win the seat, in the Marwar region of the Thar Desert, four times. It was in 1998, when the Congress bagged 150 of the 200 seats, that he became Chief Minister for the first time, nearly 25 years after joining the party.
With his nose to the grindstone, Gehlot proved to be an effective organisation man. As party general secretary in charge of organisation, he did well. The Congress put up a good fight on Prime Minister Modi’s home turf, Gujarat, and in Karnataka
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Like Scindia, Pilot too had nurtured hopes of getting the top job in 2018. He had put his heart and soul into ensuring the Congress won the Rajasthan Assembly election in 2018. Earlier that year, Pilot, who was Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee chief, was credited with the Congress winning the Lok Sabha bypolls from Ajmer and Alwar. The message for Pilot—from a Congress leadership struggling with naming a president after Rahul Gandhi stepped down—was to wait. Some party leaders in the state are of the view that Pilot could have been patient. He had time on his side. Gehlot is 69, and Pilot, 43.
The aftermath of Pilot’s revolt has exposed the intensity of the bitterness. For those who have known Gehlot closely, his public outbursts against Pilot have come as a surprise, negating his ‘nice guy’ image. As his mask slipped below his nose, he pulled it off his face and launched a scathing attack into the mikes thrust at him, dubbing pilot “nikamma” (worthless) and “naakara” (idle). He accused Pilot of backstabbing.
Dheeraj Srivastava, who was Principal Officer on Special Duty to Gehlot for over four years from 1999, says that it is unlike him to lash out in public. “Generally, he’s always smiling, cracking jokes and if at all he loses his cool, it’s only when he’s genuinely disturbed.” According to Srivastava, Gehlot had given him standing instructions that if ever he got angry with someone, he should reach out to that person. This strategy of bridging the gap kept everyone in good humour.
The Gandhis, each with a different worldview, appear to be caught between Gehlot and Pilot. They want to take neither the onus of pushing out the younger leader nor the chance of asking the satrap to tone down his rhetoric. While the Congress has tried to infuse fresh blood, the party has shown an increasing dependence on regional satraps—Amarinder Singh in Punjab, Gehlot in Rajasthan and Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh.
Gehlot’s attack comes at a time when the Congress leadership is trying to reach out to Pilot in an attempt to mitigate the crisis. The rebellion in the Rajasthan Congress was only a matter of time, after Madhya Pradesh, where the revolt was led by Scindia, who happens to be Raje’s nephew. It was a forewarning to the Congress in Rajasthan. While Scindia, at loggerheads with veteran Kamal Nath—again a generational struggle—moved to the BJP and managed to topple the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, Gehlot succeeded in getting the backing of 102 MLAs (including the Congress’ 87), just one more than the majority mark in the 200-member Assembly. Pilot, who initially claimed the support of 30 MLAs, finally walked away with just 18. Removed from the posts of Deputy Chief Minister and President of the party’s state unit, he has not joined the BJP, but has taken his battle to the court, challenging the disqualification of the MLAs backing him. With these MLAs disqualified, the Gehlot government would comfortably sail through in a floor test as the majority mark would come down. If not, it could have a wafer-thin majority, leaving it vulnerable in a House with 72 BJP members and 19 rebels.
The discord between the two camps has taken a nastier turn with an MLA from the Gehlot camp, Giriraj Singh Malinga, alleging that Pilot had offered him Rs 35 crore to join the BJP. Pilot has served a legal notice to Malinga for what he claims are false and malicious statements to the media.
A former Congress leader says that Pilot, also chosen by the Gandhis as party chief in Rajasthan, had started feeling increasingly isolated as Sonia Gandhi had more faith in the “old lobby” of Gehlot, Patel and other leaders. Before
Scindia, the Congress had lost its leader in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, to the BJP. He is now the party’s strategist for the entire Northeast. Former Tripura Congress chief and royal scion Kirit Pradyot Deb Barman quit the Congress and formed The Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance, aimed at ‘protecting the rights of tribal communities’ in the state. “It’s not about young versus old. It’s about relevance. Several leaders who are working on the ground outside Delhi have been overlooked,” Barman tells Open.
Gehlot’s unflinching loyalty to the Gandhi family has also paid off. Manvendra Singh, BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s son who quit the party and joined the Congress in 2018, recalls how, when he kept referring to Rahul Gandhi as “Rahul Gandhi”, Gehlot ticked him off saying that he was the party leader and should be called “Rahul Gandhiji”.
Yet, when Gehlot’s daughter got married in 2001, he had kept it a family affair and did not even invite Sonia Gandhi. He told Srivastava that no hotel room needed to be booked as he would not be inviting any VIP and there would be no extravaganza. Srivastava could not believe at first that a Chief Minister’s daughter would be married this way, but it did turn out to be a simple wedding, attended by close relatives and friends. His family did not use the official vehicle and his children were often seen taking a rickshaw. “He had such an aura that no one dared to flout his directions,” recalls Srivastava. He goes on to add: “Ashok Gehlot’s action spoke louder than his words. He believed that ‘example is better than precept’. He was not a hypocrite. When he said limited guests, he meant it. He wanted to attend to each one of them personally.”
With his nose to the grindstone, Gehlot proved to be an effective organisation man. As party general secretary in charge of organisation, one of the three crucial individuals besides the party president and Ahmed Patel, he did well. The Congress put up a good fight on Prime Minister Modi’s home turf, Gujarat, and in Karnataka.
A quintessential Congressman, Gehlot’s grassroots experience, political acumen and backing from the Gandhi family gave him an edge over Pilot. Unassuming, in stark contrast to his rivals within the party, Gehlot is not daunted by his origins. Rather, he revels in his humble background
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“Gehlot was seen as a model Congress leader who started from scratch, till he brought his son into the picture,” says Rasheed Kidwai, the author of Sonia: A Biography and 24 Akbar Road. After the 2019 Lok Sabha debacle, Rahul Gandhi had said at a meeting that some of the senior party leaders had prioritised their sons’ election. But he did not name anyone. Gehlot’s son Vaibhav, who was contesting from Jodhpur, lost to the BJP’s Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, now a Union minister and in the eye of the storm over leaked videos. Rajasthan Police’s Special Operations Group has registered two FIRs alleging conspiracy to topple the state government, following a complaint by the Congress that three audiotapes detailed the plot. Shekhawat said Gehlot was avenging his son’s defeat.
Back in Jodhpur, those who have worked with Gehlot laud his “simplicity”. Shravan Ram Patel, a PCC member of Rajasthan from Looni in Jodhpur, who has known Gehlot since 1998, says that he is the Congress’ tallest leader in the state, particularly in the rural areas: “He is accessible to everyone, big or small, and takes everyone along, cutting across caste lines.” The 2013 defeat, when the Congress won only one seat on his home turf of Jodhpur, did not dampen his spirits as he always said winning and losing were part of electoral politics. In 2018, the Congress won seven of the 10 seats in Jodhpur district.
Srivastava recalls that Gehlot made a schedule of visits to various leaders of all parties, giving top priority to Congress veterans, and made a list of their requirements. When he decided to organise a food scheme for the poor, Srivastava cautioned that people from outside may also come to get the food. “He told me that as long the food was going to the needy it was fine,” Srivastava says.
This is not the first time that Sonia Gandhi has stood by the satrap. When the party’s Jat lobby, known to have an uneasy relationship with Gehlot, sought a larger share of seats, she asked them to have faith in the panel headed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to finalise the seats. In 2013, Gehlot, who belongs to the Mali (OBC) caste, was himself worried about Jats turning against the Congress. In 2018, when the Congress fought without projecting a chief ministerial face, Gehlot was seen to be having a wider appeal compared to Pilot, a Gujjar.
The last word is perhaps yet to be said in the Rajasthan Congress. It is to be seen what tricks Gehlot, son of a magician, has up his sleeve, and what is in store for Pilot, who had pinned his hopes on a political future in the state.