The Congress is keeping voters in Rajasthan guessing on who will take up the party’s leadership mantle in the state, where Assembly elections are due on December 7.

Having taken a conscious decision not to declare a chief ministerial candidate, the Congress added to the suspense on Wednesday by making it known that both contenders for the top post – former chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot – will be contesting the elections.

The first announcement came, rather dramatically, from Gehlot, at a press briefing that had been called to welcome Bharatiya Janata Party MP Harish Meena into the Congress fold. Virtually declaring himself a contender for the chief minister’s post, the otherwise reticent Gehlot said, “Reports about infighting in the Congress have been in circulation for some time now.” He added, “This is a BJP conspiracy. The Congress in Rajasthan is united and both Sachin and I will contest the election unitedly.”

Pilot, who was present at the press conference and appeared taken aback by Gehlot’s announcement, endorsed his senior colleague’s statement soon after. “I will contest the Assembly elections following the directions of Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Gehlot’s request,” he told reporters. “We will work together to ensure a thumping victory for the Congress.”

Gehlot’s announcement is unusual as Congress leaders, no matter how senior, are not known to declare their own candidature for an election from the party podium. The names are either made public by the general secretary in charge of the concerned state or when the list of candidates is officially notified by the party.

Keeping them guessing

Wednesday’s announcements came in the wake of mounting pressure on the Congress by supporters of Gehlot and Pilot to project a chief ministerial candidate. However, Rahul Gandhi has desisted from announcing a name, in the belief that such a move might only lead to infighting in the state unit.

Gehlot is the sitting MLA from Sardarpura constituency in Jodhpur. The Congress had no option but to field him again as his exclusion could have led to a revolt by his supporters in the party. Pilot, on the other hand, has never contested an Assembly election. He has been a two-term Lok Sabha MP but lost to the BJP in the 2014 general elections. By announcing his candidature for the December polls, the Congress has sent out the message that the leadership question in Rajasthan is wide open.

“The idea is to create confusion among cadres and voters… to keep everyone guessing,” said a senior Congress leader who did not want to be identified. “This way, Gehlot and Pilot supporters will put their best foot forward in the election in the hope that their leader will get the coveted chief minister’s post if the Congress succeeds in defeating the Vasundhara Raje government.”

The Congress is confident about wresting the state from the BJP, given the strong anti-incumbency mood against Raje’s government.

Rahul Gandhi has chosen not to name a chief ministerial candidate in Rajasthan lest it lead to infighting in the state unit. (Credit: PTI)

Race heats up

The leadership debate is expected to heat up some more as the elections draw near. Those rooting for Pilot point out that the young leader has been working on the ground for five years, building connections with the people and support among party cadre. It was under his leadership that the party won a string of bye-elections in Alwar, Ajmer and Mandalgarh earlier this year. Moreover, he is known to be close to the Congress president.

Gehlot, on the other hand, is an old hand in the party, having served as general secretary, Central minister and chief minister of Rajasthan. Low-key and non-controversial, he is a diehard loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Not only does he come with a wealth of experience, he is also well-networked with party workers and has managed to stay connected to them despite his hectic schedule in Delhi as a key party office-bearer.

Recent months have witnessed the rise and rise of Ashok Gehlot. He worked closely with Rahul Gandhi when he was given the responsibility of guiding the party through the Gujarat Assembly election in December 2017. Though the Congress lost the elections, it made a big impact by restricting the BJP to double-digit figures.

Gehlot was subsequently appointed Congress general secretary in-charge of organisational affairs and asked to handle important assignments for the party chief. He was among the senior leaders rushed to Karnataka to discuss government formation with the Janata Dal (Secular) after the Assembly polls in May. And when party leaders Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia got into a spat over the selection of candidates in Madhya Pradesh – where elections are due on November 28 – Rahul Gandhi asked Gehlot, along with Ahmed Patel and Veerappa Moily, to sort out the matter. More recently, on November 10, Gehlot was deputed to meet Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, who is playing a pivotal role in bringing the Opposition parties on a common platform in the run-up to next year’s Lok Sabha elections.

With Gehlot emerging as a key member of Rahul Gandhi’s team, it was earlier speculated that the Congress chief would prefer to retain him in Delhi. However, the decision to field Gehlot in the Assembly elections suggests the Congress chief has kept his options open. Or rather, he has been forced to do so as it would have been a huge risk to keep Gehlot out of the race for the chief minister’s post.