In Rajasthan today, the political talk is not so much about which party will win the December 7 Assembly election, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress. Instead, the discussions revolve around who will be the next chief minister, Sachin Pilot or Ashok Gehlot?

At a public meeting last week in Jodhpur – considered Gehlot’s stronghold and encompassing his Sardarpura constituency – Congress president Rahul Gandhi mentioned Pilot three times before taking the former chief minister’s name while talking about their work. Many in the audience noted this and commented on it afterwards.

As I travelled from Jodhpur towards Jaipur, talking at random to people in small towns, villages, wayside halts, there was a preference for Gehlot in the Jodhpur area, with a villager in Pali even calling him “Rajasthan’s Gandhi”. But Pilot emerged the favourite as I entered Ajmer, Dausa or Tonk, from where he is contesting. The youth were rooting for him, as were women.

Gehlot’s supporters spoke of his “clean image” despite serving two terms as chief minister, his “development work” and the free medicines scheme which was stopped by his successor Vasundhara Raje. Above all, they said, he was humble and “milansaar”, or affable, standing with people in their good and bad times, unlike Raje who has been “inaccessible to the people”.

But Gehlot lost the 2003 and 2013 elections in spite of overseeing all this work, I pointed out to a group of Congress supporters. So, why were they rooting for him to get another term as chief minister? “There is sympathy for Gehlot because this will be his last stint,” one of them replied.

A member of another group of older men remarked, “In Rajasthan, it is we [older people] who decide. Young people and women do as we tell them to.”

Rajasthan is still a deeply feudal society. Ask a rural women how many children she has and she is likely to count her boys. What bout her girls? “Woh toh larhkiyan hain,” is the common refrain. But they are only girls.

In Tonk, two teenage girls interjected one such conversation, “Larhkiyaon ke saath bhed bhaav hota hai na.” Girls are discriminated against, they remarked. That they could express this sentiment in front of older woman – and were in school – indicated that the winds of change are blowing in Rajasthan.

It is in this backdrop that Pilot has come to represent new energy in the Congress. The party’s supporters want him to take charge because they see him as being more likely to “deliver”. As a middle-aged woman waiting at a bus stop in Sawai Madhopur put it, “Pilot is young, hard-working and represents shakti. And shakti is bhakti today.”

For many supporters of the party, though, Gehlot and Pilot are “both alright” since “both are from the Congress”.

It’s advantage Congress

The BJP has sought to project the Gehlot versus Pilot tussle as factionalism in the Congress. But the more discerning voter sees it as being advantageous to the Congress: the party has two leaders to choose from whereas the BJP is “stuck with Raje”, with even Narendra Modi and Amit Shah seeming unable to replace her.

Over the past month, even the BJP’s supporters have come to believe that the Congress will form the next government in Rajasthan. But the ruling party is still hoping that the “mess up” in ticket distribution would cost the Congress 10-15 seats – in Bikaner, Kishangarh – it might otherwise have won, making it a closer contest than is widely expected. Some in the BJP are also banking on Shah’s organisational nous to narrow the gap in the last few days leading up to the election. Then, Modi is set to address a series of rallies to give the BJP a final boost, as he did in Gujarat late last year. All of this, it is argued, could propel the BJP to securing around 90 of the 200 seats, putting it in a position to cobble together a government with independent legislators.

On the ground, though, it appears a tall order for the ruling party. Such is the anger against Raje that a group of young men sitting at a tea shop in Jodhpur – all self-confessed “Modi bhakts” – said they “would not mind the Congress coming to power” if it meant getting rid of Raje.

So, the contest for the top job is apparently down to Gehlot and Pilot. Who will it be come December 11?

Gehlot and Pilot are both contesting the election. It’s said Gandhi wanted neither to stand but once Gehlot decided he would contest, the Congress chief asked Pilot to join the fray to project unity and even handedness in the party. Both Gehlot and Pilot are being politically correct when they say the new Congress legislators will decide the leader. By not declaring the party’s chief ministerial candidate in Rajasthan – or for that matter in other states going to the polls – Gandhi has ensured a semblance of unity.

Experience versus youth

Working in Gehlot’s favour is his vast experience. He is regarded well by Rajasthan’s people, and is backed by the Congress’s old guard, who have accepted Gandhi’s leadership just as he has come to terms with them. The former chief minister’s supporters argue that his experience will come in handy in maximising the Congress’s tally in Rajasthan in the 2019 general election.

On the other side, Pilot has worked hard to revive the party in Rajasthan after it was reduced to 21 seats in 2013 and virtually written off. He shifted base to Jaipur from Delhi after taking over as the state Congress chief, and has clocked 5 lakh km over the last four and a half years, visiting every Assembly constituency at least three times. He can also take some credit for the public anger against Raje. He set about cornering her from day one, whether it was over the review of the rural employment guarantee scheme, the proposed bill to gag the media, or her proximity to the fugitive former cricket administrator Lalit Modi.

Indeed, Pilot’s effort is being held up as the model for the Congress to revive itself nationally.

If despite all his work and success, Pilot is denied the top job in favour of an “older leader”, some Congress supporters ask, what’s the incentive for young members to put in their all to rebuild the party?

As Pilot drove along the dusty roads of Tonk, villagers showered his car with rose petals. “A wave for change?” I asked. His reply was quick, “The result of hard work.”

In the end, if the Congress wins Rajasthan, the leadership tussle will likely be settled by what the high command and the new legislators want, and even the party’s overall performance in other state elections. If the Congress also wins Madhya Pradesh and installs Kamal Nath as the chief ministers, then Pilot’s chances would improve since Gandhi may opt for a mix of the “old and the young”.

Then again, the quiet but politically savvy Gehlot has been at Rahul’s elbow for the past year, strategising for the Congress in Gujarat and Karnataka.

But whoever is chosen for the top job, neither is expected to rock the boat. Their feelings about each other notwithstanding – and despite tussling over the distribution of tickets – both Gehlot and Pilot have moved with finesse, presenting a united front during the campaign.