On the face of it, the photograph that Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted of himself on Friday, flanked by party veteran Ashok Gehlot and the younger Sachin Pilot showed a happy trio. It was captioned “The united colours of Rajasthan”.

But the truth is that despite appearing triumphant, all three lost out during last week’s prolonged deliberations to pick the next chief minister of Rajasthan after the Congress wrested the state from the Bharatiya Janata Party on December 11. Gandhi failed to display decisive leadership, Gehlot was chosen for the chief minister’s chair but was forced to accept Pilot as his deputy, and Pilot was given the post only after taking on the party leadership.

After consolidating his position in the Congress with victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh within a year of taking over as party president, Gandhi had the opportunity to demonstrate decisive leadership in the appointment of chief ministers in the three Hindi heartland states. While Kamal Nath’s elevation as Madhya Pradesh chief minister was a relatively easy matter, the three-day delay in the announcement of Gehlot as Rajasthan chief minister and state unit president Sachin Pilot as his deputy on Friday dimmed Gandhi’s freshly-acquired aura. The Congress’ announcement on Sunday that Bhupesh Baghel would be chief minister of Chhattisgarh also came after considerable deliberation and delay.

Once the newly-elected legislators in Rajasthan adopted the usual one-line resolution leaving the chief minister’s choice to the Congress president, it was expected that Gandhi would move swiftly to make the necessary announcement to send out a clear and unequivocal message that he is in control. But by dithering over it, he missed the opportunity to do so.

Open protests by supporters of Gehlot and Pilot to build pressure on the Congress leadership showed that the display of unity in the run-up to the elections on December 7 was, at best, a façade and that the tussle between the old guard and the next generation of leaders is far from over. The split in the Congress’ Rajasthan unit was wide open and on full public display for the three days that Gandhi spent in consultations before making the final announcement. The decision to name Pilot as deputy chief minister gave the distinct impression that instead of standing firm, Gandhi had succumbed to pressure.

It also gave the Congress’ political rivals an opportunity to point out gleefully that if Gandhi was unable to manage his party, how could he be entrusted with the responsibility of running the country.

Gehlot’s win?

On the face of it, 67-year-old Gehlot scored a big victory by pipping the 41-year-old Pilot to the post. But in reality, it cannot be termed an unconditional win. Though he was never in favour of having Pilot as his deputy, Gehlot was unable to have his way when the younger leader refused to back down.

The proposal to appoint Pilot deputy chief minister was mooted shortly after the election results were declared on December 11, but Gehlot objected to it then. He argued that this was against Congress culture and that such compromises were made only in a coalition government when allies had to be accommodated. In this case, it would lead to unnecessary bickering and impede governance, he pointed out.

Though he eventually lost out on this front, Gehlot can draw solace from the fact that the party leadership conceded the top job to him. His loyalty, administrative capabilities and ability to manage crisis situations placed him ahead of Pilot. Above all, it was important to have an experienced person at the helm when the land deals of Robert Vadra, Priyanka Gandhi’s husband, are under the scanner in Rajasthan.

Pilot’s defiance

As far as Pilot is concerned, he has undoubtedly won this round but he may end up blotting his copybook in the long run. The manner in which he dug in his heels – sending a signal to his supporters to take to the streets – and refused to accept the Congress leadership’s decision will not be forgotten in a hurry. In a party that values loyalty and subservience, such displays of defiance are an absolute no-no.

There is all-round agreement that Pilot had a point when he argued that he deserved to be rewarded, as he had worked tirelessly for five years to resurrect the party in the state after it had been reduced to a mere 21 seats in the 200-member Assembly in the 2013 elections. He set up camp in Jaipur after his appointment as Rajasthan Congress chief in January 2014 and emerged as the party’s face in the state.

But the cardinal principle in the Congress is that the final word rests with the leader and it is expected that this be accepted unquestioningly. “In the Congress, you do not demand a post,” said a senior party leader, summing up Congress culture. “You manoeuvre and manipulate and place yourself in such a position that you emerge as the inevitable choice.”