When the Congress defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party in the North Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in 2018, an internal conflict within the older party became clear for all to see.
In both states there was one leader who represented the traditional Congress approach of maintaining deep connections to lawmakers across party lines. This old-style leader was arrayed against a younger politician from a political dynasty who demanded a slice of power on the basis of their relationship with the high command in Delhi.
In Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiradtiya Scindia – the dynast – eventually rebelled. Earlier this year, he defected to the BJP, bringing down Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s government. In Rajasthan, it seemed as if such a situation had been avoided by making the younger Sachin Pilot deputy chief minister. The more experienced Ashok Gehlot took the top spot.
Despite that deal, the conflict between the two men has thrown the state Congress into a crisis this week. Sachin Pilot appears to be leading a breakaway faction of lawmakers unhappy with having to work under Gehlot.
There are, however, some major differences between what happened in Madhya Pradesh and what is now taking place in Rajasthan.
Here is what we know.
What did Sachin Pilot do?
On Sunday, the deputy chief minister of Rajasthan made his way to Delhi with a number of state lawmakers loyal to him, sparking rumours that he was considering moving to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Those rumours became public on Saturday when Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot accused the BJP of trying to overthrow his government by offering Congress lawmakers bribes. The BJP denied any involvement.
Pilot’s decision to go to Delhi and those rumours prompted a number of senior Congress leaders to tweet their concerns about the party potentially losing another talent, as it had when Jyotiradtiya Scindia defected to the BJP.
By Sunday evening, Pilot’s position was made clear when Lokendra Singh, who manages his media relations, put out this statement:
“Rajasthan Deputy CM & Congress leader Sachin Pilot not to attend Congress Legislature Party meeting scheduled to be held on Monday. Mr Pilot says Ashok Gehlot Govt in minority after over 30 Congress and some independent MLAs have pledged support to Sachin Pilot.”
While the statement clarified Pilot’s stance, the claim of having 30 Congress and some independent MLAs seemed to rest on shakier ground. Some of those who were in Delhi said they had only paid a routine visit to Pilot and that they are “Congress soldiers”.
What was the trigger?
In June, as elections were being held to the Rajya Sabha, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot gathered Congress MLAs at a resort for several days, citing attempts by the BJP to poach lawmakers. Even at the time, there were murmurs that there had not actually been any concerted effort by the BJP to topple Gehlot’s government, unlike the situation in Madhya Pradesh earlier this year or Karnataka. Instead, some said, he was merely trying to shore up his support within the Rajasthan Congress.
At the time, news emerged that the Rajasthan Police’s Special Operations Group was investigating the alleged attempts to destabilise the government.
The police eventually sent a notice to Sachin Pilot requesting an appointment to question him in connection with the arrest of two people for allegedly attempting to topple the government. The First Information Report in that case has references to the deputy chief minister’s involvement in the alleged conspiracy.
Although a similar notice was also sent to Gehlot, the fact that the chief minister also holds the home ministry portfolio led to the impression that this was another attempt by the old Congress leader to cut his younger colleague down to size.
Can Pilot do what Scindia did in Madhya Pradesh?
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress had a wafer-thin majority following its victory in the 2018 elections. The Rajasthan result was significantly different. The assembly has 200 seats, meaning a party or coalition needs the support of 101 MLAs for a majority.
The Congress has 107 seats itself, though six of those are Bahujan Samaj Party MLAs whom Gehlot brought into the party after winning the election. It also has the support of 13 independents, many of whom are Congress rebels. Rumours around the time of the state election suggested that Gehlot had pushed these Congress rebels to contest from outside the party to secure his position over Pilot.
The Rashtriya Lok Dal’s only lawmaker in the state is in Gehlot’s government. Neither of the Bharatiya Tribal Party, with two MLAs or the Communist Party of India Marxist, also with two MLAs, are likely to support a BJP attempt to gain a majority.
The BJP has 72 lawmakers. Its ally, the Rashtrya Loktantrik Party, holds three.
This means that Sachin Pilot would need as many as 30 MLAs to exit the Congress along with him if he is to actually threaten Gehlot’s government. Anything less would simply be a rebellion, without endangering the government.
That may explain why the statement put out by Pilot’s camp specifically says 30 Congress MLAs. But there is no certainty that he actually has the support of as many legislators.
How else is this different from Madhya Pradesh?
Scindia and Pilot were often spoken of in the same breath, since both were dynasts unhappy at having to play second fiddle in a Congress government. Both are well-connected in the national media, and so may have a higher profile in the English press than they do in their states. But Pilot – who had been head of the Rajasthan Congress since 2014 – was more embedded in his state unit than was Scindia, whose popularity is inexorably connected to his royal status.
A key source of Gehlot’s unhappiness was, in fact, that Pilot remained the Congress state president despite also holding the deputy chief minister position. Pilot, meanwhile, chafed at having to answer to Gehlot. Reports suggested that he struggled to get his way even in the ministerial portfolios that he held.
One theory is that this whole sequence of events, beginning with the Rajya Sabha resort politics, is an attempt by Gehlot to force Pilot out. This is seen as part of Gehlot’s effort to build a higher profile for his own son, Vaibhav Gehlot, despite his loss in the Lok Sabha elections.
In this reading, Gehlot saw during the Rajya Sabha polls that his own position was stable, since the Congress actually earned votes disproportionately higher than the number of MLAs it had in the house. But he also knew that over time that Pilot would demand more power and the High Command would want to transition to the younger leader. Instead, Gehlot has now forced Pilot’s hand.
Where do things stand?
The Congress national leadership got into the fray on Monday, even as Gehlot displayed what his camp said were “over 100 legislators” at his residence. With Pilot not in attendance, the Congress Legislative Party in the state then passed a resolution supporting the Gehlot government and calling for action against those involved in anti-party activities. After this, Gehlot moved his legislators to a hotel.
Meawhile, Congress leaders attempted to reach out to Pilot, saying they were willing to listen to his concerns, though reports suggest he has refused to negotiate so far. His camp put out a video showing 16 MLAs on Monday evening, as if to suggest a show of strength, though that would not be sufficient to bring down the government. Pilot’s supporters have referred to working under Gehlot as “slavery”.
The BJP has mostly watched from the sidelines, though the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department – frequently used as political tools by the Centre – raided several properties owned by Gehlot associates.
The situation remains at the negotiation stage, with no major demand for a vote in the Rajasthan Assembly to prove numbers on either side. The Congress leadership has sided with Gehlot, but without condeming Pilot, presumably in the hope of a rapprochement.
Pilot could accept a renegotiated set-up within the state – including a Cabinet reshuffle with better portfolios for MLAs loyal to him – or walk out of the party. In that case, he could either join the Opposition BJP or set out on his own to form a third front.
The Rajasthan Congress has called another Congress Legislative Party meeting on Tuesday, though it is unclear if there will be any concrete development. With Pilot digging in his heels, the crisis may not be resolved anytime soon.