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The Big Story: Sliding doors

India has now registered more than 1 million total Covid-19 cases, even though authorities still claim there is no community transmission in the country. But the massive struggle involved in handling a pandemic, a migrant crisis and a resultant economic crash has not stopped Indian politicians from playing power games.

Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen a change of guard in Madhya Pradesh (Congress government toppled by the Bharatiya Janata Party), turmoil in Maharashtra (BJP trying to unsettle the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress coalition), frantic negotiation in Manipur (Congress attempting to displace the BJP-led coalition) and now Rajasthan.

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot last week removed Sachin Pilot as deputy chief minister after first accusing the BJP of trying to poach Members of Legislative Assembly from his campaign and then having the Rajasthan Police send a summons to his deputy as a part of the investigation into this alleged conspiracy.

Read our explainer on how things first unfolded last week here. We also covered the subject on the Friday Links edition of the newsletter.

This is where things stand as of Monday morning:

The Rajasthan High Court is still hearing a challenge by Pilot and 18 MLAs in his camp against disqualification notices sent by the Speaker of the Assembly. Pilot and his camp have until Tuesday to reply to the Speaker, while arguments in court continue.

If Pilot and the other MLAs are disqualified, it will bring the strength of the Assembly down considerably, which should leave Gehlot on safe territory. If they aren’t, the numbers will be much closer, giving Pilot a chance to knock off Gehlot’s crown.

As everyone awaits the fate of the Rajasthan government, a whole other cottage industry is seeing plenty of activity (quite unlike the actual economy): Advice-to-Congress OpEds, matched only by advice-to-Congress tweets.

Take Ashutosh or Mani Shankar Aiyar or Meghnad Desai or Rakesh Sinha or Shobhaa De, the last of whom calls Pilot “Ashok Gehlot’s Walkie-Talkie doll.”

Although some of the many pieces written about the issue are nuanced, most take one of two mutually incompatible perspectives:

Perspective 1: Congress losing its talent

This approach sees Pilot’s rebellion as being in the same vein as fellow dynast Jyotiraditya Scindia’s decision to jump ship to the BJP in March, bringing down the Madhya Pradesh government in the process.

Because of their popularity, especially in the English media, Scindia and Pilot were both well-known in Delhi and Mumbai, far beyond the states they contested from, and often seen as future leaders in the party.

This view considers Pilot and Scindia as talents that the party should not have lost, and lays the blame for the crises caused by their rebellions squarely on the Congress High Command, meaning President Sonia Gandhi and former President Rahul Gandhi, her son.

“Sachin Pilot should have left the Congress long ago – for his long-term political growth – not because of his rivalry with Gehlot, but because of the top leadership of the Congress which is selfish, directionless, insecure and over-controlling,” writes The Print’s Ruhi Tewari.

The unhappiness with the Gandhis is not unique to this perspective.

What is specific, however, is the argument that the Congress should have found a way to retain these two young politicians and that the choice of old-guard leaders like Gehlot in Rajasthan and Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh as chief minister was itself an error of judgment.

“The more the electoral prospect of the party dwindles,” writes political analyst Sajjan Kumar, “the worse has been the record of the inner circle and the Gandhis in consistently alienating and humiliating the charismatic and capable younger leaders.”

Perspective 2: Scindia and Pilot are media products

On the other side are those – including the Rajasthan Chief Minister – who believe that the two dynasts were oversold by the media but ended up under-performing.

Scindia lost his Lok Sabha seat to the BJP candidate in 2019. And as state unit president, Pilot, despite Rajasthan being a state that generally see-saws between the two parties, only managed to earn a very slim majority for the Congress in terms of seats in 2018, before Gehlot brought a number of independents and other MLAs into the fold.

This view argues that Ashok Gehlot had made his move, steadily talking up the question of horse-trading by the BJP and eventually applying just enough pressure to force Pilot out, without taking too many MLAs with him.

“Ashok Gehlot has exposed how Pilot had been holding the Congress party to ransom without even having the bargaining power to do so. Unlike his friends in the Delhi media who bought his tall claims, the Congress party knew his strength or the lack of it – a mere 15 MLAs,” writes Shivam Vij.

A related question: With one report claiming that Pilot was originally planning to rebel on the same day as Scindia, what use is a Congressman if he could just as easily become a member of the BJP?

Though Pilot has claimed all along that he doesn’t plan to go to the BJP, his rebellion involved taking his MLAs to BJP-ruled Haryana and engaging Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi, both lawyers who are associated with the BJP.

“That so many journalists and anchors saw Pilot’s possible defection to the BJP as an example of a talented young politician being forced to make a career move was interesting in itself,” wrote Mukul Kesavan. “It suggested that Hindutva had come to define India’s body politic so completely that the idea that the BJP’s violent majoritarianism might give a discontented Congress grandee pause was naïve.”

There is criticism of the Gandhi family here too, though generally directed at what it did in the past, rather than right now.

“The Gandhi trio should not expect young and ambitious politicians like Scindia and Pilot to fight the factional battles in their respective states when until now the central leadership has handed them positions of power on a platter – union ministries and state party chiefs,” write Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma.

So which one is it?

  • Is the Pilot crisis a reflection of the Gandhi family’s failure to find a place for younger leaders?
  • Or is the Pilot crisis proof that Congress regional leaders, when left to their devices, can handle factionalism and a BJP-leaning upstart better?

Answers to that, or even just simply ‘did the Congress make the right move or the wrong one?’ will depend heavily on whether Pilot’s rebellion ends up dislodging Gehlot’s government.

Watch this space.

P.S. In the middle of all of this, the BJP called for an investigation into alleged phone tapping in Rajasthan, saying “is it not a violation of our civil rights?” And BJP leader Vasundhara Raje was accused of helping Ashok Gehlot’s government survive, because she wouldn’t want to see Pilot emerge as a non-Congress leader in the state.

Plus, this excellent quote from a Rajasthan BJP leader about Sanjay Jain, the only person arrested in the conspiracy case so far, whose voice is on the audio tapes that went viral. “Asked what Jain did, [the BJP leader] laughs, ‘He does what he has been arrested for.’”

Scroll.in Must-Read

Vijayta Lalwani has been poring over chargesheets filed by the police in the Delhi violence cases from February, and has found many, many holes:

“Even though the police claim the accused have confessed to their involvement in the alleged crimes, statements made to the police in custody are inadmissible by law – that is, they are not considered valid evidence… Worse, many of these statements are identical, which lawyers said raised serious doubts about their veracity.”

Flotsam & Jetsam

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been boasting about the first trade surplus in 18 years. I wrote about how that’s actually terrible news.

“When life offers lemons, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government prefers to tell the world it has turned them into limestone deposits.”

And if you missed it, on the Friday Q&A, we spoke to Vivek Kaul on the Indian economy, banking and much more:

“The question is why can’t the government run these banks as proper businesses and look at them from the point of view of an investor, rather than as an owner? The answer is that if you look at a lot of these ministries, if you take away the public sector company away from that ministry, there is nothing really left in the ministry.

If you take away Air India, you don’t really need a Civil Aviation ministry. You already have a regulator in DGCA. If you look at the Ministry of Steel, if you took away the Steel Authority of India, what are they going to do?”

More than 100 people are dead and over 27 lakh affected by floods in Assam. The Ram Temple trust plans to hold its foundation-stone laying ceremony by the first week of August, and has invited Modi. Activist Varavara Rao, who was in prison in the Bhima Koregaon case, was moved to hospital and found to be Covid-19 positive.

The Election Commission is under pressure as it considers the challenge of holding elections in Bihar even as the Covid-19 case-count rises in the state. Rating agency ICRA now expects the Indian economy to contract by 9.5% this year.

That’s all for today’s The Political Fix. Send feedback to rohan@scroll.in, and if you enjoy this newsletter please do share it.