The crisis Congress is facing in Rajasthan is taking new twists and turns on a daily basis. With Rajasthan Speaker C P Joshi’s decision to withdraw his petition in the Supreme Court (SC) on Monday morning, it seems the Congress has decided to fight a political battle with the BJP for a trust vote. The Speaker’s petition related to whether the courts can interfere with disqualification proceedings by an assembly speaker against lawmakers even before a decision has been taken. Joshi wanted the SC to cancel the Rajasthan High Court’s order of July 21 to defer disqualification proceedings against 19 rebels MLAs led by former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot. But last week, the SC refused to cancel the High Court’s stay order on disqualification proceedings pointing out that the High Court had already reserved its order to be pronounced on Friday.
However, in a major relief for the rebel MLAs in the disqualification case, the Rajasthan High Court on Friday said no action can be taken against Sachin Pilot and other rebel Congress MLAs. The court said there will be ‘status quo’ until its decision on the rebels’ petition against the Speaker’s disqualification notices. While the High Court was scheduled to give its verdict on Friday morning, a surprise twist to the case came after the court accepted team Pilot’s eleventh-hour request to add the Centre to the disqualification case on whether the anti-defection law applies to them. The rebels have argued in the court that such notices cannot be served by a Speaker when the assembly is not in session. They have challenged a rule that allows the Speaker to disqualify members if they have ‘voluntarily given up the party’s membership’. The rebels say they do not intend to quit the Congress; they only want a change in leadership.
A day before the High Court’s verdict, chief minister Ashok Gehlot had approached Rajasthan Governor Kalraj Mishra with the cabinet recommendation to call an assembly session for the floor test and reportedly submitted a list of 102 MLAs who are supporting his government. Since the rebel crisis broke out two weeks ago, Gehlot has met the Governor four times, which reflects the Congress party’s strategy for the crucial test of strength on the assembly floor. But the Governor asked for certain clarifications and also raised a query regarding the agenda for convening the assembly. A fresh proposal was submitted on Saturday and the Governor, while in principle is not against convening assembly, is reported to have raised a fresh set of queries concerning the trust vote.
Reports suggest that the Governor doesn’t seem inclined to call the assembly session any time soon. Gehlot has also alleged that the Governor is under pressure to delay calling for the assembly session because the BJP fears that he will win the trust vote. In an assembly of 200 members, the Congress had 107 MLAs and one MLA from its coalition partner Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). The BJP has 72 MLAs and its ally Bhartiya Loktantrik Party (BLP) has three. The Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP) and CPI (M) have two each and there are 13 Independents. Based on how things have progressed so far, the Congress has 19 fewer MLAs from its original tally of 107. This means Congress has 88 MLAs. Besides, Gehlot has claimed the support of 10 Independents as also the support of BTP’s two MLAs and one CPI (M) MLA. The majority mark is 101 and in the best case scenario Gelhot has the support of 102 MLAs.
The role of independent MLAs is crucial for Gehlot to pass the majority mark. Disqualification of the Pilot camp would have benefitted Gehlot, as the half way mark would have come down to 91 and he would have needed the support of just three MLAs outside of his own party to prove his majority. But the High Court’s order restraining the assembly Speaker from conducting disqualification proceedings against the rebel MLAs led by Pilot has come as a setback for Gehlot. Since he cannot rely on the Pilot camp’s disqualification, he is pushing for an immediate floor test to get done with the suspense over his majority. Constitutionally, once the cabinet sends a recommendation, the governor is bound to convene a meeting of the assembly. But the Governor’s reluctance, citing the pandemic and asking for more clarifications, has given a political twist to the crisis, which political experts suspect is now a battle between Congress and Pilot-BJP combine.
This is only going to heighten the uncertainty over the fate of Gehlot’s government, while the Pilot camp is well protected by the High Court order. For the first time since the Rajasthan drama began, Rahul Gandhi on Friday blamed the BJP in his tweet for its alleged conspiracy in removing the Rajasthan government. But the BJP has so far denied its involvement and stayed away from the crisis, relying largely on Pilot to corner the Congress in a difficult situation. While Pilot has succeeded in prolonging the crisis by getting it mired in a legal tangle, the BJP, while denying its involvement, seems to be waiting for an opportune time to strike. The BJP’s denial cuts no ice with anybody who understands the saffron party’s power-grabbing methodology used several times earlier—from Arunachal Pradesh to Karnataka and Goa to Madhya Pradesh.
Pilot wouldn’t have been so adamant in his rebellion without a back-channel understanding with BJP. The IT raids on Gehlot’s close aides, the ED raids on his brother, legal services offered to the Pilot camp by senior lawyers close to the current regime at the Centre and the governor’s prevarication in convening the assembly are sufficient grounds to presume that the BJP has played an important behind-the-scene role in the political crisis. Whether ‘Operation Kamal’, as alleged by the Congress, is underway in the desert is anybody’s guess; whether it will succeed remains to be seen. A lot will depend on the role of the Independents: the floating boats that will move with the tide. Pilot’s rebellion raises an important question: what is he trying to achieve?
He is still a Congress member but refuses to attend party legislature meetings. He has said that he is not against the party and its leadership. His ambition is fairly clear: he wants to be the chief minister and the Congress has ruled out the possibility. This means he is defying the party leadership, which amounts to not just plain dissent but voluntarily giving up party membership indirectly. His keenness to bring down the Gehlot government can only be achieved on the floor of assembly. But he doesn’t have the numbers in his favour and, therefore, buying time through legal battle, hoping that more MLAs may join him. But the uncertainty can’t go on endlessly and in the best interest of democracy, the Governor, a constitutional authority, should play a neutral role and help bring an early end to the two-week old crisis. The High Court can settle the constitutional validity of disqualification notices later.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.