Sachin Pilot’s rebellion was aimed at pulling down the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan. For a month, he kept the Congress party on tenterhooks and raised the hopes of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But a month after he raised the banner of revolt against Chief Minister Gehlot, Pilot is back in Congress, expressing his faith in the party and its leadership, saying he had never left. Pilot’s return to the fold, in signs of an uneasy truce between him and his former boss, was enabled by the Gandhis agreeing to address his grievances, chief among them being Gehlot’s style of functioning. Acting unusually quickly, the Congress, which had kept its doors open for Pilot and 18 rebel MLAs, managed to broker truce between the rebellious Pilot and resentful Gehlot because of the Gandhis’ keenness to keep the former in the party and prevent a repeat of its disaster in Madhya Pradesh.
It will be difficult for Gehlot and Pilot to put the episode behind them and work together again, though for now it seems the two are presenting a façade of unity in the ‘interest of the party and democracy’. This was evident in the Congress legislature party meeting on August 13, where Gehlot and Pilot came face-to-face for the first time after the month-long political crisis and shook hands in a moment marking the return of Pilot and his 18 rebel supporters to the party-fold. Thus, winning the confidence motion in the legislative assembly session a day after Gehlot had asked Congress legislators ‘to forget what has happened’, was a mere formality. If Gehlot had said that he was all for ‘forget and forgive’ and ‘moving on’, it is because he was forced to fall in line by the party leadership. However, in practice, it will be harder to do for the chief minister, given his unfiltered attacks on Pilot over the past month and the latter’s rift with the Congress, which had almost reached breaking point.
Though the Congress has said that the crisis in Rajasthan is a ‘closed chapter’ and all legislators supporting its government will work towards strengthening Rajasthan and fighting the Covid pandemic and other economic calamities, it needs to be emphasised here that in politics rivalry doesn’t die soon and differences don’t vanish for good. When Pilot said he had never left the Congress, he was technically right. But for all practical purposes, he was more or less gone, given that he was fighting a battle against the party’s state government. Pilot retreated because he didn’t have the numbers in his favour to bring down the Gehlot government and he realised, rather late, that his rebellion was unlikely to yield any result. Since the chief minister had the full support of the Congress leadership and together, they employed all sorts of political, psychological and legal tactics that cornered Pilot, the latter had no choice but to raise the white flag and surrender.
In the month-long drama that saw many twists and turns, Gehlot has emerged stronger than before: he has proved that he is indispensable for the Congress in Rajasthan and has enough firepower to take on his rivals, both within and outside the party. Pilot may have extracted some promise for his rehabilitation in the party, but for now, he has lost almost everything that he had: his posts both as deputy chief minister and state Congress president, the trust of the Congress leadership and the respect of his party colleagues. His stature in the Congress party has diminished and it will take a lot of effort on his part to regain all that he has frittered away with his rebellion that was numerically suspect. The Rajasthan crisis has also brought the leadership problem in the Congress back in focus, but the Gandhis used the crisis to send out a clear political message: that they are willing to listen to grievances but will not tolerate open rebellion even by those who may be considered close to them.
The Rajasthan drama has ended on a happy note, but there is no cure yet for the Congress conundrum, as the leadership confusion in the party lingers on. It’s been more than a year since Sonia Gandhi stepped in as interim president after the Congress went headless for over two months after Rahul Gandhi quit, immediately after the party’s debacle in Lok Sabha poll. Sonia has done her bit to revive the party in Haryana and Jharkhand. But the Congress has also drifted by ceding ground in states like Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Jyotiraditya Scindia’s revolt has been a big setback and losing Pilot would have been another blow for the Congress.
The open bickering over the future of the Congress and the silence of the Gandhis over the leadership issue is a cause of major concern for the party, in the absence of a roadmap to its presidential election. A political party – the second biggest in terms of vote share – can’t remain in a state of instability for long and cannot be run in a state of confusion.
Rahul Gandhi, the top choice to replace his mother, is showing little interest in resolving the leadership issue and arresting the party’s drift. At the centre of the stalemate is the Gandhi family, whose indecisiveness in sorting out leadership woes will be detrimental to the revival of Congress as a strong opposition party. The Rajasthan crisis was only symptomatic of the larger problem that the grand old party has been confronting, particularly since 2014.
There is no single factor that is responsible for the current Congress crisis, as also its decay as a mainstream political organisation. It’s easy to credit the BJP for the decline of Congress at the national and state level, though it is one of the reasons. It is also true that the weakening of the Congress is responsible for the saffron party’s geographical spread and electoral successes. As democracy evolves in a multi-party polity, no party can aim to remain in power forever. Hence, electorally, the gradual decline of the Congress was inevitable.
As a dominant national party for almost half a century, the Congress has enjoyed greater success than any other party. But over the last three decades, it has been in and out of power at the national level and has faced greater opposition from regional parties in several states. Though ideologically the Congress has been consistent, one major problem the party has faced in recent decades is large-scale desertions. The reason for desertions is said to be lack of strong central leadership since 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination. Other likely and inter-related factors, according to political experts, that are possibly responsible for the Congress crisis are generational divide and political ambition of the younger leaders. There is nothing unusual about factional fights in a political party. But it is the ability of the leadership to manage different factions and deal with dissent which holds the party together. The Congress has not been able to do that because of its feeble central leadership.
The author is an independent senior journalist