One may think that it is all due to the machinations of the BJP that Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is bumbling his way through the shenanigans orchestrated by him to vanquish a determined challenger Sachin Pilot. But one cannot help but wonder whether a veteran like Gehlot should take cue from his much younger Maharashtra counterpart who has so far managed to ward off the troubles within the Maha Vikas Aghadi—without fireworks.
True, any comparison between the two CMs may seem inappropriate in relation to the challenges faced by them. One is CM as the head of the single largest party that claims the loyalty of the half number of MLAs in the Rajasthan Assembly. Another is ensconced in the Mantralaya as the result of a deft political manoeuvring that saw sharing of power among what was once thought to be an incompatible lot.
Despite being a greenhorn as CM, Uddhav Thackeray (who has just turned 60 and done seven months in office) has shown that he is capable of doing everything to consolidate his position without ruffling too many feathers—in spite of the crisis caused by the management of the pandemic and frequent disagreements among the exacting alliance partners—the NCP and the Congress.
Uddhav has shown that he won't lose his cool easily and put on an air of overzealous authority. He has also not tried to destabilise his alliance partners even once. Even his relationship with the opponent BJP has weathered the bitterness of the divorce with the Sena in November 2019.
On the other hand, 69-year-old Gehlot, who is into his third term in office since December 2018, has tried all his pressure tactics to force the young challenger in Pilot and his Congress legislators into submission.
Endowed as he is with a sharp acumen, Gehlot has surprised many of his admirers for the course he has adopted. Otherwise, he is known to be quite accommodative when it comes to handling his rivals within his party and even political opponents outside. After all, Gehlot learnt his style of political management when he served as CM of Rajasthan from 1998 to 2003 and again from 2008 to 2013.
Gehlot’s hardcore supporters argue that he was driven to the wall by Pilot’s tantrums and his tolerance level had breached beyond repair. Not just because of Pilot’s soaring ambitions but his refusal to accept the reality of the Congress high command’s act of choosing Gehlot over him made even a working relationship with him almost impossible. As admitted by Gehlot himself, he and Pilot were not on talking terms for more than 18 months since they assumed office as CM and Deputy CM respectively. One can imagine what kind of the government they were running in the state.
Pilot felt immensely slighted by treatment meted out by Gehlot despite Sonia Gandhi and her family’s assurances to him that his interests would be protected and also they had not forgotten his role as PCC chief for three years to win the 2018 assembly polls.
Gehlot’s acolytes, who are upset that Pilot’s rebellion has put the Congress government in deep trouble and brought glee to the BJP, have also blamed Pilot’s sheer immaturity and no game plan. So much so, they condone Gehlot’s adoption of hitherto unheard acts like foisting police cases against Pilot and his MLAs and rushing through disciplinary steps to see if the younger leader is somehow out of the party for good. This is in spite of neither Rahul Gandhi nor Priyanka Gandhi wanting to shut the door permanently on Pilot, who has still maintained that he is not joining the BJP.
Maybe Gehlot has the backing of a key old guard who is out of reckoning with the Sonia Gandhi family and is egging him on to go for the final assault on Pilot. But so far Gehlot’s attempts to force the Rajasthan High Court to corner the rebel MLAs does not appear to have borne fruit, leaving the Congress’ legal strategy in confusion. Attempts to seek the intervention of the Supreme Court too has got botched up, with the Rajasthan Assembly Speaker finally withdrawing his plea against the High Court’s order, which gave some breathing time to the Pilot gang.
One cannot but wonder who advised Gehlot to attempt to brow beat Rajasthan Governor Kalraj Mishra who is no push over, having lived the life of a hardboiled politician from Uttar Pradesh. Gehlot’s publicised warnings to the Governor, accompanied by the threat of gherao of the Raj Bhavan were not only in bad taste but also foolhardy—till Kalraj Mishra drew the lakshman rekha.
Gehlot is desperate as he does not want Pilot to crawl back into the confidence book of the Congress high command nor lose his grip over the 100-odd MLAs (who are supposed to be with him). That brings us to the question whether Uddhav Thackeray’s present style of approach holds out a workable solution to Gehlot?
Uddhav may have had several runs-in with his alliance partners, both the NCP and the Congress, on the issues ranging from the steps to contain the pandemic, lifting of the lockdown, allowing some functional space and discretionary powers enjoyed by the MVA ministers. But, even as some political opponents had begun counting the days for the arrangement, Uddhav has somehow managed to show that, without compromising the position of CM which he holds, he can get his alliance partners to agree on some issues while leaving the disagreement on others to be settled another day.
Perhaps, his man Friday Sanjay Raut has had a role to play through his “interviews” with NCP chief Sharad Pawar in the Sena organ Saamana and with Uddhav himself to let out steam and narrow the gap as and when they arise.
Can Gehlot learn to do the same? If he can forget that he is running the government on strength of his political dexterity, Gehlot too can reach out to Pilot himself. He can end the sham of an investigation by a police special group into the dissidence against him and actively seek the intervention of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka to resolve the stalemate.
The 10th Schedule of the Constitution, or the anti-defection law as known popularly, may have been a convenient tool for many a sitting CM to smother out challenges posed to him. But, as the experiences of ruling dispensations in many states show, there are still several legal dimensions or lacunae to invoking and interpreting as to what is deemed as “voluntarily” giving up of one’s membership of a political party and whether the Speaker as a hand-maid of the sitting CM can always be of help in this regard. Gehlot has still time to rectify his strategy.
The writer is a former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi