Ashok Gehlot has proved that a strong state leader can challenge the Congress high command, reports Prakash Bhandari from Jaipur.
The first-ever rebellion by Congress legislators in Rajasthan against its high command on forcing on them a candidate who neither enjoys the support of his MLAs nor had the numbers to stake a claim to become the chief minister, has shaken the fragile Congress high command presided over by the Gandhi family.
The attempt by the Gandhis to replace Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with Sachin Pilot met with unprecedented opposition.
There are numerous cases of revolt against the leadership in state assemblies.
There are numerous instances when the high command's choice of leadership thrust on the state MLAs was opposed. But Jaipur scripted a different story when Congress legislators opposed the high command's order to pass an unconditional one-line resolution authorising the high command to choose a leader.
The irate Congress MLAs were upset with the high command thrusting on Sachin Pilot who led a rebellion against his party's government two years ago.
The high command's decision to send two observers -- senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge and Ajay Maken, the party general secretary in charge for Rajasthan -- was well planned.
Pilot convinces the Gandhis that as Ashok Gehlot was tipped to become the Congress president, he should be installed as chief minister.
Gehlot tried to play the double role of Congress president as well as chief minister, but Rahul Gandhi snubbed him and told him the party would go by the Udaipur declaration of one person, one post.
After that, a desperate Gehlot conveyed to the party leadership in Delhi that he would resign as chief minister once elected party president.
It was here that Pilot put pressure on the Gandhis, that they promised that he would be made chief minister once Gehlot filed his nomination for the party presidency.
Gehlot had promised that he would quit as CM after he was elected party president. But the high command insisted he should resign first and then file his nomination.
This caused concern in the minds of Gehlot and his band of loyalists.
Gehlot wanted to keep Pilot out of the calculation for the chief ministership citing his role in the 2020 rebellion. The chief minister enjoyed a pre-eminent position in the Rajasthan Congress organisation and has kept the party's flock together; he also went on to get the support of six BSP MLAs who shifted loyalties to the Congress, and also got the support of the 13 Independents, who were Congress rebels.
"The high command was trying to thrust on us a gaddar (traitor) who dabbled with the BJP to destabilise an elected government," says Shanti Dhariwal, the urban development minister.
"We had to spend several days to keep our flock together who were lured by Sachin Pilot. It was Gehlot's leadership quality that helped the Congress government to survive great difficulties," Dhariwal, who has been served a show cause notice by the high command, adds.
"Yes, I accused Ajay Maken who was secretly working for Pilot as we were put up in a resort along with Maken," asserts Dhariwal. He was trying to woo other party MLAs secretly to support Pilot and leave Gehlot, pushing the party into a minority."
"There were logical reasons for opposing the high command, that was imposing on us a leader who could muster the support of only 12 out of the 108 Congress MLAs," Dhariwal, a powerful minister in the Gehlot government who also handled parliamentary affairs apart from the urban development department, tells this correspondent.
Gehlot and his loyalists smelt a rat when the chief minister was asked to resign before the Congress president's election and Gehlot, the wily fox, engineered a rebellion against the high command through trusted loyalists like Dhariwal, Public Health Engineering Minister Mahesh Joshi and party MLA Dharmendra Rathore, who is also the chairman of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation.
As Dhariwal is also the parliamentary affairs minister and Joshi also doubles up as the chief whip, Gehlot planned to see that the MLAs do not come to the Congress Legislature Party meeting directly.
Dhariwal and Joshi organised a meeting prior to the CLP meeting at the chief minister's residence.
The idea was to tell the MLAs about the high command's designs to thrust Pilot on them as the chief minister.
According to the well-planned strategy, Gehlot, after scripting the story, flew to Tanot on the India-Pakistan border in Jaisalmer along with Pradesh Congress president Govind Singh Dotasara and Food and Supplies Minister Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, a nephew of the late BJP leader Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, India's vice president from 2002 to 2007.
Gehlot claimed he had no clue about the meeting convened by Dhariwal and Joshi. He landed in Jaipur an hour before the loyalists's meeting and went to meet Kharge and Maken and take them to the meeting being held at his residence.
Meanwhile, on a call given by Dhariwal, Joshi and Dharmendra Rathore, some 90 MLAs reached Dhariwal's residence.
At this meeting, Dhariwal and Joshi informed the MLAs of the high command's plans to thrust Pilot on them.
There was reportedly massive opposition to Pilot.
"There was so much anger at Pilot that the MLAs offered to resign their membership of the Vidhan Sabha. It was a historic decision," says Dhariwal.
"Never in the history of India's legislative history did some 90 MLAs unanimously decide to tender their resignations not from the party but from the membership of the Vidhan Sabha. So high was their spirit, it was unprecedented," he adds.
"They did not stop here, they boarded a bus and went to Speaker C P Joshi's residence and submitted the en masse resignations. This upset the party's high command and shook their world."
"Then we decided to meet Kharge and Maken and laid down our terms for passing a conditional resolution that was to ensure that Pilot did not become chief minister and the next leader should be chosen from the 102 loyalists who were responsible to save the government two years ago."
Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, the firebrand minister who handled the MLAs, also played a key role in the rebellion, but was not identified as a conspirator as only Dhariwal, Mahesh Joshi and Rathor were served show cause notices.
Though Khachariyawas was spared by the high command and not served any notice, he stuck to his stand that no person should be thrust on the MLAs as a leader.
"The ideals of democracy say that the leader should have the majority's support. He should be a person who is acceptable because of the numbers that he enjoys," says Khachariyawas.
"Pilot never enjoyed any majority even when he fought to become the chief minister in 2018. Thus Pilot was being thrust on us and there were logical reasons for opposing him," he adds.
"We were not opposing Soniaji, Rahulji or Priyankaji. Our anger was against Pilotji," says Khachariyawas.
The Gandhis in recent times have faced numerous embarrassments. But Rajasthan came as the worst of all and was engineered by their loyalist number one -- Ashok Gehlot.
Gehlot proved that a very strong state leadership can challenge the high command.
While Dhariwal, Mahesh Joshi and Rathore have been served show cause notices, the principal conspirator has been given a clean chit, which shows that the Congress high command dare not touch him.
Gehlot will now need to save his generals -- Dhariwal, Mahesh Joshi and Rathore.
More drama will follow if the high command exerts its authority, but the Gandhis should take a lesson from the fact that the rebellion against them was designed and executed by their Wafadaar (Loyalist) Number One.
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com