After the glory of back-to-back nuclear tests in the summer of 1998, the winter of discontent had set in. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was still India’s Prime Minister and the country was in the midst of an onion crisis when the states of Rajasthan, Delhi and (undivided) Madhya Pradesh went to polls in November. A nervous Bharatiya Janata Party replaced their Delhi Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma with a young Sushma Swaraj on the eve of elections. Still, nothing could prevent the Indian National Congress from winning Delhi or sweeping Rajasthan as the angry voter exacted vengeance for the high prices of onions through the ballot box.
In Rajasthan, even before the results were out, the Jats were lobbying for a member of their community to be made the Chief Minister. The Jats reckoned that the Congress had taken their support for granted and the time was ripe for demanding their pound of flesh for their unstinted support to the party for 50 years. Parasram Maderna—the 74-year-old Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader of the outgoing assembly—was the most popular Jat leader in the state and the scale seemed firmly tipped in his favour. But he had a young challenger in Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Ashok Gehlot, then all of 47.
On November 30, 1998, the newly elected Congress legislators met and passed a unanimous resolution authorising Congress President Sonia Gandhi to decide on the next Chief Minister. When Rajasthan in-charge Madhavrao Scindia and party “observer” Ghulam Nabi Azad flew in to meet the legislators that afternoon, they conveyed to the MLAs that Gehlot was the choice of the high command. Although Gehlot wasn’t one of the victorious Congress legislators (he didn’t contest), he was being rewarded for leading his party to a thumping win over the BJP and for his untiring work as PCC Chief for nearly five years from 1994.
Twenty years later
Twenty years later, the roles had reversed. A 67-year old Ashok Gehlot found himself in Maderna’s shoes against the young PCC Chief Sachin Pilot. Just how Gehlot in 1994 replaced Maderna, Pilot was appointed PCC Chief in 2014 after the Congress, under Gehlot, got decimated to 21 seats in the 200-member assembly. Shifting his base to Jaipur, Pilot put in the hard yards to bring his party back in contention in the desert state after five years. Yet, when the time came to take the call on who would be the Chief Minister, Gehlot pipped Pilot to emerge third-time lucky.
Unlike Gehlot in 1998, Pilot couldn’t lead his party to a bigger victory and Congress had barely touched the majority mark—which came in the way of Pilot’s claim. Gehlot had another stroke of luck in 2008 when CP Joshi, then Congress PCC Chief and the contender for chief ministership, lost from Nathdwara by a solitary vote—leaving the field open for Gehlot to slot right back in.
Come 2018, the game of thrones was being staged in New Delhi. The famed All India Congress Committee (AICC) “coterie” was plumping for their long-term colleague—Ashok Gehlot. Despite the eagerness of Rahul Gandhi to balance veteran Kamal Nath’s appointment in Madhya Pradesh with the younger man in Rajasthan, he had to yield to this coterie in the end. Now more pragmatic than earlier, Gandhi was also nudged by his mother Sonia Gandhi to back Gehlot with the general elections in mind.
But the decision didn’t come about without its fair share of drama. Gehlot was summoned back from Delhi airport before he was to embark on a Jaipur flight after he had been assured of the job. Meanwhile, Gujjar supporters of Sachin Pilot had laid siege to the Alwar-Gurgaon highway to send a message to the Congress leadership in Delhi and seek a fair deal for their leader.
The biggest factor going against Gehlot was the drubbing the Congress received in the 2003 and 2013 assembly elections when he was the incumbent Chief Minister. If 2003 saw the party’s worst performance with 55 seats (down from 153 in 1998), 2013 saw that number plunging further to 21.
And what went against Pilot was his inability to lead his party to a bigger win. In the last phase of the campaign in Rajasthan, senior Congress leaders were camping in Jaipur to prevent a last-minute upset. Ticket distribution was also a contentious exercise and delayed forever, with Pilot not really having his say on candidate selection.
Finally, a solution was evolved with Sachin Pilot being offered the post of Deputy Chief Minister. Despite the compromise nature of this formula, a clear line of succession has been established in Rajasthan. A very senior leader in the Congress hierarchy put things in perspective: “Ashok wouldn’t get a full term. Either Sachin will get a shot by the time anti-incumbency kicks in or, if we come to power in Delhi next year, it opens up lots of possibilities.”
Old guard vs ‘Young Turks’ debate
The irony in this battle of two generations is the fact that the veterans of today are the Young Turks of the 1980s. Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot started their parliamentary careers in 1980 and were prominent leaders even in their youth. In fact, Gehlot’s debut election was in 1977, when he lost in the Janata party wave following the emergency. He went on to become a junior minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet and subsequently with Rajiv Gandhi before being named PCC chief at the age of 34 in 1985. Gehlot was back as minister in the Narasimha Rao ministry, till he assumed charge of the Rajasthan PCC once again following Congress’s defeat in 1993.
Now, after getting two terms as Chief Minister already, Gehlot is back at the helm once again. If leaders who got prominence in their youth continue to hold on to their positions, where does that leave young leaders? That’s what Rahul Gandhi will have to figure out going forward.
While Pilot accepted the Deputy Chief Minister’s post in Rajasthan, his Madhya Pradesh counterpart Jyotiraditya Scindia refused a similar role. A senior Congress leader confirmed that apart from the support of a majority of the newly-elected Congress MLAs in Madhya Pradesh, even Rahul Gandhi was inclined to back Kamal Nath this time. Although Gandhi succeeded in played it relatively safe, he will have to make tougher calls to emerge as his own man in the future.