The month of November has seen the Congress cast in a three-dimensional political theatre. The assembly poll campaigns in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat have seen the party adopt different styles, and simultaneously, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra – covering 12 states in 150 days – has been pitched as the party’s mass contact programme, aimed at rejuvenating party-people ties.
The third arena, however, seems out of sync with the concerted messaging of the above two campaigns.
In Rajasthan, the only big state where the party is in power, intense factionalism has once again reminded of the organisational challenges that continue to confront the party. This week, in a , Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot dubbed Sachin Pilot, the former deputy chief minister and the leader of the rival faction in the state unit, as “gaddaar” or traitor. This came close on the heels of Pilot targeting Gehlot earlier this month for the latter’s praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pilot in the CM’s bonhomie with the PM during a public function in Banswara district of Rajasthan. Pilot’s remarks were followed by a demand by his loyalists to make him the chief minister.
Gehlot’s latest jibe at Pilot is a thinly-veiled reference to the July 2020 rebellion led by Pilot with 18 MLAs – when the then deputy CM and state party chief had exerted pressure on the party headquarters to unseat Gehlot. A rebellion which had its own quota of jibes. The Rajasthan CM termed then party rebel Pilot as , or useless – ironically coming down heavily on his deputy for using “rough language”. Citing an example of Pilot’s brazen chief ministerial ambitions, he said that he had come to Rajasthan to become chief minister and not to sell baigan, or brinjal.
In hindsight, Gehlot had sent two important signals with a clear, even vicious, line of attack. First, that he was in no mood for a reconciliatory tone then. Unlike post-poll patch-up moves in 2018, he did not resort to gestures such as a hug awaiting his rival to rise above differences. Additionally, his new-found belligerence might be rooted in an anxiety over the possibility of the Congress’s 10 Janpath leadership planning to placate Pilot, especially in case the latter’s camp escapes the anti-defection law disqualification.
In September this year, such apprehensions were the driving force behind how the Gehlot camp foiled the Gandhis-led Congress leadership’s plan of shifting him to Delhi as the party president. Such defiance, while remaining in the larger fold of the party, was a revision of ties in more ways than met the eye. More significantly, it was a recasting of the equation between a provincial heavyweight and the party headquarters that was one of the more striking subtexts of the Rajasthan chief minister’s decision to pull out of the race for Congress president. Far more significant than the undermining of the high command’s writ is the fact that it is too weak to inflict serious costs on Gehlot for his shrewd, even audacious, move to cling to his turf in Jaipur.
That implied that under the veneer of party loyalty and organisational discipline, the terms of negotiation could change. In the Congress’s heyday as the fulcrum of power in India, its provincial leaders expectedly kowtowed the party line in form as well as substance. Even when the party’s hold on power began declining, the centralised structures persisted. That, however, hasn’t meant that the capacity to command compliance remains the same. As recently as last year, the playbook of overhauling state leadership in Punjab caused disruption in the state unit and the ensuing chaos was electorally damaging.
The faultlines of factionalism in the Rajasthan Congress would obviously be a worry for new party chief Mallikarjun Kharge, especially when the state is going to polls by the end of next year.
In a not so old scheme of political assessment, Gehlot’s appeal to the Gandhi family-controlled Congress was obvious. Aside from being a 10 Janpath loyalist, his tactical acumen, status as an OBC leader with substantial support in a Hindi heartland state, and experience in organisational work made him tick many boxes. Moreover, he had the experience of working in the party’s national headquarters and as union minister under three Congress prime ministers. As a campaign strategist, he was key to Rahul Gandhi’s impressive canvassing ahead of the Gujarat assembly election of 2017.
It isn’t clear whether the Congress top brass pitched Gehlot as party president with the added objective of having him vacate the chief ministership for his rival Sachin Pilot, the sulking leader who led a rebellion against him in 2020. That, however, is something an astute old hand like Gehlot wouldn’t have ever lost sight of.
As Rahul Gandhi’s yatra is all set to enter Rajasthan, the party leadership has been isolating the momentum of the political messaging of the walk from the bickering within the party in a state that it rules. That, however, doesn’t mean that the party can anyway afford to lose sight of the organisational fissures revealing themselves at strategically fraught times. In the months to come, and more crucially in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the party will need to have a harder inward look to rebuild a compact local-regional-national continuum for a streamlined and clinical campaign.
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