Congress chief falters in asserting his independence in decision making.
Ashok Gehlot had crossed the security check at Palam’s Terminal 1 on the afternoon of 13 December to board a flight to Jaipur; his fans had started gathering at the Sanganer airport to fete him as the new Chief Minister ( it’s a half-hour flight). Gehlot suddenly received a call from “10 Janpath”—he aborted his trip. Meanwhile, Sachin Pilot was seen travelling in the same vehicle as Sonia Gandhi as the duo entered 12 Tughlaq Crescent, the residence of Rahul Gandhi, where Priyanka Vadra joined in to review the Congress president’s decision to send Gehlot to Jaipur. Nail-biting drama ensued. Street protests in favour of Gehlot and Pilot were held in Rajasthan, with Pilot’s caste supporters, Gurjars, blockading highways. After nearly 24 hours a compromise was reached: Gehlot was to be CM, with Sachin as the deputy CM. Rahul Gandhi tweeted the photograph of the duo with the caption “United Colours of Rajasthan”.
This was in sharp contrast to Rahul Gandhi’s tweet the previous day. The photograph of Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scinidia was accompanied by a quote of Leo Tolstoy, “Two most powerful warriors are patience and time”. Significantly, at the time of announcement of Kamal Nath as the CM, Nath made a categorical statement that he was not going to have a deputy CM. Old guard prevailed in both Jaipur and Bhopal. Sachin is understood to have sulked that if Nath, who had been sent as PCC chief in May 2018 could be the CM choice, then why his role as PCC chief since 2014 should be sidestepped.
The aggressiveness displayed by rival factions in Rajasthan is unparalleled: never before in any party has the choice of CM been conducted amid such acrimony. December 13, the day Ashok Gehlot faced the revolt of the younger contender, was the birth anniversary of the late Harideo Joshi, the CM Gehlot had ousted when he was the young Rajasthan PCC chief in 1988. Joshi was shunted as Governor to Assam and brought back as CM in January 1989 after Congress lost the 1988 Lok Sabha poll. The damage of that factional fight had taken years to repair.
In Chhattisgarh, while the four contenders flew to New Delhi, huge billboards appeared in Naya Raipur on 13 December proclaiming T. Singh Deo as the new CM. This too was unprecedented: fissures in the Congress were out in the open. During the poll campaign Rahul Gandhi had attacked Anil Ambani as the beneficiary of BJP’s largesse. Post results Congressmen have been talking of the influence Gautam Adani has in the states where he has his investments and how his writ runs across party lines. Cronyism after all is not the monopoly of a particular party. Regimes are variable. Business interests are constant.
The performance of Congress in the “semi-final” poll certainly has made Rahul Gandhi emerge as a major player in the national scene. The absence of enthusiasm among Congress workers has been stemmed. His inability to make a leadership statement and emboss his style on Congress politics by taking decisions on his own, and not by being hemmed in by his mother and sister, have deprived him of the moment of euphoria. Bereft of this halo he is the first Nehru-Gandhi leader sans charisma.
Contrast this with the decisions taken by BJP while appointing CMs. (The process of election by MLAs has been replaced by selection by central leadership in both national parties—there is no “party with a difference”, as L.K. Advani used to boast in his heyday.) Manohar Lal Khattar, T.S. Rawat, Devendra Fadnavis, Yogi Adityanath had been appointed out of the blue, but it did not lead to street protests and highway blockades, factional interests in BJP notwithstanding. The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo may look little pale after the 11 December results but their writ within BJP has never been reviewed a la Ashok Gehlot’s appointment.
Sharad Pawar has hailed Rahul’s performance. But the most vocal voice of Opposition, Mamata Banerjee, while expressing her glee at BJP’s discomfort has refused to acknowledge Rahul even now. So much so that the AICC observer for Bengal, Gaurav Gogoi lamented this on his visit to Kolkata and the PCC chief Somen Mitra announced that in 2019 Congress will go it alone to defeat Trinamool Congress in Bengal. This happened within two days of the 21-party conclave in New Delhi. Somen Mitra may not be off the mark. In Telangana, where Congress tied up with its bête-noire in Andhra politics, TDP, its performance nosedived with the “Mahakutami”. Fighting alone in the heart of India, Congress could wrest states from BJP despite Samajwadi Party and BSP refusing to play ball. Regional parties and most of the 21 parties which conglomerated past week (where too SP and BSP abstained) have grown at the cost of Congress. By going it alone in 2019 Rahul Gandhi may not defeat BJP, but Congress will survive to fight another day. Labour Party in UK has been out of power since 2010—the importance of Jeremy Corbyn as in British politics is considerable.
The two national parties have to make their discourse civil. Rahul’s jibe “chaukidar chor hai” and Modi’s retort “kaunsi vidhwa paise kha gai” marked the nadir of the current campaign. Vice President Venkaiah Naidu has said on the eve of the current Parliament session, politicians are not enemies but rivals.
This couplet of a Bhopal poet, Bashir Badr, could guide Rahul as he embarks on the 2019 campaign:
“Dushmani jam kar karo lekin yeh gunjaish rahe
Jab kabhi hum dost ho jayen to sharminda na hon (Do not be ashamed of being hostile; Never be embarrassed if you become friends some day).