Behind the teetering government in Rajasthan is the saga of the Gandhi dynasty scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Column in Business Standard, July 25, 2020
If ever there was a political partnership poisoned by mutual mistrust and loathing from day one, it was the forced harnessing of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his sacked deputy Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan to a single yoke. This disastrous mesalliance ― sold as a productive pairing of the Congress Party’s Old Guard and Youth Brigade ― was thought up as a compromise by the mother-and-son team of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the party’s main managers.
If an image is worth a thousand words, there is a moment on stage at Rahul’s pre-election Jaipur rally in August 2018, when he is seen winking at his friend and ally Sachin. (The Gandhi scion was going through his winks-and-hugs phase, having hugged Narendra Modi in Parliament a month earlier.) Catching Rahul’s wink on stage, Sachin drops his frosty distance from Mr Gehlot and goes up to shake hands with the man who later became chief minister.
Behind the teetering government in Rajasthan ― and the Congress’s collapse in Madhya Pradesh four months ago ― is the saga of the Gandhi dynasty scraping the bottom of the barrel. It now resembles some Ruritanian court with a farcical cast of Queen Mother, Heir Apparent, and Princess Royal, insulated from reality and emasculated by inner conflict. Add to this a wily, old trickster like Mr Gehlot, who refers to himself as “jaadugar” and you have a full-fledged opera bouffe. As the son of a travelling magician, the chief minister often boasts of his sleight of hand that can make opposition MLAs disappear. “Dekho mainey [BSP ka] haathi gayab kar diya” (Look I made the BSP’s elephant vanish), he bragged after “acquiring” BSP legislators and absorbing them into the Congress. In the last state election, he ensured that several Congress legislators won as Independents so they could make up numbers to marginalise Sachin.
In 1976 there was a Congress president who proudly declared that “India is Indira, and Indira is India”. It used to be said of the party Mrs Gandhi ran that there were no equals, only dissenters or domestic servants. Her grandson Rahul was a babe in arms then but he adheres to that inherited principle of noblesse oblige. In the world of the Gandhis there are no colleagues, only courtiers.
It’s not as if the Heir Apparent himself has been deprived of chances. At 50 Rahul has been party general secretary, vice-president, and president (and MP since 2004). He has attempted party reorganisation and headed campaigns in two general elections (2014, 2019) and in key states such as Uttar Pradesh (2012). In many of these tasks he has failed.
A job ― any job ― was his for the asking in two successive Manmohan Singh-led governments but he turned down the experience of managing a ministry. Instead his select coterie of political heirs such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin, Jitin Prasada, and R P N Singh ― derisively known as the “Chamber of Princes” ― were made junior ministers. Taking responsibility for his party’s defeat last year, Rahul quit the party presidency. But the Congress without a Gandhi at the helm is like an ICU patient without oxygen. Sonia slid into his seat without demur. Though her official title is “interim president” it could be “president ad infinitum”.
“Speaking good English, giving sound bites and being handsome isn’t everything,” said Mr Gehlot sourly of his abhorred former deputy Sachin. Admirable in themselves these attributes are equally applicable to Rahul. But these were not the reasons Rahul sent Sachin to Jaipur in 2014, appointing him state party chief. His job was to revive a decimated Congress and unseat the increasingly unpopular and corrupt Vasundhara Raje government. This the young leader did, travelling ceaselessly and keeping up a barracking of Ms Raje for her close links with Lalit Modi.
Sachin was given the lure of the CM’s prize when the time came. Mr Gehlot was nowhere in Rajasthan in 2013-18, tied down with party work in Delhi. Come elections in December 2018 and “Jaadugar Gehlot” went into overdrive, manoeuvring with Sonia, Ahmed Patel, and the old guard to wrest the CM’s job. Sachin got the consolation prize of deputy CM. Hostilities were instantly declared and have escalated into open war.
Taking a leaf from the Gandhi playbook, Mr Gehlot has been grooming his 40-year-old son Vaibhav as successor. Fielded from Jodhpur in last year’s general election, he lost to Union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who is allegedly an interlocutor in charges of horse-trading Congress legislators. But Vaibhav’s star is undimmed. He was recently elected president of the Rajasthan Cricket Association, a post that made Lalit Modi rich and infamous during Ms Raje’s reign. At the same time, the legislature’s Speaker C P Joshi, who is leading the legal assault to disqualify Sachin and his group, was elected chief patron of the cricket association.
If the gloves are off and iron fists out today who is to blame for the royal mess in Rajasthan? The BJP may be ready and waiting to pounce on another key state of the Hindi heartland but it is the Congress’s holy trinity that issued them an invitation to the beheading.