Ashok Gehlot has had enough of holding his peace. As part of an exclusive interview with NDTV, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan took time out of his campaigning to attack Sachin Pilot, who he called a traitor six times in the conversation.
“A gaddar (traitor) cannot become Chief Minister,” he said, “the High Command cannot make Sachin Pilot the Chief Minister…he revolted, he betrayed the party, he is a traitor.”
It was perfectly natural for him to elaborate. His remarks regarding Mr Pilot’s ill-fated revolt in 2020, which he said was funded by the BJP and enabled by senior BJP leaders including Amit Shah, must be a first for India in which a party president attempted to overthrow his own government.
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NDTV has reached out to Mr Pilot for comment, and this report will be updated when he responds.
Mr Pilot, who had served as Deputy Chief Minister for about two years, decamped with 19 MLAs to a five-star resort near Delhi. This was a direct challenge to the Congress: either he become Chief Minister, or he would walk out, causing the party to split in one of its few states (the number has declined substantially since then).
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Despite its journey to the national capital, the dare failed. Mr Pilot, 45, was easily beaten by Mr Gehlot, 26 years his senior, who convened his own show of strength at a five-star resort with over 100 MLAs in attendance. As it turned out, there was no competition.
Having failed, Mr Pilot had to accept the consequences. He was sacked as deputy chief minister in addition to being removed as president of the Congress in his home state, a position that offers significant influence over cadre.
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In an interview with NDTV, Mr Gehlot claimed that Mr Pilot met with two senior union ministers during the revolt. Amit Shah and Dharmendra Pradhan were involved. “They (including Mr Pilot) had a meeting in Delhi,” he said, adding, again without backing up, that some MLAs who supported his rival received five crores and others ten crores. In fact, Mr Gehlot said, the money was collected at the BJP office in Delhi.” Mr Pradhan visited Camp Pilot at a time when Congress emissaries weren’t permitted.
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According to the BJP, Mr Gehlot’s claim is unfounded.
The Congress leadership has failed to put their house in order. The Congress is losing Rajasthan, which is why Gehlot is frustrated. He blames the BJP for his failure,” said BJP Rajasthan chief Satish Punia.
There was a certain amount of uneasy calm after Mr Pilot returned to the Congress, downsized but still seeking the top job in Rajasthan. Sonia Gandhi, who needed a successor as party president, leaned on Mr Gehlot until August. However, he suggested, after days of trying to fob it off, he might be able to accept it if he were allowed to remain Chief Minister. Thus, he has two posts to fill. It was a swift rebuke. According to Rahul Gandhi, the party’s dictum is “one man, one post”.
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Rajasthan MLAs were then scheduled to meet in late September to decide who would succeed Gehlot as party leader. At the official meeting in Jaipur, however, over 90 MLAs affiliated with Mr Gehlot held a parallel session where they declared that Mr Pilot was not an acceptable choice and that whoever became Congress President (i.e. Mr Gehlot) should have final say.
Congress and Team Pilot condemned Gehlot for staging his own rebellion. The MLAs were not loyal to the Chief Minister (me), Gehlot said. They were loyal to the High Command. He stressed that he was not present at the controversial meeting, and that Mr Pilot was to blame because he floated the theory that he would be given the job, pointing out that he had not attended. He himself propagated the rumour that Sachin Pilot would be elected Chief Minister. People thought he was going to be Chief Minister…This upset the MLAs because how could he be Chief Minister after trying to bring down his own government? “I agree – how can a gaddar become the Chief Minister?”
Mr Gehlot emphasized throughout his conversation that he has been loyal to the Gandhis since he was a child. “Everything I have is because of them,” he said. He was to be punished for organising the meeting in his support in September, the party said, but it remains an unfulfilled threat, as Pilot complained a few days ago (his outbursts against Gehlot have become a pattern).
The Chief Minister said he wasn’t sure what caused his problems with Mr Pilot. According to him, he recommended that the junior politician be made a union minister after the UPA won a second term in 2009.
As far as Mr Pilot is concerned, the fundamental issue is that the Congress pledged to rotate the Chief Ministership between him and Mr Gehlot after winning Rajasthan in 2018. According to Mr Pilot, he has been consistently sidelined by Mr Gehlot, who at one point tapped the phones of his supporters in order to choke them politically.
Gehlot says he has never understood Mr Pilot’s oft-stated charge of sidelining him. Moreover, he says it is a fallacy to claim that Mr Pilot was promised an equal term as Chief Minister. There is no question. But if he (Pilot) still says it, then ask Rahul Gandhi (if this condition has ever been established).”
Mr Gehlot said that his unequivocal position that Mr Pilot cannot be chief minister does not mean he could engineer a new revolt if that happens, even though it seemed more like an offer than an assurance, when he dismissed this question as “hypothetical” (he labelled most questions about his future role with regard to Mr Pilot as hypothetical).
In response to the question of whether the Congress will choose him to head its campaign in Rajasthan – the election is barely a year away – Mr Gehlot said, “For the first time, there is no anti-incumbency.” The choice is obvious, therefore. Politics is the rest.
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