An announcement by senior Congress leader Sachin Pilot that he will hold a day-long hunger strike against what he called inaction by the Rajasthan government on corruption cases has confirmed what has been known for some time – that differences between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his once-deputy that plunged the government into crisis three years ago continue to fester and assurances by the party meant to tamp down tensions have not materialised. This comes at a particularly inopportune moment for the Congress, already consumed in trying to erect a legal and political response to the disqualification of former party chief Rahul Gandhi over a criminal defamation conviction, and is on an issue the party appears vulnerable – graft.
The discord between Mr Gehlot and Mr Pilot is not new. The two leaders have been locked in public spats over the years, and after the 2018 win in the state elections, both pitched for the chief ministership. The Congress made on CM and the other, deputy, but things came to a head in 2020 when the latter rebelled against the former. While a temporary solution was found at the time, differences burst out in the public domain again last year when lawmakers considered close to Mr Gehlot defied the party leadership’s diktat to allow the high-command to nominate the next CM — at the time, the Rajasthan CM was the frontrunner to become the next Congress chief — because there was speculation that Mr Pilot would get the state’s top job. Despite simmering problems, the party’s leadership did not proactively try to build a bridge and end the dissension – perhaps it wasn’t confident enough that its writ would be obeyed.
A party in the middle of a serious electoral and political crisis can hardly afford to be lax in resolving a factional battle, one that could cost the party elections scheduled in the desert state later this year. Rajasthan has a tradition of voting out the incumbent party, and so the Congress will need every ounce of political muscle to overcome anti-incumbency if it wants to retain one of only three states it is in power in by itself. The party will do well to remember the lessons from a similar internal battle that bruised it before the election in Punjab in 2021, mainly because the central leadership first stumbled in removing an established CM, then dithered in resolving competing ambitions, and allowed the party to be pulled in opposing directions till mere weeks before the elections, by which time the electorate had made up its mind to go another way. The result was a electoral drubbing in a state where the party appeared well placed even three months earlier. To avoid another electoral reverse, the party’s leadership must consider talking to both sides and finding common ground, fast.