NEW DELHI — At the heart of the political drama unfolding between Congress’s warring factions in Rajasthan are purported audio recordings of telephone conversations that Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot claims are “proof” that MLAs close to rebel congressman Sachin Pilot were considering jumping ship to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“We had call recordings of MLAs indicating the involvement of the BJP,” Nitin Agarwal, the Congress party spokesperson in Rajasthan said.
These recordings, a Congress MLA said, are now part of a police investigation, which was triggered by suspicions around the time of the Rajya Sabha elections that some MLAs were open to toppling the state government in exchange for money.
Gehlot alluded to these recordings on Wednesday, those close to the Chief Minister say, when he told the press in Jaipur on Wednesday that rebel MLAs with Pilot had fallen prey to the BJP’s machinations. Gehlot said there were talks of installments of money to be paid to rebel MLAs, the location where the money was to be delivered, as well as the number of the delivery person.
On July 10, the Special Operations Group of the Rajasthan Police filed an First Information Report under Sections 124A (sedition) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, leading to the arrests of two men linked to the BJP, Ashok Singh and Bharat Malani. Two politicians, independent MLA from Kushalgarh Ramila Khadiya and Congress’s Bagidora MLA Mahendra Jeet Singh Malviya, were named in the FIR.
Additional Director General (SOG) Ashok Mathur said they had reason to believe the government was under threat. “There was an attempt to destabilise the democratically elected government in Rajasthan by illegal means,” Mathur said. The police is treating Pilot as a witness in this case, not an accused.
Pilot and those close to him deny speaking with the BJP.
That the months long conflict between Gehlot and Pilot has escalated into a police investigation handled by the Special Operations Group of the Rajasthan police, rather than an intra-party affair settled by the Congress leadership, illustrates how the crisis in Rajasthan is different from the now familiar wranglings between political rivals.
The police investigation, Congress insiders say, has given Gehlot significant leverage over the Congress’s headquarters — making it hard for the party leadership to accede to Pilot’s demands which include the home and finance portfolio in the current administration, and that Pilot be declared the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the 2023 elections.
The Rajasthan conflict also marks the public emergence of Priyanka Vadra Gandhi as a negotiator and troubleshooter for the Congress at a time when the party is struggling to balance regional satraps like Gehlot with the ambitions of the party’s younger leaders. Since Rahul Gandhi stepped down as party president last year, several politicians such as Tripura’s Pradyot Manikya Debbarman, Haryana’s Ashok Tanwar, Jharkhand leader Ajay Kumar, and most recently Jyotiraditya Scindia, have left the party.
Conflicting signals from Delhi and Rajasthan
As the situation in Rajasthan spiralled out of control over the weekend, Priyanka Vadra Gandhi Vadra called Pilot on the phone on Sunday to convince him not to leave the party and join the BJP.
Priyanka’s phone calls, Congress persons close the Gandhis say, is why Pilot gave interviews on Wednesday where he swore allegiance to the Congress’s ideology. Leaders perceived close to Rahul, general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal and chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, have now been sent in to ensure that Pilot stays. In his address to the press after the CM’s outburst, Surjewala struck a reconciliatory note, asking Pilot to come back, but leave the mess with the BJP behind.
Yet, the party machinery in Rajasthan, which is controlled by Gehlot, has been less conciliatory. Pilot was stripped of his positions as the deputy CM and the state president on Tuesday for failing to turn up twice for meetings called for by the Congress Legislature Party to iron out differences. Many of his aides have been let go.
On Wednesday, while Gehlot took potshots at Pilot’s proficiency in English and his “handsome looks”, the Congress state-in-charge Avinash Pande divested all office-bearers of the Rajasthan Congress of their posts – effectively firing several people who were perceived to be close to Pilot.
A senior All India Congress Committee leader said the AICC wanted to salvage the situation but Pilot’s moves had made things difficult.
“He gave us less than 24 hours to intervene before he left with the MLAs,” said the leader.
An MLA who had backed Pilot till Saturday, only to return to Jaipur, said Pilot could probably have been accommodated by a party post outside Rajasthan.
“Perhaps, they should have given him a role in Delhi to keep the house in order,” the MLA said.
What comes next
In this tussle, the next two days will be crucial. A Pilot aide, who lost their position in these days owing to the fracas, said the rebel MLAs will now “wait and watch” ― a strategy which was echoed by some in the Gehlot camp as well.
The deadline for a reply to the anti-defection summon ends on Friday, and if they fail to provide a reasonable answer, the rebel MLAs face disqualification under the Tenth Schedule.
Rumblings of a third front have already emerged, and two former Congress leaders are said to be in constant touch with Pilot. This is in addition to some who are inside the party and are disgruntled. A former Congress leader, who too had left the party in a similar fashion, said that more exits might follow if the party fails to reconcile the ambitions of the young and the old.
“They are missing the woods for the trees,” the former Congressperson said.