Nearly three months after it engineered defections from the Congress legislative party to topple the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has allegedly a similar plan to grab power in Rajasthan by ousting the Congress-led Ashok Gehlot regime. The trigger for rumours of a reboot of BJP’s Operation Lotus in Rajasthan was a letter sent by Mahesh Joshi, Chief Whip of the Congress in the state assembly, to the Director General (Anti-Corruption Bureau) on June 10.
In the letter, Joshi claimed his sources have informed him that the BJP is trying to lure Congress MLAs and independent legislators “in order to destabilize a democratically elected government”. Soon after, in a late evening manoeuvre, Congress and independent legislators supporting the Gehlot government were moved to a resort in Jaipur where Gehlot, his deputy Sachin Pilot, AICC general secretary and the party’s Rajya Sabha poll candidate from the state, K.C. Venugopal, and the party’s national media cell chief, Randeep Singh Surjewala, met the MLAs to take stock of the developing situation.
Gehlot, Pilot and other central leaders of the party held another round of discussions with the MLAs at the resort on Thursday. Incidentally, Congress MLAs from Gujarat have also been lodged in the same resort ever since three of the party’s legislators in the state resigned from the party ahead of the Rajya Sabha polls due on June 19.
Surjewala told Outlook after his meeting with the Congress legislators on Thursday afternoon, “Congress party has an absolute and clear majority in the state. The BJP with its miniscule minority is once again trying to trample upon the democratic mandate but it is underestimating the resolve of our legislators. The BJP will face a befitting defeat in this blatant attempt to throttle democracy”.
Asked whether the confidence of retaining its legislators was misplaced in light of similar claims that the party had made ahead of the fall of its governments in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, Surjewala said, “You can wait till the Rajya Sabha results on June 19 and you will see that my assertion will have come true”.
As is the case in states like Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the Rajya Sabha polls which were to be held in March but were deferred to June 19 in wake of the coronavirus lockdown, will see the BJP attempt to win more seats than what it would have in Rajasthan if it fielded candidates purely on the basis of its legislative strength. Of the three vacant Rajya Sabha seats up for polls in Rajasthan, the Congress has the required number of MLAs to wrest two seats (51 per RS berth) while the BJP with its 72 legislators can comfortably secure victory for one candidate.
Besides Venugopal, the other Congress candidate in the fray in Neeraj Dangi, an Ashok Gehlot confidante who has unsuccessfully contested three assembly polls in the past. The BJP’s decision to field two candidates – Rajendra Gehlot and Omkar Lakhawat – will prevent a unanimous election on the three seats.
The Congress, based on its current legislative strength, is set to comfortably win two seats. In a house of 200 MLAs, the Congress presently has 107 legislators (including six MLAs who had won the December 2018 assembly polls on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket but later defected en bloc to the Congress) and the support of 13 independent MLAs, taking the Gehlot government’s majority tally to 121 MLAs. The BJP, on the other hand, has 72 MLAs and claims to have the support of six others.
What has given a veneer of credibility to the talk of dissentions – and possible defections – within the Congress legislative bloc are persistent rumours of differences between Gehlot and Pilot. Pilot, it is common knowledge in political circles, has felt personally slighted ever since he was looked over for the CM’s chair after the party’s assembly election win 18 months ago. Pilot believes the victory was the result of his hard work at reviving the party during the five preceding years that he served as Congress state chief; a position he continues to hold.
This dispute over the leadership question had previously played out in Madhya Pradesh too where Jyotiraditya Scindia felt he deserved to be made the state’s chief minister but was elbowed out by Congress stalwart Kamal Nath. Scindia walked out of the Congress in March and took with him 22 Congress legislators of the state to join the BJP, thereby toppling the Nath government. The defection, aside from ousting the Congress from power, also ensured that Scindia gets elected to the Rajya Sabha as a BJP nominee from the state while the party also secures another seat from the state which would have otherwise been wrested by the Congress.
It has, since the Scindia revolt, been speculated that Pilot would follow the same script. However, this is where Congress leaders from Rajasthan, including some loyalists of Pilot, that Outlook spoke to strike a dissenting note.
“If the BJP had tried to simultaneously poach Scindia and Pilot to topple the Congress governments in M.P and Rajasthan it may have worked but I do not believe it will work now because our MLAs can see the terrible state that Congress defectors in M.P find themselves in. Besides, there is a lot of public anger against the BJP due to the lockdown which will make re-election on BJP ticket difficult for Congress MLAs who defect. No one wants that uncertainty when you know you can stay where you are and finish a full term as an MLA and possibly even become a minister sometime,” a Rajasthan Congress MLA considered close to Pilot tells Outlook.
Another factor that Congress leaders from Rajasthan allude to while insisting on the stability of their government in the state is the political cunning of Ashok Gehlot. “Unlike Kamal Nath who was new to state politics, Gehlot is a grassroots politician and understands every aspect of the state’s politics and his legislators. A majority of our 107 MLAs are his loyalists and 12 of the 13 independents supporting this government are basically Gehlot’s people. Over the past year, Gehlot has also won over some MLAs who began as Pilot loyalists while Gehlot’s protégé-turned-rival C.P. Joshi was elected Assembly Speaker effectively excluding him from the ambit of being poached by the BJP,” a veteran party MLA says.
The numbers too, says another Congress leader, do not favour the BJP’s bid for toppling the state government. “The BJP needs a minimum of 28 additional MLAs to reach the simple majority mark. Since a majority of the independents are loyal to Gehlot and nearly half a dozen Congress MLAs who once professed allegiance to Pilot now rooting for the chief minister, the BJP cannot assuredly bank on a bloc of defectors as it did with Scindia’s men in M.P,” the leader says.
Both Gehlot and Pilot have, for now, been putting up a united front, telling reporters that though the BJP was making efforts to destabilize the government these would not yield any fruit. Unlike the drama that unfolded before the Nath government fell in M.P when Scindia refused to respond to messages from the Congress leadership and facilitated the BJP to fly his loyal MLAs out of Bhopal to a resort in Bangalore, Pilot has not indulged in any vanishing act. “He is attending all meetings and was present at the residence of Gehlot when the MLAs were summoned on Wednesday evening before being taken to the resort. On Thursday too, Pilot and Gehlot jointly spoke to all MLAs and central observers,” says a party leader.
A section of Congress leaders believe that the scenes unfolding in Jaipur are more a case of being ‘better safe than sorry’ as Gehlot “does not want to be seen as being complacent despite a palpable threat from the BJP and some within the Congress.” A party MLA close to Gehlot tells Outlook that the current churning “appears to be more of an effort to embarrass Gehlot during the Rajya Sabha polls by ensuring some amount of cross-voting by Congress or independent MLAs to put the chief minister on notice but it doesn’t look like there is an immediate possibility of the government falling.”
The intrigue is likely to continue until the legislators cast their votes for the Rajya Sabha polls on June 19 but the Congress, for now, seems confident of having averted a crisis. It would, however, need to stay alert of the BJP’s machinations if it wishes to complete its term in power.