Congress presidential poll: What is Ashok Gehlot’s plan?

Gehlot appears to be Sonia Gandhi’s choice for president if Rahul Gandhi refuses to take charge of the party. But he has made it clear that he can comfortably carry on as Rajasthan chief minister as well

Congress presidential poll: What is Ashok Gehlot’s plan?
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot

By Rohit Parihar : All eyes are on Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s next move. Gehlot has emerged as Sonia Gandhi’s choice to replace her as Congress president should Rahul Gandhi turn down the demand to take charge of the party again. The question is whether Rahul has set preconditions for becoming president again or he is not interested to take up the challenge, given that the Congress faces crucial assembly polls soon and he will have to take the blame in case the party continues to suffer electoral setbacks. The other big questions: will Gehlot become Congress president then? And if so, will he be ready to give up the Rajasthan CM’s post?

Over the past few days, Gehlot has taken the lead in getting Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) members and Congress MLAs to endorse Rahul’s name for party president. He has also made it known that he will be filing his nomination for the post if Rahul refuses to enter the fray. Gehlot has been a committed Gandhian Congress leader and a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist. Even though the Congress is going through its worse phase, he would be elated about being a potential choice for the president’s post.

But can Gehlot deliver enough as Congress national president without continuing as Rajasthan CM? Also, can the Congress gain in Rajasthan if he exits the state at this juncture (assembly elections are due next year)? If one can somewhat read his mind, the answer to both questions would be ‘no’. Gehlot has said that while he is not at all interested in holding any office, he won’t move away from Rajasthan politics even if he were to become the Congress chief.

Just being national president of his party will rob him of much of the stature and power that comes with the post of chief minister. Also, as president, there is likelihood of some Congress veterans refusing to abide by him even though he enjoys the Gandhi family’s backing. For example, if Sachin Pilot becomes Rajasthan’s next chief minister, it would be a far cry to expect him to obey Gehlot. Similarly, it’s almost impossible to think of Gehlot becoming national president and letting Pilot become Rajasthan CM in the first place; or even if made chief minister, letting Pilot pick his own cabinet and distributing election tickets as per his desire.

Gehlot, in the past, has tried to convince the Congress high command that the party, under his chief ministership, has been doing reasonably well in assembly by-elections and other polls in Rajasthan. So, perhaps as both national president and chief minister, he is well suited to take on the BJP in his state.

Also, though he is a young and dynamic leader, can Pilot ensure an assembly election win for the Congress in Rajasthan? Pilot has been saying that his aim is to bring the Congress to power again in the state. But he must blame himself for his unsuccessful revolt in 2020, which cost him power (he was removed as deputy CM and Congress state unit chief), credibility as well as the support of MLAs.

In the 200-member Rajasthan assembly, Gehlot enjoys the support of about 110 MLAs as against Pilot’s 15. Most of Gehlot’s MLAs and ministers, if not rewarded by Pilot, will revolt against his takeover as CM. The Pilot camp would be hoping that Gehlot, on becoming Congress chief, shows generosity and lets him become Rajasthan chief minister, with his son Vaibhav as cabinet minister. The Pilot camp also hopes that the support of at least one member of the Gandhi family can help push his case for chief ministership.

Gehlot and his aides have been clear that disturbing the status quo in Rajasthan can lead to the collapse of the Congress government and lend the BJP advantage. They have been countering the Pilot camp’s talk of ‘one man, one post’. Gehlot, on September 21, categorically said that the ‘one man, one post’ norm does not apply to elected office-bearers of the Congress. In fact, Pilot had continued as a Union minister after being appointed PCC president in January 2014. He lost the Lok Sabha election from Ajmer but continued to be PCC chief. In December 2018, when the Congress came to power in Rajasthan, he was also made deputy chief minister and held two positions till the sacking following the coup bid in 2020. One of the reasons for his revolt was that Gehlot had almost convinced the high command to replace Pilot with a new PCC chief while letting him continue as deputy chief minister. So it will be tough for Pilot to deny Gehlot the same privilege that he has twice enjoyed in the past.

Gehlot has been travelling extensively in recent weeks. He has been seeking suggestions from MLAs for the state budget, thus indicating that he will present it since he holds the finance portfolio. Yet, some feel that ultimately it is up to the Gandhis to decide who will be Rajasthan CM should Gehlot become Congress president. The speculation continues and surprises are not ruled out.

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