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Rajasthan: Gehlot government’s pre-bypoll bonanza

India Today logo India Today 24-02-2021 Rohit Parihar
Ashok Gehlot et al. that are standing in a room

logo, company name © Provided by India Today Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot is pulling out all the stops to ensure that the Congress wins four upcoming bypolls for assembly seats in the state, which are due to be announced sometime in the near future. These seats had fallen vacant following the deaths of the incumbent MLAs. Of the four, the Congress had held three—Saharra, Vallabhnagar and Sujangarh—while the BJP had Rajsamand. This puts additional pressure on Gehlot and his handpicked PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) chief Govind Singh Dotasra to, at the very least, retain the original three seats. Political watchers say this is why the Gehlot administration announced 178 schemes worth Rs 158 crore for these four constituencies last week, with the chief minister saying that the Congress would do its best to win all four.

BIG CHALLENGE

There are several reasons why it is critical for chief minister Gehlot's administration to win these four bypolls. For one, these are the first such elections being held after the rebellion by Sachin Pilot, the former Rajasthan PCC chief, and his camp in July last year. Before that, in 2019, Gehlot had led the Congress in a successful campaign to win a seat held by the BJP—Mandawa—as well as giving the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, a BJP ally, a tough fight for the Khimsar seat. The chief minister had later said that the Congress could have won Khimsar as well, had in not been for remarks by Pilot that had gone against the party. A good result in the upcoming bypolls will strengthen Gehlot's hand. (After speculation that the chief minister could nominate either his or speaker C.P. Joshi's sons for the election, Joshi rubbished the idea, with a source close to Gehlot calling it a "funny suggestion".)

Sources say Gehlot wants to win these elections without Pilot and is confident that he can do so. The chief minister disapproved of Pilot's efforts at one-upmanship during a recent visit by Rahul Gandhi to the state, when supporters interrupted the Gandhi scion by chanting his name. Gandhi himself has also maintained a strategic public distance from Pilot since the rebellion.

To improve his standing, Pilot has been conducting grassroots campaigns among farmers, with some of his rallies gathering impressive numbers. He has been putting in effort to keep the pressure on the chief minister, possibly to gain plum posts for his supporters. Some suggest that a bad showing for the Congress in the upcoming bypolls would strengthen Pilot's hand by weakening Gehlot—the chief minister would then be on the back foot, and Pilot could use the situation to argue for a larger role in the next state assembly elections, to be held in 2023.

MAKEN APPEASES PILOT

Ajay Maken, AICC (All India Congress Committee) general secretary and Congress in-charge of Rajasthan has been trying to build bridges between Gehlot and Pilot. In a recent move, Maken persuaded Gehlot to withdraw a special leave petition (SLP) filed before Supreme Court—party chief whip Mahesh Joshi had filed the SLP against the Rajasthan High Court order staying speaker C.P. Joshi's notices to Pilot and 18 MLAs asking them why they should not be disqualified. For the moment, another SLP filed by speaker Joshi against the high court's stay on his notice remains active, precipitating a question of constitutional authority.

Many in the Congress are now asking a very valid question: Is Maken siding with Pilot's tactics of pressuring the state leadership by not asking him to withdraw his case against the speaker's notice before high court? For his part, Maken says he is working to put up a united front, pointing to the fact that he had persuaded Pilot to display Gehlot's photograph at one of his recent rallies. Clearly, he does not want to precipitate a showdown. In either case, chief minister Gehlot is likely willing to take risks knowing well that Pilot has limited influence in the areas where the bypolls are to be held.

At present, the Congress has 103 MLAs in the state assembly, of which six are former BSP MLAs whose entry into the Congress has been pending before the Supreme Court. The current strength of the state assembly is 196—a win in at least three of the bypolls will give the Gehlot administration 106 seats again, with an additional seat being a bonus. That said, the chief minister also has support of most of the independents in the state assembly—even if he loses all four bypolls, he faces no immediate threat to his government. Pilot, who once had the support of 22 MLAs, now has 15 or so.

AFTER PUDUCHERRY, RAJASTHAN?

After Congress lost Puducherry to an internal revolt engineered by the BJP, many in Rajasthan have asked how long the Gehlot administration will last. However, the BJP's state unit has its own troubles, with as many as 20 of its MLAs accusing the leadership of ignoring them for being Raje loyalists. If the saffron party attempts to destabilise the Gehlot government, it might find itself plunged into an internal power struggle of its own. That being said, the BJP might be willing to take a gamble to bring down the Gehlot administration, since it is well known that some rebel Congress MLAs have unofficially promised the BJP their support if they are rewarded for doing so.

One way or another, Rajasthan's political climate is headed for turbulent times.

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