Three days ago, Congress president Rahul Gandhi almost brought the curtain down on the career of former chief minister Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. If the context and the content of his speeches is any indication, Rahul wants Sachin Pilot to be the next chief minister.
At several election rallies and road shows earlier this week, Rahul obliquely attacked Gehlot by arguing that the previous Congress government didn't listen to workers and people. But the next government would listen to their voices. Since the previous two Congress governments in Rajasthan " 1998 to 2003 and 2008 to 2013 " were helmed by Gehlot, the Congress chief's words are seen as a sign of moving on to a new style of governance and leadership.
Till a few days ago, it was believed that the Congress would not name a candidate for the chief ministerial post in Rajasthan. This was primarily seen as a ploy to keep the party united and not let personal ambitions sabotage the campaign. This allowed workers to put up a united front and not get divided in rival camps headed by Gehlot and Pilot. But, this ambiguity seems to have been replaced by a strategy to project Pilot as the presumptive chief minister.
Two factors have helped the Congress send out clear signals: First, the growing belief that the Congress will win the Assembly elections by a comfortable margin. Several opinion polls have predicted major losses for the ruling BJP both in terms of seats and vote share. Almost all of them have projected at least 80 more seats for the Congress than the BJP in the 200-member Assembly. Second, Pilot has also emerged as the most popular leader in the state " he is ahead not just of Gehlot, but also Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. Emboldened by his rising appeal, the Congress is ready to make him the face of the campaign.
Gehlot, however, is a delicate problem for the Congress high command. He is not only a popular leader but also commands loyalty among the cadre. In every constituency of the state, he has a large army of loyalists, informers and booth workers. In addition, he has the ability to swing the Mali " a powerful backward class " votes in a state where caste plays an important role.
There is a saying in Rajasthan which, if loosely translated, means a known ghost is better than an unknown deity. Since Pilot is still an unknown entity as a leader and an administrator, sceptics believe the undecided voter can still be swayed by Gehlot.
But, for a change, the Congress appears to have a plan to both utilise and negate Gehlot. As part of this strategy, it has given Gehlot a lot of prominence on the national stage. He was first given charge of Gujarat, then allowed to handle Karnataka and made party general secretary in-charge of organisation " a position of prominence and prestige. In addition, he is now a regular during press briefings and conferences from the party headquarters. In short, he has been given both respect and power.
Since the party is hopeful of a comfortable majority, Gehlot may also be allowed to recommend candidates and get a large number of loyalists accommodated in the final list of contestants. All this will ensur, Gehlot contributes to the party's victory, not defeat.
Rahul has obviously learnt from two major mistakes in his career. One, of allowing Himanta Biswa Sarma to demolish the Congress in the North East by ignoring his ambitions. Two, projecting a clear choice to voters, like in Punjab where putting Captain Amarinder Singh at the forefront allowed the Congress to negate the rise of AAP.
Every third decade sees the eclipse of a stalwart in Rajasthan's political firmament. In the 1970s, Mohan Lal Sukhadia was marginalised by Indira Gandhi. In 2003, BJP retired Bhairon Singh Shekhawat from active politics to make way for Vasundhara Raje. Gehlot, who has been the face of the Congress since 1990, appears next in line.
Incidentally, a similar churn is happening in the BJP below the surface. Its result will be visible immediately after the Assembly election.