The pace at which Sonia Gandhi moved to deliver Sachin Pilot’s political reckoning has displayed a new style of leadership for the 73-year-old president of the Congress party. While those who know her well are not used to her making quick decisions, a top leader who has done time as an interlocutor with Mr Pilot said, “There was an attempt to topple a government. How can you (she) delay the decision?”
In fact, she didn’t. Congress sources interviewed for this report said Mrs Gandhi, known for ruminating over far simpler calls, clocked what they consider record speed in having Mr Pilot dismissed as the No 2 in the Rajasthan government as well as the president of the Congress branch in that state exactly two days after he arrived in Delhi from Jaipur. He said he would not return without the guarantee that he would replace his main adversary, Ashok Gehlot, as the Chief Minister. Mrs Gandhi’s emissaries duly conveyed that was a no-go, but that another big role for Mr Pilot could be chiselled out, most likely in Delhi.
Till two weekends ago, Mr Pilot, at age 42, was among those who got top billing as the party’s future leadership. That list is led by Mrs Gandhi’s son, Rahul, who quit last year as party chief, and her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who called Mr Pilot repeatedly to pave the way for a truce. Her team has confirmed that she offered to arrange a meeting for Mr Pilot with her mother and brother in Delhi; he politely declined, stating that there was no point in pulling up a chair if the promotion to Chief Minister was off the table.
Mrs Gandhi, sources close to her say, took that shrug off personally – in the Congress, a session with the Gandhis is neither easily offered nor procured. She also felt that Mr Pilot’s affiliation with the BJP was anything but tacit – the fact that he assembled a cohort of 18 MLAs who he moved to a resort in Haryana, which is governed by the BJP, proved his political shift. That he had sketched out the details of his revolt with the BJP giving him a leg up while he was still state president of the Congress and Deputy Chief Minister was one of many flashpoints that provoked her into ordering his dismissal from office.
Just three months ago, a different Congress Gen Next-er, Jyotiradtiya Scindia, age 49, threw the party into convulsions when he abandoned it for the BJP and, in doing so, brought down the Madhya Pradesh government headed by Kamal Nath, who, like Ashok Gehlot, is vintage Congress. Mr Scindia said his requests for a meeting with the Gandhis had yielded no result, a claim that reinforced the perception of the family as an inaccessible and malfunctioning centre. Critics of the Gandhis say that Mr Scindia’s exit presaged that of Mr Pilot; yet, the family showed some interest in placating Mr Pilot only when it was too late – he has described as breaking point a notice sent to him by the Rajasthan police that sought to pin him down on charges of organizing cash bribes with the BJP for Congress MLAs to break ranks.
Officially, the Congress maintains that it is open to Mr Pilot’s return, if he approaches without pre-conditions. Officially, Mr Pilot even today describes himself as a Congressman. In court, the two sides are arguing about whether Mr Pilot can be dismissed, along with those supporting him, as an MLA. That hearing, which began on Friday, is likely to conclude tomorrow. Mr Gehlot, for his part, has been profligate in his criticism of his former deputy, describing him today as “worthless” and “deceptively innocent-looking”, and last week as “(only) handsome” with “good English.” The personal attacks are at odds with the tactics of the Congress spokespersons who maintain a settlement with Mr Pilot is the party’s distinct preference.
When the Hoodas threatened to quit the Congress and form their own party in Haryana, when Captain Amarinder Singh asked that he be named the Chief Ministerial candidate for Punjab, when the Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar sought an alliance to form the government in Maharashtra, Mrs Gandhi was seen as guilty of procrastination.
Those who see the Congress in eternal thrall to Family First say her quick go-ahead for the party to wind down Mr Pilot’s place in it has the distinct advantage of removing any competition for her children. Those who are not critics ask what else could she have done, given Mr Pilot’s political duplicity. “It was a question of immediate surgery. This decision was right in her face… a decision had to be taken,” said a top party leader.