While settling the chief ministerial tangles in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in 2018, Rahul Gandhi had invoked an insight from Leo Tolstoy on Twitter: “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Five years later, Sachin Pilot seems to have embraced this wisdom to don a “patience-personified” avatar in election season. After years of open defiance and vocal resistance, Sachin is now calm and discreet as he makes a special effort not to ruffle any feathers in the Congress.
A shining star in the 2018 Rajasthan polls, Pilot has no clearly defined role this time – but he’s not complaining. Back then, as Rajasthan Congress president, he aspired to the CM post. Now, with Ashok Gehlot firmly in the coveted seat and showing no signs of yielding, Pilot insists he has buried the hatchet with the Rajasthan CM on the advice of party chief Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi. Ever since they brokered peace between the warring duo, Pilot is repeating “forgive and forget” almost like a mantra.
Letting Go Rebel Avatar
The transformation in Pilot's political persona is striking. His current demeanour is a far cry from the rebel persona he had acquired in the three years since his revolt of 2020 . That rebellion helped Gehlot cement his position but Pilot was pushed to the margins, losing both his posts as deputy CM and state Congress chief. The truce effected by Rahul Gandhi and Kharge has prompted Pilot to extend an olive branch, emphasising amity and unity within the Congress.
Earlier this year, Pilot's confrontational stance against Gehlot included staging a dharna against his own government and going on a padayatra that garnered lots of headlines. But the defiance that caught the media's eye made it tough for the Congress high command to rehabilitate him, with the Gehlot camp painting him as an over-ambitious, unreliable leader who had a dalliance with BJP during the 2020 revolt. But after the truce with Gehlot, Pilot has tried to rebuild bridges and his patience was recently rewarded with a CWC membership, signalling his return to the party's mainstream.
Unlike his earlier confrontational image, Pilot has adopted a conciliatory approach. Far from provoking Gehlot, he has publicly praised the Chief Minister. In September, amid BJP attacks over law and order, Pilot defended the Gehlot regime and argued that his party’s government had acted strongly on incidents of crime in Rajasthan unlike in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In October, when the Enforcement Directorate raided state Congress chief Govind Singh Dotasra’s home and summoned Gehlot’s son Vaibhav in an old case, Pilot condemned ED actions strongly and affirmed the party’s unity against such tactics.
Will Gehlot Pay For Sidelining Pilot?
While Pilot has virtually waved a white flag, Gehlot continues to test his patience with jibes and subtle insinuations about loyalty and commitment. Despite Gehlot's provocations, Pilot has refrained from responding, maintaining a disciplined silence. The only exception was a cheeky retort on ticket distribution. When Gehlot claimed not to have opposed any aspirant from the Pilot camp, Sachin responded that he too had allowed tickets being given to those pro-Gehlot MLAs who were involved in defying the high command’s directive to hold a CLP meeting in Jaipur last year!
Despite his popularity, especially among the youth and the influential Gujjar community, Pilot's role in the current campaign is noticeably subdued. Often relegated to the sidelines at public rallies, Pilot is nowhere in Congress publicity materials but he keeps side-stepping the issue and emphasises “collective leadership”. Ten days before voting, Pilot finally figures in some posters/hoardings but the Congress campaign is mainly a “one man show” around Gehlot.
Given this context, Pilot is cultivating a low-profile even in election season but his sidelining could prove costly for the Congress, especially in east Rajasthan, where the party's success in 2018 was attributed largely to the Gujjar factor and the perception that Sachin may become CM. Anger among Gujjars, coupled with a lack of prominence to Pilot's youthful aura, now poses challenges for the party in an election where the youth vote could be a crucial factor.
While Pilot and Gehlot project a united front publicly, latent frictions between their factions persist. Adopting a more strategic and politically correct game, Pilot confines himself to roles assigned by the high command or the state unit. On the chief ministerial question, Pilot maintains a pragmatic stance and asserts that elected MLAs and the high command will decide who will get what responsibility and claims he has no desire for any chair just for personal glory or gratification
Pilot Wins High Command Backing
As the electoral intensity heightens, Pilot's low-profile strategy seems a calculated manoeuvre to sidestep unnecessary controversies and conflicts with Gehlot. Over time, the Gandhi trio of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have started valuing Pilot a lot more for his patience and commitment towards the Congress. In contrast, Gehlot’s ties with the Gandhis have soured since his loyalist MLAs revolted in September last year in a huge embarrassment for the Congress high command.
After years of an aggressive, combative tone in his tussle with Gehlot, Pilot's return to a calm and controlled style reflects the measured approach that has long served him well in his political journey. Pilot knows that if under Gehlot leadership, the Congress loses, he could well emerge the dominant force for the party’s future in Rajasthan. But if the Congress wins with Gehlot as its main face, the CM question may see a revival of Pilot-Gehlot tensions.
For the moment, Pilot is adopting a strategy to lie low and eschew needless controversies. He appears to have deeply internalised Sonia Gandhi's advice at a Congress convention that the “one who keeps patience gets a chance someday.” Pilot is biding his time in what’s clearly a tough phase of his life, both politically and personally, given his divorce declaration in nomination papers for the Tonk seat.
With age and the Gandhis on his side and patience as his virtue, Pilot is hopeful he will get something major in return for his loyalty. But as he stays peaceful and patient, whether Sachin’s low-profile strategy in the high stakes Rajasthan poll battle will ensure the top prize for Pilot remains an intriguing question that only time will answer.
Rajan Mahan is a senior journalist who headed NDTV and Star News in Rajasthan. He was also a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. Views are personal, and do not represent the stance of this publication.