Column | From Nehru to Gehlot - PMs and CMs had frosty ties with their deputies

Sachin Pilot (R) is seen with the then Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot during a party function in Jaipur. PTI Photo

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has said that he and his deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot, until recently, did not speak to each other for 18 months. The frost that got built up between the two leaders was not melted by any gesture from each side nor did the Congress high command make any visible attempts, as the duo hardened their stand and influenced their die-hard supporters. The mistrust and lack of communication finally resulted in Gehlot's police registering a case accusing Pilot of being involved in a toppling game, and in retaliation Pilot revolting.

Gehlot, the senior of the two leaders, treated his number two more as an enemy than as a colleague, especially after Gehlot's ambitious son Vaibhav was defeated in the Lok Sabha elections by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat of BJP a year ago. Interestingly, both Gehlot and Pilot have a reputation of being overfriendly leaders who have maintained a large circle within the Congress party and media, across the country. Yet such was the deep distrust and hatred that they did not praise or complement each other. Pilot, who led the Congress efforts against the then BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje for five years by taking a vow not to wear a traditional turban till she was defeated, was not singularly credited by the Gehlot camp when the duo's party won. Gehlot was sore with Pilot for denying tickets to some of his staunchest supporters, who won as rebels.

When Rahul Gandhi, who settled the long-drawn leadership tussle by announcing a cohabitation of the two rivals in the new government, said it was the "United Colours of Rajasthan", Pilot was deeply resentful that the crown was snatched from him by a manoeuvring Gehlot, who had done nothing to revive the Congress after he had lost heavily in 2013.

The weakness or disinterest of the high command was evident that neither Rahul as Congress president nor Sonia Gandhi as interim president or K C Venugopal as general secretary (organisation) could get the duo to come together. Pilot sulked that the chief minister dominated the ticket distribution in the 2019 parliament elections and spent the campaign time mostly in Jodhpur where Vaibhav was contesting. On his part, Gehlot, who had Congress leaders coming from all states, did not invite Pilot to campaign, and later accused the deputy chief minister of sabotaging Vaibhav's election. Now there can only be speculation on what would have happened if Gehlot had kept speaking to Pilot and given him some responsibilities, or Pilot kept his channel of communication with all the Congress legislators instead of confining himself to the small group of his loyalists.

The head of a government not speaking to his or her number two is not a new thing in national or regional politics. V P Singh, close ally-turned-enemy, was not on talking terms with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during the turbulent period he was in the Union Cabinet. Singh, who himself became prime minister at the head of an amalgamated Janata Dal, supported on the outside by BJP and Communists, had described his job as managing contradictions. He had a taste of his own medicine, as he was soon not on talking terms with his own deputy, Devi Lal, who used rustic language to describe how the PM lacked a spine.

Like Singh, Morarji Desai was another number two who was not on speaking terms with the PM. Later when he himself became the prime minister, Desai had frigid ties with his deputy. The veteran leader known for his iron will and impatience was finance minister of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. While he worked closely with Nehru, he had no liking for the daughter. Losing the prime ministertship twice to Indira worsened their attitude to each other. Though the party leadership forced a victorious Indira in 1967 to make the loser deputy prime minister in-charge of finance, the two hardly spoke to each other. Desai, who was famous for answering a question with a question, would communicate in monosyllables in cabinet meetings, and write long letters to the prime minister. Two years later Indira divested him of finance portfolio and went for bank nationalisation. An insulted Desai quit the cabinet and headed the anti-Indira faction when the Congress split soon afterwards.

But he had no easy relationship with his own senior ministers Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram when Janata Party came to power after defeating Indira in 1977. Though he promoted the seniors as deputy prime ministers to buy peace in the deeply divided party in January 1979, within six months Charan Singh brought down the government, and became the prime minister for a few months. Another number two who communicated to the PM either through long letters or public comments was human resource development minister Arjun Singh in the P V Narasimha Rao government. Arjun Singh too rebelled but could not realise his prime ministerial ambition, as in 2004, Sonia Gandhi preferred Manmohan Singh to head the UPA government, and Singh had to forget his ambition and settle for a ministry.

Scene in the states

The sullen silence within the cabinet has also been felt in the states where a national party forces cohabitation between rival claimants. In Punjab, three years ago, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, who defected from BJP to Congress, felt he was the catalyst for the defeat of the Akali Dal-BJP government and was an aspirant for chief ministership. But the old warhorse Amarinder Singh who was earlier chief minister and controlled the newly elected MLAs was the obvious choice for the CM's chair. A reluctant Sidhu was forced to join the cabinet by the Congress high command on the promise his interests would be taken care of. But Amarinder and Sidhu were not on speaking terms, as the CM treated Sidhu, who is also a star of television talkshows, as an upstart. As his powers were clipped and the CM's supporters encroached on his political turf, Sidhu not only turned from chatterbox to a silent leader, he even resigned when his portfolio was changed.

In Rajasthan itself, when Vasundhara Raje became chief minister for the first time (2003), she sidelined supporters of then vice-president of India Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who had been the state's first BJP chief minister. Among them was Shekawat's son-in-law Narpat Singh Rijvi, who was the health minister. But after a period the two have been speaking to each other, but the bitterness between Gehlot and Pilot is so much that it would take major political changes for them to say hello to each other.

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