India's Congress party runs into another crisis with internal discord

Mr Sachin Pilot was sacked as deputy chief minister and Rajasthan Congress chief. PHOTO: SACHIN PILOT/FACEBOOK

NEW DELHI - The Congress Party was thrown into turmoil after an internal mutiny threatened its hold on power in the central state of Rajasthan, in the latest trouble to hit the 135-year-old party, which has continued to struggle to reverse its declining political fortunes.

Mr Sachin Pilot, 42, a well-known face of the party and a key second-rung leader, was sacked as deputy chief minister and Rajasthan Congress chief after revolting against senior leader Ashok Gehlot, the Rajasthan chief minister, potentially threatening the state government.

At least 16 members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) have also left with him, weakening the state government. It was unclear whether Mr Pilot had the support of more MLAs, needed to topple the government.

The Congress is the main opposition party of the country, but under India's federal system - where every state has a government - it is in power in five out of 29 states and the union territory of Puducherry.

Congress spokesman Randeep Singh Surjewala accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of fomenting trouble.

"I regret that Sachin Pilot and some of his associates have been swayed by BJP's plot and are now conspiring to topple the Congress government... It is unacceptable," Mr Surjewala told journalists.

The trouble in Rajasthan is the latest in a string of problems for the Congress Party.

The party has been struggling for political relevance since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power on a landslide win. Mr Modi returned with an even bigger mandate in the 2019 general elections.

The Congress won just 52 out of 543 seats in the Lower House of Parliament last year, in contrast to 303 seats won by Mr Modi's BJP.

Mr Rahul Gandhi, taking moral responsibility, quit as Congress president shortly after the election results last year, leaving his mother, Sonia, 73, to return as president.

A weakened central leadership has resulted in infighting, particularly among state leaders, and a widening rift between senior and younger leaders.

In March, the party suffered a political setback after Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia resigned from the Congress with his loyalists and joined the BJP, leading to the fall of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh.

Now, analysts are waiting to see if Mr Pilot follows the same trajectory.

The Congress leader, whose father Rajesh Pilot was a leading Congress politician who died in 2000 in a car crash, has denied that he is joining the BJP.

Mr Pilot, who has been unhappy over not being made chief minister, has gained much from the party, as many pointed out on social media, as his political moves made headline news.

He became an MP at 26, a federal minister at 32 and deputy chief minister at 40.

But the developments triggered disquiet within the Congress.

Even loyalists were left wondering if the party would continue on a downward spiral.

"Worried for our party, will we wake up after all the horses have bolted from the stable," tweeted senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal.

Still, the revolt comes at a time when Mr Gandhi has been seeking political relevance, questioning Prime Minister Modi over the coronavirus pandemic, the border troubles with China and the country's economic troubles deepened by a stringent lockdown, since lifted.

Mr Gandhi had also garnered attention with interviews on Covid-19's impact on the Indian economy with Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, Indian economist Raghuram Rajan and corporate honcho Rahul Bajaj. In the latest, he has announced he will be sharing video messages on social media.

Mr Modi's hold on power remains absolute, but many had seen an opportunity for the Congress to chart a course for political revival. Mr Modi is facing the toughest period of his leadership with a health crisis triggered by the pandemic and slowing economic growth.

But political analysts said Mr Gandhi had to first address the leadership crisis within the party.

The party has depended on the Nehru Gandhi family, a political dynasty that has led the Congress to numerous electoral wins and given India three prime ministers. Within the party, many believe the dynasty is crucial for unity.

"I think there is a need for some clarity within the Congress. The party requires a long-term strategy. And the first point in this strategy is the whole point of leadership. Is Congress moving towards a post-dynasty leadership or does the party believe it needs the dynasty to keep party together and maintain unity of party?" said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and Pro Vice-Chancellor at Jain University.

"Whatever you see happening is the symptom. It's not the disease. When you search for the cause, it's the leadership. Unless leadership is clarified, you can't take anything forward."

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