As is typical of many a Congress denouement in which election victories are often followed by intense intra-party factional haggling over the choice of the leader, Ashok Gehlot’s election as leader of the legislature party in Rajasthan was wrested from three days of ugly wrangling. Union Minister Sis Ram Ola threw his hat in the ring as did State Congress chief C.P. Joshi. The police claim that their supporters sustained no injuries in the clashes would have been com ic had the matter not been the serious one of choosing a Chief Minister. The selection process was long and tedious with the Pradesh Congress Committee expectedly turning for guidance to Sonia Gandhi, and she, in turn, leaving the decision to a team of observers from Delhi. Was the fuss avoidable? Definitely, because there was little doubt that the soft-spoken Mr. Gehlot was the natural choice for the job. The Ola faction not only made outrageously casteist claims on behalf of the Union Minister, it threatened a Jat backlash should Mr. Gehlot, from the OBC Mali (gardener) community, become Chief Minister. Yet for the Congress to give in to this blackmail would have been to ignore Mr. Gehlot’s positive governing record. In his earlier term as Chief Minister (1998-2003), Mr. Gehlot was credited with having run a caring and competent administration, earning laurels in particular for his deft management of the crippling drought of 2002-03. He had emerged as the Congress’ key strategist in the political battle with the Vasundara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party.
The bitter factionalism that almost stymied Mr. Gehlot’s choice as Chief Minister is also the reason why the Congress has stopped short of an absolutely majority in the new Rajasthan House. Crossing the halfway mark ought to have been easy for the State Congress given that the BJP was beset with problems. For the better part of 2007-08, Rajasthan was torn asunder by violent Gujjar-Meena clashes that claimed about 70 lives. A further setback to the Raje government was the September 2008 stampede in the Chamunda Devi temple in Jodhpur which killed nearly 200 pilgrims. Ms Raje earned opposition ire for the repeated instances of police firing. Meanwhile, it was an open secret that many in her own party worked against her. The outgoing Chief Minister was thought to be hard working, and she did deliver to an extent on her promise of development. But she was perceived as distant and remote, an image her rivals in the BJP exploited to the hilt. Hence, it is not at all surprising that the unassuming Mr. Gehlot won the day.