Long before Sachin Pilot, there was his equally charming father Rajesh Pilot. In 1997, Pilot senior decided to take on octogenarian Sitaram Kesri for the Congress president’s post. It’s a battle Rajesh Pilot knew he could not win. Kesri had ‘managed’ the electoral college which was packed with his people. But Rajesh Pilot was undeterred: “This is a fight to save the party from extinction,” he insisted. He lost the election but stayed on in the Congress. If Rajesh Pilot’s ambitions were couched at the time in lofty principles, son Sachin’s battle is a fairly open power struggle for the chief minister’s chair in Rajasthan. This is not a fight about party or ideology but simply a no holds barred personal clash between him and chief minister Ashok Gehlot for the prized kursi.
That’s not just the only difference between father and son. Long before prime minister Narendra Modi spoke in public of his ‘chaiwallah’ past, Rajesh Pilot would speak to us in private about his ‘doodhwallah’ credentials. He told us how he would sell milk on a bicycle in Lutyens Delhi to some of the very VIPs he was now rubbing shoulders with. He was a self-made man, a squadron leader in the air force who strayed into politics in 1980 and then climbed his way slowly to a ministerial position in Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1985.
By contrast, Sachin Pilot has had a relatively cushy landing than most who have to wait decades for any recognition. Wharton educated, he was suddenly pushed into politics because of his father’s tragic death in a car accident. A member of parliament at 26, a minister at 31, a state Congress president at 36 and a deputy chief minister at 40, his has been a fast track ascent in politics. He has been part of the privileged elite in the Congress, a cosy club of dynasts who have inherited a political legacy almost as if by birthright, benefitting from their close proximity to the Gandhi family. Where lakhs of dedicated party workers can scarcely get a peek into the high command durbar, many of these young MPs were directly catapulted into prominence by virtue of their family surnames. As Rahul Gandhi candidly admitted when Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the party, “he is the only one who can walk into my house at any time.. he was in college with me.” Clearly, the lines between the personal and political lie blurred in the Congress.
And yet, while Sachin Pilot too has been an undoubted beneficiary of this chummy back-slapping ‘entitlement raj’, he is also a good example of what a dynast should do to shake off the silver spoon tag. In the complex caste dynamics of Rajasthan, Sachin could have easily been stereotyped as a Gujjar leader like his father was with little cross-class, cross-caste support. But he has taken risks, contesting from non-Gujjar territory in Ajmer and winning in 2009. After losing the seat in 2014, he took up an even bigger risk: abandoning the comfort zone of Lutyens Delhi to become the Rajasthan Congress chief in 2014, a move that suggested a willingness to take the road less travelled. His mass appeal within Rajasthan is debatable but few can deny that he has made a serious effort to be seen as more than just another English-speaking ‘baba log’ politician. He may not have an Ashok Gehlot’s grassroot connect but as a charismatic young politician who could bridge the divide between the Khan market crowd and the rural heartland of a Dausa, Sachin is perhaps an even greater asset to a struggling opposition party than his father.
Remember Sachin and Rajesh Pilot belong to very different eras in Indian politics. Rajesh Pilot cut his political teeth in the age of Congress dominance while his son is now doing his politics when the Congress has been seriously downsized. Rajesh Pilot was, after all, minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government with 400 plus MPs while a weakened Congress today is confronted with a rampant BJP. Which is why, to quote a senior Congress MP, ‘we need as many horses as possible within our stable’.
A pugnacious Rajesh Pilot was unafraid in taking on the powerful, then be it the VVIP godman Chandraswami who he jailed or the criminal dons he chased as internal security minister. He even took on the BJP after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 at a time when other members in the Narasimha Rao government were willing to compromise. By contrast, while Sachin has maintained that he has no secret deal with the BJP, the possibility of his being attracted by the idea of using the BJP to topple the Gehlot government cant be ruled out. Sachin versus Gehlot is, after all, a collision of both generation and culture: the urbane sophisticate versus the rustic son of the soil.
Interestingly, both Ashok Gehlot and Rajesh Pilot were beneficiaries of a generational change in the Congress effected by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. The then prime minister consciously sought out talented young leaders like a Gehlot in Rajasthan, a Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh, an Ahmed Patel in Gujarat, all of them then in their 30s and gave them the space to build successful political careers. Rajiv himself had become prime minister at 40 suggesting a marked demographic shift in India’s politics and his cabinet was packed with dynamic young ministers like Pilot senior, P Chidambaram and Arif Mohammed Khan.
In his initial years as Congress president Rahul Gandhi too tried to give the party a more youthful flavor: as part of this endeavour, Sachin Pilot was sent off to Rajasthan while other young politicians were made state presidents. Most of them couldn’t handle the pressure of dealing with seasoned but insecure politicians from the Rajiv generation and gave up. Last year, for example, an ailing Ajay Maken in Delhi handed over the baton to Sheila Dikshit while in Haryana, another Rahul appointee, Ashok Tanwar was forced to quit and the state’s two time chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda was brought back to salvage Congress fortunes. Pilot was, in a sense, the last survivor and now he too is gone, further evidence that the ‘old guard’ has reasserted itself.
But if there is one thing that father and son have in common it is their fierce ambition and a rebellious, if slightly impetuous streak. Which is why just as Rajesh Pilot kept bouncing back from every setback, expect Sachin too to not give up so easily. Oh yes, there is another unifying factor: the media-friendly Rajesh Pilot would host an annual ‘kisan lunch’ for journalists in the capital, a tradition which the equally media-savvy son has faithfully followed.
Post-script: Since we started the column with Sitaram Kesri, lets end with him too. When Rajesh Pilot took on Kesri, I asked the veteran Congressman how he viewed the 52 year old Pilot’s challenge: ‘Garam khoon hai, theek ho jayega!” was the ever-smiling response. Guess the hot blooded instinct for a joust runs in the family!