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Ashok Gehlot: The low-profile leader who plays political magic

The low-profile politician had held a clutch of Union government portfolios in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but was not known to be a popular leader.

Updated: Dec 14, 2018 21:22:30

By Rakesh Goswami

Senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot outside the Congress President Rahul Gandhi's residence in New Delhi, India. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot is known to outmanoeuvre his detractors in such a way that they don’t even get the slightest hint about it. The man born into a family of professional magicians is credited with playing political magic to emerge as the tallest Congress leader in the state in the last 15 years.

So, people who know how he operates had little doubt that he will become the next chief minister even though they were blindsided by the suspense that played out after the results were announced on December 11.

When the 67-year-old became the chief minister for the first time in 1998, there was the mighty Maderna and Mirdha families, the two tall Jat dynasties in the Marwar region from where Gehlot comes from. But in the last 15 years, the Mirdhas have become almost a political non-entity; the Maderna family is besieged by Mahipal Maderna’s sex scandal for which the man is behind bars for seven years.

Although privately Gehlot has claimed that he had no role in the political future of Jat leadership in the state, the farming community considers him their biggest adversary.



“The animosity is rooted in the social hierarchy. That a leader from the mali (gardener) community could not only stand alongside them but eventually grew taller in politics hasn’t gone down well with the influential Jats,” says former journalist and a teacher of mass communication Narayan Bareth.

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But political manoeuvres aren’t the only quality of the man who has been active in politics for the last 38 years. He is adept at diffusing crises through talks. During the Gujjar agitation, when Kirori Singh Bainsla came to the chief minister’s office for talks, Gehlot gave him a picture of Martin Luther King Jr and told him, “Kisi bhi kimat par shanti rehni chahiye (There should be peace at any cost).”

Gehlot has been a Gandhian since college. “In Jodhpur, we were regular to Gandhi Shakti Pratisthan to read Gandhi literature. He always keeps photos of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr in his office and even installed a Gandhi bust in the Secretariat when he became the CM for the first time in 1998,” says Prakash Bhandari, who was with Gehlot in a Jodhpur college in the early 1970s.

Every year, Gehlot’s office sends out a Gandhi diary to friends, bureaucrats, and journalists as the New Year’s gift. He is against any form of intoxication and is a votary of liquor prohibition since the days he, as a member of social organisation Tarun Shanti Sena, would picket outside liquor shops in Jodhpur.

Gehlot could not implement prohibition when he was the chief minister twice but in his previous tenure (2008-2013), he ordered the closure of liquor shops at 8 pm even though it cost the government a fair amount of excise revenue. This was an order that even Vasundhara Raje could not reverse when she occupied the CM’s office the following term.

Gehlot went with his father, Laxman Singh Gehlot, to assist him in the magic shows in Jodhpur. He wanted to be a doctor but ended up in politics, says Bhandari. “Both of us wanted to be doctors. We sat for the pre-medical test (PMT) in 1970, the year the test was introduced, and failed. We gave up our medical dreams with that,” he adds.

But during college, Gehlot would often visit hospitals and write letters to the families of patients about their recovery, remembers another college friend who didn’t want to be named.

Gehlot was handpicked by former prime minister Indira Gandhi for active politics when she saw him work in a refugee camp in 1971. She made him the first state president of National Students Union of India (NSUI), Congress’ students’ wing, in 1974. Gehlot unsuccessfully fought the students’ union election and even lost his first assembly election in 1977 by 4,329 votes. The next day, he was out in the market to thank the people who had voted for him.

He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980. Two years later, when he was going to take the oath as a deputy minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, the security at the Rashtrapati Bhawan stopped him because he came in an auto-rickshaw. Gehlot was allowed to go only when he showed his Lok Sabha identity card.

He has been MP in 1984, 1991, 1996 and 1998. He was elected to the Rajasthan assembly in a by-election after he was made the chief minister in 1998. Gehlot has been the president of the state Congress unit from 1985 to 1989, and from 1994 to 1999.

“As PCC chief, he brought several ordinary people, from cobblers, carpenters and tailoring communities, into politics. I remember when I got press releases from such people, I used to laugh. Who made them leaders, I would think. But now I realise, Gehlot was creating a political capital that is his treasure now,” Bareth adds.

Talking about his simplicity and principled life, Bareth remembers Gehlot’s daughter, Sonia’s wedding in Jaipur.

“When he went to see off the groom’s family at Jaipur railway station, he ensured everyone from his family had platform tickets. He was a chief minister. Respect for rules is a rare value in politicians,” says the former journalist.

“Even at the wedding, there were very few guests, unlike the luxurious weddings of political families these days,” he adds.

Old Congress leaders remember Gehlot removing his surname as a protest of the caste system. “There was a time when he changed his name to Ashok Bhai as a protest of the caste hierarchy but soon gave it up when people began saying it was a cheap trick to become the chief minister,” says a leader on conditions of anonymity.

“Gehlot helps everyone and doesn’t talk about it. He values relations and can walk up to a friend even in a crowd breaking his security cordon,” says Padam Mehta, founder of Jodhpur-based Jalte Deep newspaper.

Gehlot is remembered for the drought relief in his first tenure between 1998 to 2003 that later formed the basis of the nationwide National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. He is also credited for bringing a right to information law before it became a national law.

The second tenure (2008-2013) is remembered for the free medicine and diagnostic tests schemes but critics say they were largely seen as the last-minute effort to lift his government’s sagging image.

He, however, is discredited for his handling of the bureaucracy. “He isn’t a hard taskmaster and doesn’t instil fear in the officers as Raje does,” says a former bureaucrat.

His other weakness is his middling oratory skill. “He has been a sky man since college days. But I have seen him transform after he came into politics. Despite his handicap of oratory, he has established himself as a tallest Congress leader in the state,” says Bhandari.

First Published: Dec 14, 2018 07:13:12

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