The wizard of politics | Ashok Gehlot


The prime minister of Rajasthan, who could succeed Sonia Gandhi as congress president, faces the difficult task of reversing the prospects of a party weakened by defectors, splits and successive electoral defeats

The prime minister of Rajasthan, who could succeed Sonia Gandhi as congress president, faces the difficult task of reversing the prospects of a party weakened by defectors, splits and successive electoral defeats

Is Congress now turning to Ashok Gehlot for some political magic for his national revival? Mr Gehlot, 71, is expected to compete with Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor for the party’s top post in the upcoming presidential election, but he is believed to be the favorite to succeed Sonia Gandhi.

Born into a family of professional magicians in Jodhpur, Mr. Gehlot’s ability to outmaneuver his political rivals is quite legendary. Be it the recent elections in Rajya Sabha, the rebellion of his former deputy Sachin Pilot against his government, or the conduct of the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections, his political wizardry has been on full display.

In the case of the Rajya Sabha elections in June this year, Congress had the numbers to easily win two seats but faced an uphill battle for the third. The party lacked some MLAs for the majority mark, and BJP-backed media baron Subash Chandra ramped up his campaign to make it a “close contest”. Mr. Gehlot not only secured victory for all three congressional candidates, but also secured an extra vote from the BJP camp.

“It’s just because of Gehlot yeahIt’s magic that I won,” said Pramod Tiwari, the congress’s third candidate, shortly after his surprise victory.

Jaipur-based journalist and academic Rajan Mahan, who has closely followed Mr Gehlot’s political career, said: “If Congress is looking for a united opposition ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, then Mr Gehlot is the person they will bring may different parties together”. For the last two governments that Mr. Gehlot put together in Rajasthan, he needed help from parties like the Tribal Party and the Left. “He’s someone who can let people with different belief systems coexist,” he added.

In focus

Ashok Gehlot began his political activism in the early 1970s by joining the National Students’ Union of India, the student wing of the Congress Party.

His first campaign for a seat in the assembly in 1977 was unsuccessful. But he bounced back by winning the Jodhpur Lok Sabha seat in 1980.

He was appointed Chief Minister of Rajasthan in 1998, in his late 40s, and entered the Assembly by winning a by-election.

This trait stood him in good stead in July 2020 when he faced an unprecedented rebellion from his younger colleague Mr. Pilot, who was then both his deputy in government and chairman of the Rajasthan Congress. Angered that he was overlooked for the chief minister post and ignored in state government in December 2018 when Congress came to power under his presidency, Mr. Pilot rebelled against the chief minister along with 18 MLAs. Complaints from these MLAs ranged from an inability to do their jobs to an over-centralization of power in the chief minister’s office.

The astute politician who is Mr Gehlot claimed it was “Operation Lotus” in Rajasthan after the BJP managed to overthrow the Kamal Nath-led government in Madhya Pradesh three months earlier. The charges were vehemently denied by Mr Pilot, who insisted it was about Mr Gehlot’s working methods, not the split in the party. But Herr Gehlot gained the upper hand after the unsuccessful rebellion. Although the Gandhis, particularly Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, brokered peace between the two camps, the episode cost Mr. Pilot his positions in government and the party.

Friendly and approachable

Regarded as an affable and approachable politician, Mr Gehlot has managed over the years to emerge from the shadow of leaders such as Sis Ram Ola, Nawal Kishore Sharma, Shiv Charan Mathur and Parasram Maderna. The soft-spoken politician is also known for his organizational skills. As secretary-general of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), which presided over the Gujarat elections, he is credited with the party’s impressive performance, which brought the Congress to 77 and the BJP to 99, instilling fear in the ruling party.

Initially chosen by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after learning about his work as a volunteer for the Bangladeshi refugees in 1971, Mr Gehlot was drafted into the party’s student wing, the National Students’ Union of India, in Rajasthan. His first campaign for a seat in the assembly in 1977 was unsuccessful. But he bounced back by winning the Jodhpur Lok Sabha seat in 1980 and became a minister in the Union government in 1984.

Although he lost the next election of Lok Sabha in 1989, he later became a minister in the government of PV Narasimha Rao, winning the Jodhpur seat in 1991. Mr. Gehlot also chaired the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) in Rajasthan between 1985 and 1989; and again from 1994 to 1999. He was appointed Chief Minister of Rajasthan in 1998, in his late 40s, and joined the Assembly by winning a by-election. Since then, Mr. Gehlot has served the state two more terms as Chief Minister.

“He’s a 24×7 politician whose day starts at 7am and can go well past midnight,” says journalist Govind Chaturvedi, who served as Mr Gehlot’s media adviser during his first term. To dispel the perception in some quarters that Mr Gehlot is not a permanent administrator, Mr Chaturvedi recounts an incident that took place in 2002, when the Rajasthan government, under a court order, eliminated encroachments on Jaipur’s famous Walled City market would have. “Bureaucrats advised him not to do it, but he told them that he had to face an election, not them. He will call in the army if necessary, but will carry out court orders,” he recalled.

“Gehlot yeahHis greatest strength is his ability to make people comfortable. Workers go back with the feeling woh toh hamare jaise hain [He is like one of us]’ adds Mr. Chaturvedi.

This is perhaps why people found it uncharacteristic of Mr. Gehlot to use words like ” Nakara” and ” Nikama” [useless and worthless] for Mr. Pilot after he was outraged. A few critics, who wished not to be named, spoke up The Hindu that he tends to have a “clique culture” and that sometimes influences decision-making. Nor is he considered a crowd puller or vote catcher with impressive oratory skills. “Once he copies someone out of his book, he doesn’t change that easily. And that’s not the best thing about politics,” says one critic.

That there was a debate about “one man, one post” after his name came up for the presidential election, critics argue, contradicts the perception that Mr. Gehlot is a Gandhier who gives people Gandhi diaries every year. “He could have handled the pilot a lot better. Eventually he became a CM himself in his 40’s. He could have been a bit more generous,” says the person quoted above.

uncertainty about leadership

dr Naresh Dadich, former vice chancellor of Kota Open University, argues that even now Congress is losing the battle of perceptions amid uncertainty over the premiership. “If the party wants to make Pilot the next CM, they should do it now and end the uncertainty.”

If Mr. Gehlot is elected the next party leader and Mr. Pilot succeeds him as chief minister, both leaders will have to hit the reset button to put their equations in order.



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