New Delhi: While the voters were still queuing up at polling booths and candidates sweating it out to ensure a fair turn-out, Ashok Gehlot’s plane had landed in Delhi well before noon. After casting his vote in Sardarpura, the former Rajasthan chief minister was back at the Congress headquarters on Akbar road to manage party affairs.
“Rajasthan chunav toh hum jeet jaenge, par… (We will win Rajasthan polls, but…),” he told this reporter in an interview a few months back. And then as a second thought he baulked at applying stipulated conditions. But then, the two-time chief minister sounded a note of caution for state Congress president Sachin Pilot.
“Jab Sachinji PCC president bane woh mujhse milne aye. Unko maine ye baat kahi thi aap is bare mein dhyaan rakhna ki PCC president bante hi kuch log CM bana dete hain (When Sachin Pilot became the PCC president, he came to meet me. I asked him to be cautious of friends who make the PCC president chief minister in waiting),” Gehlot said pulling at the cuff of his white kurta.
Rahul Gandhi on Friday decided on Gehlot as the party’s CM in Rajasthan after meeting both him and Pilot separately thrice since Thursday. There have been hectic discussions between top party leaders, including Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, on the selection of chief ministers for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Earlier on Friday, the Congress president appeared to have successfully brokered peace between Gehlot and Pilot after several rounds of discussions and tweeted a picture of the two warring leaders from Rajasthan with himself. "The united colours of Rajasthan," he said in the tweet along with the photograph in which the three leaders were seen in a jovial mood.
Gehlot perhaps has been one of the most under-estimated politicians in the contemporary Indian politics. The soft spoken Jadugar from Jodhpur (his father was a magician) is both a tough taskmaster and a hard bargainer — both within and outside his party.
“As a youth Congress leader he started his political career helping patients communicate with their families writing post-cards,” says a political commentator who has known Gehlot for four decades.
He rose up the ranks and won trust of the Gandhi family, from Indira to Sonia and now Rahul Gandhi.
Sonia Gandhi’s first mass outreach was overseen by Gehlot as CM of Rajasthan, when the former Congress president held a road show from Hanumangarh to Jodhpur.
Within the Congress, he has taken on the high and mighty and survived many challenges to his leadership.
For instance, in 1998 Gehlot was a Lok Sabha MP and state Congress president when the party won a massive majority. The challenge for the leadership came from stalwarts like Jat leaders and fellow MLA from Jodhpur Paras Ram Maderna.
“One of the central observers sent to hear out the MLAs was former LS speaker and Jat leader from Sikar, Balram Jakhar,” says a party leader not willing to be identified.
A strong leader from the community as CM would have undercut many within. A section of the Jat leadership backed Gehlot. The rest is history.
When in power the soft-spoken Gehlot was stern in dealing with the RSS and its affiliates when the Sangh sought to expand its base north of Gujarat in the Udaipur division. The VHP’s trishul or trident distribution campaign was stopped and Pravin Togadia put behind bars in Ajmer jail.
Gehlot, like Narendra Modi in Gujarat, is also a classic example of how numerically smaller communities tend to gain and eke out space for themselves in highly competitive politics between dominant and aggressive caste groups.
In 2008, his nearest rival in the CM race was CP Joshi. The former union minister lost his seat by only one vote. The Congress fell short by 4 MLAs in the house of 200. Gehlot cleared the deficit in no time to take oath once again.
His handling of the Gujarat elections has once again brought him closer to the current Congress leadership. He also holds the all important post of the national general secretary of the party in-charge of organization.
But Gehlot’s heart lies in his home state.
He was able to convince the top Congress leadership to nominate him again from Sardarpura for the Assembly polls. It was despite suggestions that both Pilot and Gehlot should not contest elections.
Gehlot has been successful in getting ticket for his supporters as well. And with general elections round the corner, the choice of the CM boiled down to who can maximise the Congress’ tally in 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan.