As counting of votes for recently held assembly elections for Rajasthan concluded, it became certain that Congress will form the next government in the state. However, for the next three days as Congress workers waited anxiously for the final decision on the name of the next Chief Minister of Rajasthan, BJP workers from the state were often seen showing their preference for Ashok Gehlot as next CM.
Not because Gehlot is soft on BJP, or believe in soft Hindutva; he is from old Gandhian school of political thought and remains a firm critic of both BJP, and its ideological mentor RSS. Still, BJP workers appreciate Gehlot’s simple, humble and honest style of politics, and consider him an asset for the state of Rajasthan.
In the highly polarised political environment of present times, it is rare to find one political party’s workers praising a leader from another political party. It is even rarer to see them wishing for success of a political opponent.
But Ashok Gehlot is among those rare politicians who command respect across India’s diverse political and social spectrum. Even his harshest critics appreciate the way he has handled his political journey and personal life so far.
Ashok Gehlot’s father Babu Laxman Singh was a professional magician in Jodhpur. But young Ashok was more inclined towards social service, and would often help renowned Gandhian Nemichandra Jain “Bhavuk” in his various activities in and around Jodhpur city. During those days western Rajasthan would often face droughts, and relief works were organized by government as well as charitable organizations.
Active participation in these welfare activities influenced personality of Ashok Gehlot to a large extent and paved the way for his political career. Influenced by leadership of Indira Gandhi, he became active in Youth Congress and was soon given charge of newly formed NSUI, student wing of Congress party.
As NSUI leader, Gehlot contested election for student union president of Jodhpur University, but he lost. But his political career didn’t end there. Post emergency, most Congress leaders were wary of public backlash and none was willing to contest 1977 assembly elections. So, 26 years old Ashok Gehlot was asked to contest from Sardarpura assembly constituency. As was expected, he lost again.
But Gehlot was third time lucky. Janata Party government at the centre couldn’t complete its term and fell due to internal tussle, resulting in mid-term Lok Sabha elections in 1980. Again, reluctance of senior Congress leaders to contest elections forced party leaders to put him as candidate from Jodhpur Lok Sabha constituency. A 29 year old Gehlot won comfortably and two years later Indira Gandhi made him a deputy minister in her government. Since then, Gehlot has held various important positions in his party and central and state governments.
Many political observers feel Gehlot is an old faithful of Nehru-Gandhi family and never wavered from his faith, even when the family was not in power. Even during Narasimha Rao government, he remained a trusted soldier of Sonia Gandhi, and this faithfulness brought him all the rewards.
However, Gehlot is more than merely being a reliable hand of the family. He gets his strength not only from the leaders at the top, but also from the workers at the lowest level. Right from his NSUI days, Gehlot has remained in touch with grassroot workers, based in far away villages, towns, city and even other states. His ability to connect with ordinary workers, remember them and help them whenever required, makes him a popular leader not only among Congress workers, but among political workers of other parties too. In the media and technology driven present political atmosphere, Gehlot still prefers personal interactions, attending family functions of ordinary workers, and sparing time to listen to people.
Having risen from the grassroots, Gehlot easily empathises with workers and grasps their problems. But instead of throwing his weight around, he still behaves like a worker, and acts more like a listener than a preacher.
“In the peak of charged political campaigning, any politician can lose his cool. But Ashokji doesn’t show it, even if he gets angry. He doesn’t shout at workers but people close to him can sense his mood. He likes discipline, doesn’t speak much, but conveys his message effectively in few words”, says Mohit Sankhla, a youth Congress leader from Gehlot’s constituency Sardarpura.
When Gehlot started his political inning, Congress in Marwar region in Rajasthan had many stalwarts. Mathura Das Mathur, Poonam Chand Vishnoi, Ram Niwas Mirdha, Nathu Ram Mirdha, Paras Ram Maderna, Khet Singh Rathore, Ram Singh Vishnoi and many other seniors would often treat Gehlot as “much junior” and show him his ‘place’, but Gehlot never lost patience or tried to downgrade his seniors. Not even when he became state party president or Chief Minister.
There was no dearth of party seniors in Jaipur and other regions as well. Haridev Joshi, Jagannath Pahadia, Shiv Charan Mathur, Shish Ram Ola, Kamla Beniwal, Govind Singh Gurjar, Balram Jakhar, Hiralal Devpura and many others were towering over Gehlot, when he was given charge of state Congress and later when he became CM. He politely and smartly handled them all.
This ability of Gehlot to silently tolerate humiliation, digest criticism and avoid marginalization came handy in the last few years after Rahul Gandhi appointed Sachin Pilot as state Congress head and he began to sideline people loyal to Gehlot.
“Gehlot has very sharp political acumen. He looks and speaks like an ordinary politician, but he plans well in advance. His foresight, long term strategy, networking with right people, and ability to strike at the right moment is legendary”, says Sajjan Singh Sandu, a Sociologist and Political Analyst based in Rajasthan. “He lacks charisma and public speaking skills, but he has learnt to overcome these through connection, care and communication with ordinary workers as well as relevant party leaders. He plans well in advance about the upcoming political game, and arranges his field accordingly”, adds Sandu.
Naturally, in his nearly 50 years of political life, Gehlot had to face and defeat many of his competitors within the party in the closely contested political game. Not all of them took it sportingly. Gehlot has more critics in his own party than outside Congress. Many young leaders who were handpicked by him and groomed to replace seniors also turned against him when their huge ambitions didn’t fit in Gehlot’s long term plan. Many of his workers also complain that he uses his supporters to advance his game-plan, and doesn’t bother about their ambitions.
However, most contemporaries of Gehlot agree that he doesn’t leave his dedicated supporters alone, even after they commit a mistake and are caught at the wrong side of existing system or authorities. But he doesn’t forget those who try to outsmart him, and sometimes settles scores years or even decades later.
Senior journalist Narayan Bareth has seen Gehlot transforming from a hesitant central minister to a confident chief minister. He says, “As Congress leader Gehlot was the strongest critic of then CM Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. While many of his party leaders preferred to keep quiet, Gehlot would not miss any opportunity to corner and attack Shekhawat government. But Gehlot had immense respect for Shekhawat and went to latter’s home to take his blessings when Gehlot became CM. He would fight politically, but wouldn’t take the rivalry beyond political field.”
“Media persons from Rajasthan have smooth access to Gehlot. He treats them nicely, even if they criticize him or support his opponents. When I met with an accident in 2005, and got severely injured, Gehlot was in regular touch with my family and doctors, and visited me often. Even when I was undergoing treatment at Mumbai, he found time from his busy party meeting and visited me in the hospital. Since it was a small room with only one chair, Gehlot asked my attendant to remain seated on chair, and he himself sat down on the windowsill. This ability to remain unassuming and undemanding makes him popular among people”, says Bareth.
Gehlot started his public life under guidance of Gandhians and has remained connected to Gandhian values. He avoids power display and shuns luxury. “Ashokji hasn’t shown any interest in purchasing big cars or bungalows. He lives simply, eats simply and moves simply. He prefers to stay in government guest houses when travelling and avoids expensive hotels”, claims Sankhla.
But Ashok Gehlot is no saint. He is a politician and a shrewd one too. Despite his simplicity and humility, he is considered very resourceful in managing party funds and can be ruthless in political games. He can ignore norms and values, if he is determined to protect his close supporters, or to win a political battle. People allege that he has extended huge benefits to people from his caste and turns a blind eye when his party men indulge in corruption. His overt and covert appeasement of hardliner Muslims is also criticized by his opponents. Jat community leaders blame him for marginalizing many leaders from their caste and spoiling the chance Paras Ram Maderna had at the chief ministership.
But unlike his contemporaries, Gehlot has groomed many young leaders from different castes, and despite his criticism by Jat leaders, he has large number of supporters within the community. “Gehlot is from a farmer community, and he understands concerns of all farmers. He takes along leaders and workers from all castes and faiths, and he remains connected with people from all walks of life. He cares not only for poor, but he pays a lot of attention to welfare of animals too. So, it is wrong to label him as anti-farmer”, says Hari Ram Dudi, a Jat leader from Bhopalgarh.
Ashok Gehlot, who once appealed his supporters to call him Ashok Bhai, and not mention his caste, remains a family man. He visits his elder sister in Jodhpur before every important occasion and takes her blessings. For long he avoided bringing his family members into politics, but now his son Vaibhav is general secretary in state congress committee and people speculate that he may contest Lok Sabha election in 2019.
“In his first term, Gehlot focused on tightening the administration and lost power due to employees’ agitations. In the second term, he focused on welfare schemes like free medicines etc, but anger against Congress-led UPA government at the centre led to humiliating defeat of his party in Rajasthan. Now in third term, he will have to focus on economic development and employment generation”, says Sandu.
This could be Gehlot’s last chance to leave permanent imprints as Rajasthan CM. He would do well to curb his tendency to micromanage everything and putting his incompetent confidants in seats of power. Rajasthan is at a critical juncture and needs visionary leadership to instill faith and confidence among youth. To begin with, Gehlot needs to rebuild the state universities and Public Service Commission, which lost credibility during his previous term and badly affected aspirations of younger generation. Whatever his supporters or critics say, Gehlot has a tough task in hand. Once again his party is short of majority (in 2008 Congress had 95 MLAs), and Sachin Pilot will eagerly wait for an opportunity to unseat him.
(Kuldeep Ratnoo is convenor of United Voters of India, a platform to objectively raise concerns of all voters irrespective of their political affiliations.)