The first time Ashok Gehlot became chief minister of Rajasthan in 1998, he was 47. Like Sachin Pilot now, he was the young leader in a hurry, up against a veteran CM contender, Parasram Maderna. Maderna was the face of the Congress that Assembly election and, according to political analysts, one of the reasons the party won a landslide 150 seats that year was because the Jat community had thrown its weight behind the veteran leader, hoping he would be made CM.
Twenty years later, Gehlot finds himself where Maderna was, but unlike the veteran Jat leader, he has refused to cede space to the Gen Next camp. On Friday, after two tense days of talks with the party high command and a stand-off between the Gehlot and Pilot camps, the Congress named Gehlot CM of Rajasthan, his third stint in the top job.
“The way Gehlot pulled off a coup d’état by sidelining Maderna and becoming chief minister showed his political acumen. Though the event soured his ties with the Jat community, for the next two decades, Gehlot has not allowed a separate leadership to develop in the state Congress and styled himself as the face of the party in Rajasthan,” says senior journalist and political analyst Rajendra Bora.
The son of a magician from Jodhpur, Gehlot has always played his cards with tact. Over the last four decades, the soft-spoken 67-year-old has worked with three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family and has been Union minister in the Cabinets of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, besides Manmohan Singh’s, holding portfolios of tourism, sports, tourism, civil aviation and textiles.
Gehlot, whose first stint as CM coincided with Sonia Gandhi’s elevation as the Congress president, has since then become an indispensable cog in the Congress machinery in Rajasthan. In his second stint as CM, he started the populist scheme of providing free medicines.
“The image of Gehlot as a politician who is impeccably honest, along with his down-to-earth demeanour, has helped him find acceptance over the years. The public perception that he is accessible has turned him into a mass leader,” says a senior Congress leader from the state.
His supporters, some of whom have known him since his days with the NSUI, marvel at how, even as CM, he could engage with ordinary people – from a shopkeeper in Jodhpur to a party worker – casually discussing matters of their daily lives.
It was his ability to reach out to people across party lines that helped the Congress secure the support of six BSP legislators in 2008, helping his party, which won 96 of the 200 Assembly seats, form the government. Later, all the six MLAs joined the Congress. This election too, several Independent MLAs, mostly Congress rebels, said they would lend their support to the party on the condition that Gehlot is made chief minister.
Gehlot’s influence in Marwar region, comprising several districts of western Rajasthan, stems from the fact that the Mali community, to which he belongs, owns several profitable businesses in the region. His diehard supporters even call him the “Gandhi of Marwar”.
This election, the Congress swept three districts of western Rajasthan — Jodhpur, Barmer and Jaisalmer — winning 15 of the 19 seats, an achievement credited largely to Gehlot’s charisma.
In recent years, his influence in the Congress has grown beyond Rajasthan, with the party’s good showing in Gujarat, where he was party in-charge, attributed to Gehlot. Shortly after that, he was appointed AICC general secretary (organisation and training).
In May, the party high command sent him and Ghulam Nabi Azad to Karnataka after the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the state but failed to get a majority. Here too, Gehlot succeeded in helping the Congress enter an uncharacteristically swift tie-up with the JD(S) to form the government in the state.
“Gehlot has mastered the art of politics, especially when it comes to getting his way within the Congress. He perfectly understands the internal working of the Congress,” says Bora.