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The Rediff Election Special/Amberish K Diwanji

Shekhawat's last stand

E-Mail this story to a friend This may be the brave chief minister's last electoral battle as he leads his weary men against a resurgent Congress. He has to fight not just the opposition but also rivals within his own party and ill health. But in true Rajput fashion, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat soldiers on.

Non-Congress parties in Rajasthan have held the reins of power only thrice. And each time, Shekhawat was chief minister. The first time was in 1977, when in the post-Emergency anti-Indira Gandhi wave, the Janata Party was swept to power and Shekhawat of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh became chief minister. His government was dismissed in 1980 when the Congress returned to power at the Centre.

Shekhawat suffered a similar fate 12 years later, after helping the Bharatiya Janata Party come to power in 1990 following the Ram temple wave. The Congress government at the Centre placed Rajasthan under President's rule on December 15, 1992, in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

In the election a year later, the BJP won only 95 seats in the 200-member assembly. But Shekhawat was able to secure the support of independents and others and return to the chief minister's chair, this time to last out his full term.

Now, as his party limps into another battle, the BJP is hoping that should a similar situation arise where the Congress does not get a clear majority, Shekhawat just might be able to pull off a coup with the help of independents, especially the many Congress rebels in the fray.

But if the BJP does not come to power, as pre-poll surveys indicate, it will be goodbye to Shekhawat and his 11 years in power. His age -- 75 -- and ill health - he has had two bypass surgeries, in 1994 and 1998 - clearly go against his continuance as BJP leader.

But there is no doubt that Shekhawat has etched his name in Rajasthan's history. Though charges flew thick and fast in the heat of the election campaign, outside the arena there is little doubt that he has helped Rajasthan progress and make the best use of liberalisation.

"He has really worked hard in the last eight years to ensure that Rajasthan is no longer among India's poorest, most backward states," said P C Mathur, reader in political science in Rajasthan University. "This is clearly reflected in the data which show massive changes in Rajasthan's economic development and improvements on the social side."

Shekhawat was helped along by the work done by his predecessors, who had laid the foundation for Rajasthan's development. To his credit, he did not bother about ideology, nor did he pursue an anti-Congress line for political considerations; he simply took off from where the Congress left off and helped Rajasthan break out of the ranks of India's poorest states.

"He gave the administration complete freedom to pursue its tasks and various projects," said M L Mehta, chief secretary from 1994 to 1997. "And you will never read of the kind of incidents that occur in Gujarat (attacks on multinationals and minorities). He has welcomed investments from Indians and foreigners."

An indicator: per capita investment in Rajasthan hit Rs 2,600 last year while the national average is Rs 2,100. And Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with which Rajasthan is often bracketed, were below Rs 1,500.

Another great ability of Shekhawat has been to ensure Rajasthan's due share from the Centre. "While earlier our state received very little by way of central assistance, Shekhawat has managed to increase it, making Rajasthan's outlay the fourth largest," Mehta pointed out. "How he managed this is a mystery, because the governments at the Centre were earlier Congress and then the United Front. It just shows his ability," he added.

Thought Shekhawat's entire political career has been with the Bharatiya Janata Party and its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, he is known not to care too much for ideology. In that sense, he is identified closely with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rather than the less flexible Lal Kishenchand Advani. Vajpayee is known to seek Shekhawat's counsel in times of difficulties. This, incidentally, is believed to be a sore point with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Shekhawat is also known to be very shrewd, something even his adversaries acknowledge. "He is aware of every constituency's composition, its caste structure and problems, and when he chooses candidates he keeps this in mind," said Mehta. "His clear understanding of the state's political dynamics is what has helped him survive."

From policeman to chief minister

Shekhawat was born on October 23, 1923, in Khachariyavas village, Sikar district, in a poor Rajput family. He did his schooling in Sikar and joined the police force thereafter. But even then his interest was politics and he joined the Bharatiya Jan Sangh when it was formed in 1951.

Shekhawat became a member of Rajasthan's first legislative assembly when it was constituted way back in 1952. In fact, he has won all eight assembly elections since, except in 1972. He was also a member of the Lok Sabha in 1971 and the Rajya Sabha (from Madhya Pradesh!) from 1974 to 1977. In 1977 he returned to state politics as chief minister. From 1980 on, he was state BJP chief and leader of the opposition in the assembly.

There is another aspect to Shekhawat's popularity: he has rarely contested the same constituency twice. But this time, he is contesting Bali in south Rajasthan again, and faces a tough fight owing to the presence of a BJP rebel. But few doubt his victory. He is thought too clever for that!

"The fact that Shekhawat has contested from all parts of Rajasthan has given him a clear perspective of the state's diverse problems," Mathur explained.

Despite the BJP's many failures, Shekhawat is seen as a popular leader. This forced the party to declare that should it win, he would continue as chief minister. Yet, the delay in naming him caused consternation in the party and fuelled rumours of an RSS lobby working against him. RSS elements are also believed to be active in Bali to ensure Shekhawat's defeat.

The BJP, of course, denies any dissent. "The party is wholly with Shekhawat," declared general secretary K N Govindacharya.

"The BJP had to name Shekhawat as chief minister because that will fetch them votes," said a Congress politician. "They have no second-rung leader of similar stature or ability."

But in the last couple of years, BJP workers have drifted from the government. Shekhawat is seen as overdependent on bureaucrats, often ignoring fellow ministers and party colleagues. "Even we have difficulty in meeting him," a BJP minister was reported to have said, "so how can we help the people meet him?"

So while development in the state has taken place, the chasm between the people and the party on the one side and the leaders on the other has widened.

Perhaps Shekhawat had his reasons to doubt the loyalty of his supporters, given that a certain section was always against him and he was never sure which minister might become a threat. Fear of a split also forced him to give ministerial berths to 40 members! But a divided party heads to the polls at a disadvantage.

Yet another complaint against him is that his ascendancy in the state has made the Rajputs very aggressive. "Rajputs, even unimportant ones, always want us to address them with ji (a respectful suffix) while they address us, even seniors, as tu (first person singular, usually used for juniors in age or status). This has alienated the other castes in the rural areas," said Sunil Sharma, who hails from Karari village in Sikar district and works in Jaipur.

With many Brahmins moving away from the BJP to the Congress, while the Jats, other backward classes, scheduled castes and tribes, and Muslims are also aligning with that party after the third front's demise, the Congress has a huge vote advantage. The BJP thus stands exposed for its inability to expand its social base.

In the Lok Sabha election in March 1998, the Congress won 18 seats to the BJP's five, out of a total of 25. Ever since, Shekhawat, despite his many ailments, has been working 18 hours a day to woo the electorate. Unfortunately, it might have come too late.

Yet, while his successor will find that much remains to be done, especially in the social sector, Shekhawat has given the state a strong economic base. History will certainly remember him.

Assembly Elections '98

The Rediff Specials

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