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Ashok Gehlot: Gandhian with a pro-poor image

Last updated on: November 29, 2013 17:56 IST

In Rajasthan, it’s Ashok Gehlot versus Vasundhara Raje.

Gehlot is gunning for third term as chief minister. He has been in Lok Sabha for five terms and has been a Union minister too, but it was his desire to be in state politics always.

In 1989, when he was a member of the Lok Sabha he was made minister of state for home and he returned to Delhi politics reluctantly for a few months.

He wanted to become chief minister but had to wait for nine years till 1998 when he emerged as the consensus candidate. He was preferred over the veteran Jat leader Paras Ram Maderna. Gehlot, born in a Mali community, belongs to Other Backward Classes. He was not in favour of the Jats being given OBC status and for this he had to face the wrath of the Jats, a formidable political force in Rajasthan.

In the 2003 election, the Congress lost largely because of Gehlot's stance against the Jats. However in 2013, the Jats are largely supporting the Congress as Gehlot has given the community large-scale nominations for the assembly poll.

Gehlot, is the son of a magician, and his father, the late Laxman Singh Gehlot also served as the chairman of the Jodhpur municipal council. Gehlot often assisted his father during his magic shows.

A science and law graduate, Gehlot also did his post graduation in economics. In college he was involved in the National Students Union of India. But he never won any election as a student union leader. He practiced law but was unsuccessful.

During his student days, he would visit the Jodhpur's Gandhi Shanti Pratishtahan to read Gandhian literature. He was influenced by Gandhian and writer Nemi Chand Bhavuk. He also worked as a volunteer in Bengal when a large number of refugees entered Bengal from Bangladesh in 1971. He also lived and worked in Gandhi’s Wardha ashram. He has been a modern Gandhian, who also kept an eye on power, and he candidly admits that he joined politics as it was a medium to serve the people.

Gehlot over the years built a strong rapport with the Gandhi family. He was first made a deputy minister by Indira Gandhi and later he served under, both, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narsimha Rao as minister of state. Under Narsimha Rao he was sacked as textile minister because of his ‘inefficiency’.

His loyalty towards the Nehru-Gandhi family brought him rich rewards and he could become chief minister twice largely because of Congress President Sonia Gandhi's backing.

While in power he took care to see that there were no corruption charges against him.

In his first tenure as the chief minister between 1998 to 2003, the state faced unprecedented drought. But he showed prowess for drought management and battled the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government for not helping the state with financial support to fight the drought.

He had won the 1998 election on the issue of electricity and in his first innings he laid his focus on power generation, infrastructure development, employment generation and transparency in administration through good governance. He coined the slogan ‘save water, save electricity and educate all’. But he had no control on his ministers who were involved in corruption and from 153 seats in 1998, the Congress slumped to 53 seats in 2003.

However in the 2008 election, he was able to form a minority government largely because of the support of the independents and six BSP MLAs who crossed over to support his government.

In his second innings he laid emphasis on the poor and offered pensions to them, senior citizens, free medicine for all and other various welfare schemes that won him admiration.

But he was in the eye of a storm for favouring companies that employed his son Vaibhav. He was branded and perceived as ‘corrupt’, by the BJP for giving contracts worth several crores to a company Om Metals for irrigation projects and also for a plush housing project in Jaipur.

He also gave, reportedly, concessions to a hotel in which his son Vaibhav had interests. He was also charged with nepotism for favouring Shouri Construction Company where his son-in-law Gautam Ankhat and daughter Sonia had an interest. The BJP alleged that the company favoured by the Gehlot government gave the daughter and son-in-law a flat in Mumbai.

Later he was also blamed for the contract to restore and conserve the Jal Mahal lake complex in Jaipur and many eyebrows were raised for granting a company lease for the development of the lake in the sprawling 432-acre complex.

He was also blamed for favouring his 19 relations by giving them sandstone mining concessions near Jodhpur; Gehlot defended himself strongly against all this allegations. However he managed to give a stable government and people loved him for the various social schemes like subsidised food, free medicine and free diagnostic tests.

It is on these flagships schemes worth Rs 2,000 crore and the Rs 37,000-crore refinery coming up in Pachpadra in Barmer district that he is going to the polls seeking the people's support.

The opposition has not been able to criticise the government for these schemes although Vasundhara Raje never loses an opportunity to tell people that Gehlot government is supplying poor quality medicines to the poor people which she termed it as ‘poison’. Later, she denied saying so when independent organisations protested.

Gehlot should be credited for driving out the anti-incumbency factor through schemes that could fetch votes. But the BJP has strongly questioned the poor implementation of the schemes.

C P Joshi, a former Union minister and a Congress general secretary, who was the state unit president before the 2003 election and unfortunately lost from Nathdwara by a single vote and missed the bus for chief minister, is a known detractor of Gehlot.

Joshi has rehabilitated himself by becoming a trusted man of Rahul Gandhi. Joshi had significant role in party's ticket distribution and Gehlot alone was not allowed to have a say in the selection of candidates.

He is being seen as a person to keep tabs on Gehlot and is often considered an alternate to him. But Joshi lacks a big following and does not possess the political acumen of Gehlot. Gehlot speaks less but does his job secretly, silently and cunningly, as compared to Joshi.

The results of the assembly poll will decide the fate of both Gehlot and Joshi. If the Congress fails to form government in the state, Rahul Gandhi may think of handing over the baton to Joshi for Rajasthan and in that case Gehlot will take his position back in New Delhi and Joshi may shift to Jaipur to take charge of the party and try to perform better in the Lok Sabha election of 2014.

Image: Ashok Gehlot with Sonia Gandhi during a campaign rally

P B Chandra