In recent months, there is a perceptible change in Ashok Gehlot’s public positioning. He appears to be preparing for a larger national role too.
After the dramatic outcome of the recent bypolls in Rajasthan, all the hype has been about Sachin Pilot’s rise. But the leader whose image has undergone a real, radical refashioning is Ashok Gehlot, former chief minister of Rajasthan and AICC general secretary.
Gehlot is now being seen by many as the new Chanakya of the Congress party. In fact, many are beginning to ask if he will emerge as Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Ahmed Patel’, if not part of his core team of advisors.
What has helped is the manner in which Gehlot handled the election campaign strategy in Gujarat. It certainly raised its stature in the eyes of Congress party, and its top leaders. More importantly, he appears to have gained the confidence of Gandhi.
There is now talk that Gehlot will be appointed the chairman of the preparation committee of All India Congress plenary session scheduled next month. If it happens, then it will certainly be a clear signal that he will go on to play a powerful role at AICC.
The change in Gehlot’s public positioning is also all too apparent. He appears to be preparing for a larger national role too. A media-shy leader, Gehlot would mingle with journalists, but rarely give exclusive sit-down interviews earlier. He now gives exclusive interviews to English language national publications.
Earlier, all of Gehlot’s tweets were in Hindi, most of which would target his political opponent in the state, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. Over the last six months, there has been a marked change. He now tweets about national issues like Kashmir, the Rafale defence deal, the economy, and bank frauds. He takes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi with data, questions and wit.
On Facebook, Gehlot has the most followers on his verified page, and is second only to Gandhi among Congress leaders.
But English has been somewhat of a barrier for Gehlot for a long time. So, people in Rajasthan are now asking who tweets for him in English.
Recently, Gandhi met NSUI and Indian Youth Congress leaders in groups from different states in Delhi. He informally asked them what they would like to become. A Congress worker from Uttar Pradesh said he wanted to be Gehlot.
Gandhi’s answer was even more interesting. He replied that only one in a million can become like Gehlot, because it required hard work and a principled public life.
Gehlot hails from the OBC community, and his father was a magician. Gehlot too tried his hand at magic, but then began his political career in 1977 after studying law. A staunch Gandhi family loyalist, Gehlot’s opponents like to joke that he thinks about politics even while sleeping.
Instead of the new practice of hiring image gurus, he still believes in the politics of connecting directly with people. He is widely remembered for his work after a drought in Rajasthan when he sent sacks of wheat to Below Poverty Line families during his first tenure as chief minister. He also created millions of work days, that too in the pre-MNREGA days.
He is an advocate of a social welfare state, free medicines, and free diagnostics for citizens. He often says that poor people in India die due to the burden of medical expenditure. His left-of-centre ideology was the reason why Gehlot was Sonia Gandhi’s first choice for the chief minister’s position. But for all his qualities, his opponents say that Gehlot failed because he surrounded himself with sycophants, and that his hold on the bureaucracy was weak.
Apart from his work at the grassroots, Gehlot is known for his political acumen and shrewdness. Initially, Gandhi used to avoid him. But the tide turned when he was made the chairman of the party’s screening committee for ticket distribution before the Punjab elections.
It was his strategies that were deployed in Gujarat, and even helped Ahmed Patel win his Rajya Sabha seat. Gehlot managed to gather the MLAs, keep the flock together, and put to use the good relations he enjoyed with independent MLAs.
He had also advised Gandhi about projecting soft Hindutva in his campaign.
He has no airs about being a ‘senior leader’ despite being a five-time MP, three-time central minister, three-time state Congress unit chief, two-time AICC general secretary and two-time chief minister. Gehlot would go door-to-door all day to meet families during the campaign in Gujarat. In fact, the joke doing the rounds at the time was: “Look what Rahul has done to Gehlot, he has reduced him to being a distributor of pamphlets.”
Gehlot zealously guards his scrupulously squeaky clean public image, as well as that of a grounded politician. In fact, when he was in office, he didn’t even like to interfere in ‘transfers’ – that one public favour that all politicians routinely like to use their discretion. He would just bluntly tell his visitors, ‘Don’t talk to me about transfers’. He doesn’t have fund-raising skills of Patel.
A teetotaler, Gehlot does not even visit events and weddings where alcohol is served. There is a familiar chant in Rajasthan: “Gehlot nahin yeh aandhi hai, Marwar ka Gandhi hai.” (This isn’t Gehlot but a story, he’s the Gandhi of Marwar)
Rajasthan is now abuzz with unconfirmed political chatter that a Rajya Sabha seat may be reserved for Gehlot. Gandhi wants him close. But many in the state want him as back as the chief minister. There is no denying that he will have to be a poster boy for the party in assembly polls later this year if the Congress wants to win big in the state.
Anil Sharma is a senior journalist in Jaipur. His Twitter handle is @anilsharma45
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