New Delhi: On Thursday, deep in the throes of a full-blown controversy, Ashok Gehlot faced a frenzied media after his meeting with Sonia Gandhi. The Rajasthan chief minister looked around, smiled at the journalists he knew and assured them with a hand gesture that they would get the answers they were looking for
A podium was set up outside the Congress president’s 10 Janpath residence for Gehlot. Appearing sombre but resolute, the 71-year-old began his address by saying that he had been a “loyal soldier” of the Congress for the past 50 years and had served the party under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, and Sonia Gandhi.
Gehlot said he felt he had broken a Congress tradition when, as leader of the Rajasthan Congress Legislative Party (CLP), he could not get MLAs of the ruling party to pass a one-line resolution authorising the party president to appoint the next chief minister.
After all, he explained, such resolutions are a “tradition” the party has relied on for appointing chief ministers, distributing tickets before elections, and nominating members to the Congress Working Committee (CWC). The moral responsibility of such an aberration made me change my mind about contesting for the post of Congress president, said the three-time CM who was being touted as a shoo-in for the top post.
“Sonia Gandhi and [new] Congress president will decide on who becomes Rajasthan CM,” he said before taking his leave, indicating that developments over the last week did not merely cost him his presidential nomination, but may have also diminished his claim on the CM’s chair — one he has retained by pulling many a rabbit out of his hat over the years.
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‘Jaadugar’ from Jodhpur
Born into a family of magicians in Jodhpur, Gehlot is known in Congress circles as an organisation man who rose through the party ranks. Congress insiders believe that his ability to outmanoeuvre political opponents in the toughest of situations is nothing short of wizardry.
He showcased his political acumen during the Rajya Sabha polls in July when the Congress, with just enough numbers (108) to win two seats in Rajasthan, fielded three candidates. But Gehlot courted smaller parties (RLD, CPM, BTP) and Independents to ensure that the party won all three seats by securing 126 votes, even reportedly getting an extra vote from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Shobha Rani Kushwaha.
Later, the party’s third candidate, Pramod Tiwari — famed for never having lost an election in his political career spanning five decades — admitted that it was Gehlot’s magic that paved the way for his elevation to the Upper House.
This magic was on display even earlier when Gehlot spearheaded the Congress party’s campaign for the 2017 Gujarat polls as then general secretary in charge of the state. Despite its loss to the BJP in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, the Congress secured 77 seats in the 182-member assembly — its highest tally of MLAs in the state in 32 years.
Groomed by Indira, Rajiv
Gehlot was hand-picked by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s and drafted into the Rajasthan unit of the Congress party’s student wing, the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI). He unsuccessfully contested the Jodhpur University students’ union elections and the 1977 assembly polls from Sardarpura before he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Jodhpur in 1980.
He went on to become a Union minister of state (MoS) for tourism and civil aviation in 1982 in the Indira Gandhi government. Gehlot was retained as a junior minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, handling the portfolios of textiles and sports.
In 1985, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi entrusted him with the responsibility of the party’s Rajasthan unit by appointing him Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president. This was a position he held till 1989 before taking it up again from 1994 to 1999.
As PCC chief, Gehlot dealt a stunning blow to the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat-led BJP government in the 1998 polls when the Congress won 150 of 197 seats in the Rajasthan legislature and Gehlot became chief minister for the first time. He completed a full term but was voted out of power in 2003 only to return as CM in 2008 and then again in 2018.
In the 2008 assembly polls, he trounced the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government even as the Congress — with 96 seats — fell short of a majority. To Gehlot’s credit, he was able to sustain the minority government for a full term despite stiff opposition from the BJP.
What also stood out was his ability to garner outside support, for instance, convincing MLAs of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to merge with the Congress in his two previous stints as chief minister.
But even Gehlot could not turn the party’s diminishing fortunes around in Uttar Pradesh for which he was the general secretary in charge ahead of the 2007 assembly elections.
Within the organisation, he was first made in charge of Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh as a special invitee to the AICC between January and July 2004. That same year, he was appointed a general secretary of the party and given charge of Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Seva Dal. Gehlot was nominated as general secretary of the party again in 2018.
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Tussle with Pilot
During his third term as chief minister, Gehlot faced a direct challenge by his then deputy, Sachin Pilot, who demanded that he be appointed chief minister in place of Gehlot. Pilot threatened to bring down the government with the support of about 20-odd MLAs, but Gehlot turned the tables on him by accusing him of conspiring with the BJP. The charge stuck, despite Pilot’s vociferous denial and attempts to make amends with the Gandhis.
Pilot caught a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel when Gehlot announced that he would run for Congress president, which would require him to vacate the chief minister’s chair owing to the party’s ‘one-man, one-post’ rule adopted in the Udaipur Declaration earlier this year.
But Gehlot threw a spanner in the works last week when over 80 MLAs pledged support to him and petitioned the party’s central leadership to delay the appointment of his successor until 19 October — the day the results of Congress presidential polls are to be declared.
Road ahead for Gehlot
With Gehlot conceding that Sonia Gandhi will appoint his successor, it is clear that the party high command has conveyed to the veteran Congressman that his position is being reconsidered. Party insiders say that for a man like him — a member of the Gandhi family’s “close circle” — a revolt like the one that broke out last week, was “unusual”.
“He is known as a soft-spoken man who wears his loyalty to the Gandhis and the party on his sleeve,” said a senior Congress leader in Delhi who did not wish to be named. “But he was unwilling to let go of Rajasthan so close to the elections and it was clear from the beginning that he didn’t want the post of [Congress] president at the cost of Rajasthan.”
Another party leader in Delhi said the situation Gehlot finds himself in reflects the ‘young-old’ divide within the Gandhis. “While Mrs Gandhi wanted him [Gehlot] to take charge in Delhi, it is also true that Rahul and Priyanka were batting for Pilot as a young CM face. After a point, every politician has to fight for their own kursi (chair) and Gehlot’s loyalty could only get him so far. Now, his politics will decide his fate in the party,” the leader told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
During his interaction with reporters Thursday, Gehlot made sure to emphasise that his apology to Sonia Gandhi was unconditional and heartfelt.
“I have said sorry to Mrs Gandhi and asked for her forgiveness,” he said, to which a reporter responded by asking Gehlot: “Maaf kar diya kya? [did she forgive you?]”
The political future of the ‘Jaadugar’ (magician) from Jodhpur now hinges on the answer to that question.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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