When Ashok Gehlot, born to a family of professional magicians, became chief minister of Rajasthan for the first time in 1998, it came as a surprise. The low-profile politician had held a clutch of Union government portfolios in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but was not known to be a popular leader.
But in his first term (1998-2003), he introduced wage-based drought relief programme, which later became the basis for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. In his second term (2008-13), Gehlot quietly built his support base and emerged as a troubleshooter for the party, diffusing a series of crises especially in the Gujjar agitation of 2009. Though he lost his re-election bid in 2003, he built himself a social coalition of other backward class communities. He was elected to the assembly in a bypoll and decided to use his experience of leading the state unit of the Congress, first from 1985 to 1989, and then from 1994 to 1999.
“As state unit chief, he brought several ordinary people, from cobblers, carpenters and tailoring communities, into politics. I remember when I got press releases from such people, I used to laugh. Who made them leaders, I would think. But now I realise Gehlot was creating political capital,” said Jaipur-based analyst Narayan Bareth.
The 67-year-old, who has been active in politics for 38 years, has been a Gandhian since his college years. “In Jodhpur, we were regular visitors to Gandhi Shakti Pratisthan to read Gandhi literature. He always keeps photos of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in his office and even installed a Gandhi bust in the secretariat when he became the CM for the first time in 1998,” says Prakash Bhandari, who was with Gehlot in a Jodhpur college in the early 1970s.
Gehlot is against any form of intoxicants and has been a votary of liquor prohibition. He didn’t clamp prohibition during his two terms as chief minister but in his second stint (2008-13), he ordered the closure of liquor shops at 8pm, an order the next Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government didn’t retract.
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Gehlot spent his childhood assisting his father, Laxman Singh Gehlot, in magic shows in Jodhpur. He wanted to be a doctor, but ended up in politics, said Bhandari. He was handpicked by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she saw him work in a refugee camp in 1971.
She made him the state president of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), Congress’s students’ wing, in 1974. Gehlot unsuccessfully fought the students’ union election and even lost his first assembly election in 1979. He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980. Two years later, when he was on his way to take his oath as a deputy minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, security personnel at Rashtrapati Bhawan apparently stopped him because he had come to the ceremony in an auto-rickshaw. Gehlot was allowed to go in only after he showed his Lok Sabha identity card. He was elected an MP in 1984, 1991, 1996 and 1998.
Gehlot is remembered for the drought relief work performed by the government in his first tenure, but criticised for being lax with the bureaucracy. “He isn’t a hard taskmaster,” said a former bureaucrat on condition of anonymity. His other weakness are his middling oratory skills.
First Published: Dec 14, 2018 07:13 IST
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