Going by poll surveys and political pundits’ prediction, the Congress has little or a slim chance to retain Rajasthan. But in the event of the grand old party managing to prove pollsters’ wrong, would Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi consider crowning Ashok Gehlot again? The prospects of ‘Gehlot dobara’ [actually for the fourth time] are far less but a cursory look at Gehlot’s life would tell that a spare time magician has an uncanny ability to beat the odds.
Ashok Gehlot got a lucky break in the Congress during early 1970s when Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay was calling the shots. Sanjay was promoting another Gehlot, a wrestler Janardhan Gehlot who had humbled a mighty Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in 1972 from Gandhi Nagar (Jaipur). As luck would have it, Sanjay lost affection for giant killer Janardhan Gehlot, a Kshtriya and his cronies quickly replaced him with another Gehlot who was from mali (gardener) community. Gehlot was made National Student Union of India (NSUI) head of Rajasthan in a very special way when a biker carried his letter of appointment from Delhi to Jaipur.
Decades later on December 13, 2018, when Sachin Pilot landed from Jaipur after winning the Tonk assembly seat, he confidently walked inside 12, Tuqlaq Crescent, New Delhi to meet Rahul who was the AICC chief then. Around the same time, Ashok Gehlot, the victor of Sardarpura seat, arrived but his destination was 23, Mother Teresa Road, residence of Ahmed Patel. Hectic lobbying and see-saw battle saw Pilot initially emerging strong having Rahul’s blessings. But the old guard led by Ahmed Patel closed ranks and roped in Sonia Gandhi to prevail upon Rahul to consider Gehlot. The development saw Gehlot being ahead almost twice the number of core Pilot supporters. In Rahul’s scheme of things, appointment of a “young face” in one of the three newly acquired states, was important but Gehlot, a magician by profession, proved to be a crafty customer. Rahul had to seek sister Priyanka Gandhi’s services to prevail upon a stunned and dejected Pilot to accept deputy chief minister’s post.
Hailing from a magician’s family, Ashok Gehlot was initially called as “gilli billi” in Sanjay Congress circles. He was affable, deeply religious and practised several Gandhian ways of life. A teetotaller, Ashok Gehlot still believes in eating only Satvik meals and avoids eating anything after sunset till the new dawn.
Not many facts are known about Gehlot’s early life except for that his father Babu Laxman Singh Daksh was a famous magician and he used to travel to various countries to give performances. In his childhood days, a young Ashok too went with his father as an assistant and performed tricks, leaving spectators rather spell bound.
A few years ago, Ashok had told an interviewer, “I would have been a magician if I had never entered politics. I always loved social work and learning magic tricks. In the future I might not get a chance to become a magician, but magic is still in my soul.” Though he does not admit it, Ashok Gehlot had reportedly performed magic tricks before a young Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi in the presence of Indira Gandhi at her Safdarjung Road residence.
Sanjay’s leadership factory in the party during 1975-77 produced a range of party leaders who called the shots in the grand old party throughout 1980s, 1990s 2000s and some like Gehlot, Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh, Ambika Soni, Mukul Wasnik and B K Hariprasad are still around.
Under Sanjay, these leaders were given multiple tasks such as slum demolition, family planning, adult literacy drive, each-one-plant-one tree environmental scheme, anti-dowry campaign to get simply physical with government employees. It was Sanjay’s idea of “Hands-on-Governance” where Youth Congress leaders and workers were directed to publicly beat up errant bureaucrats. There were many instances of overenthusiastic and arrogant Youth Congress leaders taking out shoes on government servants.
Politician Ashok however, remained low keyed in Rajasthan and Delhi till Rajiv Gandhi entered the political scene after Sanjay’s death. Rajiv recommended him as a junior minister in Indira’s council of ministers. Pitted against mighty Haridev Joshi and Shiv Charan Mathur, Ashok Gehlot became Rajiv’s eyes and ears in Rajasthan. Political grapevine has it that Ashok had played a pivotal role in Joshi’s sacking as chief minister of Rajasthan when Rajiv decided to hold a cabinet meeting inside Sariska national park, 170 kilometres from the national capital. As per Rajiv’s instructions, state ministers were not supposed to use official cars to meet Rajiv. Rajiv was himself driving a SUV which was reportedly signalled by a local traffic constable to turn right, instead of going straight. The seemingly innocent error (some claim to be magician Gehlot’s handiwork) proved costly for Joshi as diversion led to a spot where hundreds of official cars belonging to state ministers, officials etc.) were parked.
Rajasthan was undergoing severe drought then and Rajiv, battling on many fronts, had tried to send a signal of austerity. Rajiv’s public rebuke did not did not go down well with Joshi who sulked and boycotted lunch. The absence of the host chief minister was noticed by Joshi’s friend P V Narasimha Rao, HRD minister in Rajiv cabinet. Rao’s attempts to act as a peacemaker proved futile as within a month, Joshi was replaced by Mathur.
Around this time, Ashok Gehlot was in Delhi running the tourism ministry. His earlier stint as a junior minister in civil aviation had given him a profile of sorts as Ashok followed Rajiv’s vision to the hilt. Many laurels followed. Gehlot was credited with setting up Delhi haat opposite INA market that continues to serve as ethnic bazaar bringing artisans and their handicrafts from all over the country in direct contact with the buyers. His tenure as union minister in charge of textiles under P V Narasimha Rao was memorable one as many innovative ideas were given practical shape.
December 3, 2023 is going to be a crucial day for the 72-year-old politician. A poor showing would signal an end of a regional satrap. However, in the event of the Congress turning the tables and proving pollsters wrong, Gehlot would do everything possible to keep the chair for himself.