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Ashok Gehlot's Kattappa-like loyalty to three generations of Gandhi family helped him ride his luck... yet again

Napoleon Bonaparte always believed in having lucky generals. If he were alive, Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of Rajasthan, would have been his first choice.

Gehlot’s story is an ode to the adage that success is about being at the right place at the right time. For Gehlot, the right time was 1977 and the right place was a Lambretta scooter.

 Ashok Gehlots Kattappa-like loyalty to three generations of Gandhi family helped him ride his luck... yet again

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot.Madhav Sharma/101Reporters

Gehlot, the story goes, was sitting on a Lambretta scooter parked outside a restaurant owned by a relative in 1977 while a meeting of Congress leaders was going on upstairs. The Congress wiseheads were looking for a candidate to contest Assembly polls from Jodhpur but there weren’t too many willing to step forward, fearing a rout because of the impact of Emergency imposed by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

One of them, the person who narrated this tale to me years ago, suggested that since the established leaders are reluctant, they look for someone who had nothing to lose. He then pointed at the wiry young man sitting outside. Gehlot literally had nothing to lose—he had contested two elections by then, one for the class prefect and the other for the students union of Jodhpur University and lost both of them. Considering the circumstances, he appeared to be the perfect choice.

Ashok Kumar, as he was known then, went on to contest from Sardarpura in 1977 and, as expected, lose by a margin of 4,000 votes. But, as Shah Rukh Khan famously said, haar kar jeetne wale ko Jaadugar (Gehlot’s a trained magician) kehte hain. In 1980, Indira Gandhi decided to reward all those who had supported her in during her hard times, and pick up young candidates to replace the old guard that had deserted her. Gehlot was handpicked by her as the party’s Lok Sabha candidate from Jodhpur, a seat he went on to win by a huge margin.

How he became a minister in Indira Gandhi’s government is also an interesting story. After Gehlot won, his supporters from the Mali (gardeners) community drove up to Delhi in their trucks to felicitate him. It is said that Indira Gandhi happened to drive past and notice the long queue of trucks outside Gehlot’s residence in Delhi. Assuming the trucks were full of supporters, she presumed that the young MP was a mass leader. She decided to raise his profile by giving him a junior minister’s job.

Gehlot, you would have noticed by now, has worked with three generations of the Gandhis. He was selected by Indira, nurtured by Sanjay, promoted by Rajiv—he pushed Gehlot into state politics by making him home minister of Rajasthan out of the blue, trusted by Sonia and is now the unofficial Chanakya to Rahul Gandhi’s Chandragupta. In between, he also managed to have a great working relationship with PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesari. Obviously, there is something about Gehlot that makes him indispensable to the Gandhis, or whoever is calling the shots in the Congress.

What then are his traits? A Katappa-isque loyalty that makes him serve the crown must undoubtedly be his biggest asset, without it he would not have survived for almost five decades in the Congress. Add to this, sharp political acumen, the ability to keep a low-profile, weigh each and every word like nobody—every utterance is measured for the right message-- in the Congress can and maintain the persona of a dedicated Gandhian—the Mahatma in principle and the occupants of 10 Janpath in practice. He also has remarkable perseverance that makes him the ultimate survivor, the last man standing even when everyone around him is vanquished.

But, all this would have taken him only so far if he didn’t have been destiny’s child, a man blessed with phenomenal luck, the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time and an invisible Excalibur that slays his rivals and enemies without staining Gehlot’s hands with blood.

In 1977 and 1980, Mohan Lal Sukhadia was the tallest Congress leader in Rajasthan. But, Indira Gandhi wanted to teach him a lesson for his refusal to back her in 1977. When she won in 1980, Sukhadia, it was rumoured, would be her home minister. Sukhadia kept waiting for the invite but none came. The humiliation killed Sukhadia, creating space for youngsters like Gehlot.

In 2008, CP Joshi, a disciple of Sukhadia, was seen as the potential chief minister. As luck would have it, Joshi lost by one vote, paving the path for Gehlot. In 2018, the Congress was expected to sweep Rajasthan. But, it has fallen short of the majority by one seat. This has given rise to the argument that the party needs a veteran like Gehlot to run a stable government, thus, generating a counter-narrative against the inexperienced Sachin Pilot. So, the Excalibur is always at work for Gehlot.

On the flip side, performance has always been a problem with Gehlot. As a minister at the Centre, his tenure was always cut short, for some reason or the other. As chief minister of Rajasthan, his government was always voted out. You can argue that in Rajasthan, the government is always voted out, but Gehlot governments have been routed, indicating deep dissatisfaction. In 2003, the Congress was reduced to around 50 seats and in 2013 it won just 21. Compare this with Vasundhara Raje’s defeats—they have been respectable with the tally staying above 70 in the 200-member House.

Also, he is seen as conservative, effete and devoid of charisma, shortcomings that do not make him a mass leader and deprive his government of dynamism. In a state like Rajasthan where the BJP has had stalwarts like Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Raje—leaders with a mass following—Gehlot is a bit of a compromise for the Congress.

But, what he lacks in style, he makes up with substance. His ability to reach out to rivals —in 2008 he ran a minority government by first taking BSP on board and later usurping its legislators—and the art of managing and reading elections right give him the aura of a great strategist.

There was this solid argument that he may have made himself sine qua non for Rahul Gandhi at the Centre by delivering Karnataka, managing Gujarat with some amount of success and pocketing Rajasthan, in collaboration with Pilot. By performing well outside Rajasthan, Gehlot may have unintentionally become a leader and strategist of national importance for Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress president may have wanted Gehlot by his side till May 2019 because of his unwavering loyalty, managerial skills, political acumen, ability to generate resources, and the art of using words as Arjuna’s arrows—sharp, precise and always on target. And also because, like Napoleon, Rahul may have realised the value of a lucky general.

But, the Congress also knows that Rajasthan needs a mature, experienced leader who can take everyone along, especially with Lok Sabha elections just a few months away. In the end, the Congress may have gone for the state in hand.

Those who know him say Gehlot wants to retire as chief minister and see his son Vaibhav elected to Parliament. And, as Rhonda Byrne argues in her famous book when lucky children of destiny like Gehlot want something, they always end up getting it.

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Updated Date: Dec 14, 2018 18:05:34 IST