Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has once again emerged triumphant even as the Congress washes its dirty linen in public with the removal of Sachin Pilot as the state’s deputy chief minister. The fact that the Congress ’high command flatly refused to entertain Pilot’s demand to replace Gehlot with him as the Rajasthan chief minister speaks volumes about the latter’s strong ties with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
In fact, Gehlot’s association with the Nehru-Gandhi family is five-decades old, but he does not come from a rich, influential family. His is more a rags to riches story. Born in a simple family in 1951, Gehlot’s childhood was spent learning ‘magic tricks’ from his father, Laxman Singh Daksh, who was a professional magician. Ashok Gehlot became his father’s assistant and performed magic tricks on stage alongside him during their travels across India to ply their trade.
He is one of the few who has risen within the Congress ranks through his hard work, merit and loyalty. He caught Indira Gandhi’s eye in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistan war while working in a refugee camp as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bangladesh trickled in. Exhorted by Indira Gandhi to indulge in social work and join the Congress, Gehlot went to Wardha and spent a year at the Gandhi Ashram. Upon his return, he had turned into a Gandhian, following principles of simple living and social work.
After completing his B.Sc in 1972, he joined Jodhpur’s Jai Narayan Vyas University and dived headlong into student politics. A bright student, he completed a degree in law and also has a master’s degree in Economics. Later, he rose to become the chief of the Rajasthan unit of the National Students Union of India, the Congress’s student wing.
During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi ordered youth leaders in all the states to travel across villages and promote the 20-point programme of the Indira Gandhi’s government. During this time, because of his assiduity, Gehlot came close to the Gandhi family. He also regaled them with his ‘magic tricks’. This earned him the moniker ‘Gilli Billi’ from close friends and associates.
In 1977, after the Emergency was lifted, he was rewarded with a ticket to contest Assembly polls from Sardarpura Assembly constituency against Janata Party’s Madhav Singh. He sold his bike for Rs 4,000 to raise funds for his campaign, but lost the election by 4,329 votes.
However, his fortunes turned in 1980 when the rickety Janata Party government fell and Lok Sabha elections were announced. This time Sanjay Gandhi gave him the ticket to contest general elections from Jodhpur seat. This time too, Gehlot was short of funds for the election campaign. He asked his friend, Raghubir Sen, to lend him his saloon for a couple of months. The saloon was converted into his office as the Congress candidate.
Gehlot also hired his friend’s bike to campaign across the district and even pasted his own posters on walls. It paid off as he won the election by over 50,000 votes. The magician had cast a spell, so to speak, and entered the smoke-and-mirrors world of serious politics.
Upon reaching Delhi, his proximity with Indira deepened. She was impressed with his simple lifestyle and moral values. During this time, he continued to conduct magic shows at her house for her grandchildren, Rahul and Priyanka. From 1980 to 1998, Gehlot won Jodhpur seat five times and also served as a minister of state in the ministries of tourism, civil aviation, sports and textiles, in different stints between 1982 and 1993.
In 1993, he was sent to Rajasthan to stem the rot after the Congress was defeated twice on the trot in the state Assembly elections. He served as the Congress chief of the state and, in 1998, riding on Jat agitation, the party won over 150 seats in the 200-member Assembly. Parasram Maderna, a veteran Jat leader, was the frontrunner for the post of chief minister, but Sonia Gandhi, newly-appointed Congress president, chose Gehlot to head the state.
His staunch loyalty and proximity to Gandhi family and the fact that Sonia was wary of a veteran leader from a prominent caste turned the tide in his favour. Gehlot, a three-time chief minister, remains a staunch Gandhi family loyalist and his acquired ‘magic tricks’ continue to befuddle his political opponents, from inside and outside the party.
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