Rajasthan: Even As the Sun Sets on Gehlot-Raje Era, the Legacy That Will Linger

The decades where Gehlot and Raje duelled with ferocity but finesse will be remembered for their contrasting styles.

6 min read
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As debutant MLA Bhajan Lal Sharma took oath as the new Chief Minister, it was a pivotal moment in Rajasthan’s political history where one era was ending and another beginning.

With Ashok Gehlot and Vasundhara Raje far away from the center stage, the poignant moment clearly signified that curtains were coming down on a political drama which had enthralled the desert state for over two decades.

Their alternating reigns as CMs have defined the state's political discourse, shaped its development journey, and captivated people for the past 25 years.

In the annals of Rajasthan politics, the decades where Gehlot and Raje duelled with ferocity but finesse will be remembered for their contrasting styles and ideologies.

A Shared Concern for Rajasthan

It was a time of grand promises, fierce rivalries, and a sense of drama that unfolded in the sun-drenched landscape of the desert state. A sense of bittersweet nostalgia now grips all those who witnessed their collective five terms as CMs from close range.

While politically it was a Congress-BJP clash, the battle revolved essentially around two towering figures – Gehlot, the sensitive 'son of the soil’, and Raje, the charismatic 'iron lady’.

Gehlot, with his earthy charm and folksy demeanor, resonated with the rural masses. He evolved himself into a champion of the common man, and his welfare policies echoed the hopes and struggles of the ordinary Rajasthani. Raje, on the other hand, was a force of nature who epitomised steely resolve and political acumen. A woman in a male-dominated arena, she commanded respect, and her focus on the economy and infrastructure aimed at creating a modern Rajasthan.

In their 25 years of dominance, they fiercely competed in elections and political strategies. Assembly sessions became verbal battlegrounds, with leaders exchanging barbs and sarcasm, with their supporters cheering and jeering. However, a fundamental respect existed, reflecting a shared concern for Rajasthan and its people.


Social Welfarism: Gehlot’s Superpower

The Gehlot-Raje era, however, wasn't just about political theatre. It was a time of significant progress.

While Gehlot's social welfare schemes brought light to the lives of countless men, women, and marginalised communities, Raje's focus on infrastructure and the economy catapulted Rajasthan from a backward, BIMARU state to a rapidly developing one. Despite their differences, both leaders played key roles in shaping a brighter present for the state.

A closer look at the various Gehlot-Raje tenures as CMs is instructive. Gehlot’s welfare measures have been the dominant leitmotif of his three terms. In his first term from 1998-2003, battling the severe droughts that ravaged Rajasthan was his prime focus. Given his success in drought relief works, Gehlot was rated as the best-performing CM in a leading survey in the country. In his second stint as CM too, several welfare steps, topped by a free medicine scheme, were the hallmark of his governance style.

Despite earning encomiums for his welfarism, losses in 2003 and 2013 polls taught Gehlot that it is equally important to pitch his work to voters on a lavish scale. So in his third tenure, Rajasthan voters saw Gehlot’s modern, social media-friendly avatar, especially in the election year of 2023.

He unleashed a publicity blitzkrieg on his welfare schemes which he called the 'Rajasthan Model of Good Governance'.

From the Chiranjeevi Health Insurance scheme to free smartphones for women and from reviving the Old Pension Scheme to Minimum Guaranteed Income for the entire adult population – Gehlot came up with schemes to cover all social segments which the Congress regarded as its winning card in the recent elections. 


Raje’s Command Over Economy and Infra

If social welfarism was Gehlot’s trump card, Raje’s two terms as CM saw an enhanced focus on the state’s economy to transform people’s lives. A key priority was to create better infrastructure and ensure greater human resource development.

At a time when Rajasthan’s physical infrastructure was crumbling, Raje’s first tenure saw massive investments in expanding the state’s road network, starting power generation units and curtailing losses in the power sector and a strong effort to revive canal networks that were critical lifelines for farmers in a drought-prone state.

During Raje’s tenure, a key goal was to generate employment to enhance the economic condition of the people. She formed the Rajasthan Mission on Livelihood to provide skill training and set up the Rajasthan Knowledge Corporation to impart basic computer training to the youth to enhance their employability.

She also tried to revitalise the handicrafts and handloom sectors. In her second term as CM, the ambitious "Bhamashah scheme” aimed at empowering women. Under this novel effort, bank accounts in the name of women of 1.5 crore families were opened and monetary benefits were directly transferred to their accounts.


Both Their Tenures Are Riddled With Controversy

Despite their multiple successes, Gehlot and Raje share the dubious distinction of never being able to win two consecutive terms for their parties. This not only led to the revolving door trend but also reflects the flaws of the duo.

In their debut terms as CMs, both lacked finesse in tackling quota agitations. Gehlot was inept in handling the Jat agitation for OBC quotas in the late 1990s. It’s a blot that created a perception of Gehlot being anti-Jat, a stain that's stuck with him for years. Likewise, Raje mishandled the Gujjar agitation for ST reservations.

In 2007-8, the Gujjar agitation paralysed Rajasthan for weeks and provoked violence that left over 70 people dead – and remains a dark spot in Raje’s governance.

Besides shortcomings on specific issues and policies, one common problem afflicting Gehlot and Raje was the perception of a strong 'coterie culture’.

Party Faction as a Common Denominator

While in power, they often seemed to rely on a small group of people from their staff, loyalists, and bureaucrats. Since many in this closed circle were motivated by narrow concerns, the duo often remained cut off from reality.

Surrounded by a band of 'loyalists’, they failed to establish a better bond with not only ordinary people but also party leaders and cadres.

Inevitably, both Gehlot and Raje had to battle severe rifts in their respective parties. While Gehlot’s first term saw bitter discord with the older generation of leaders ranging from Parasram Maderna to Nawal Kishore Sharma, his second term saw a sharp clash with the faction led by the-then state Congress Chief CP Joshi who was seen as close to Rahul Gandhi.

And of course, Gehlot’s tussle with Sachin Pilot raged relentlessly over the past five years and crippled the Congress in countless ways.


Similarly, Raje had a running battle with the RSS faction in the state BJP. In fact, the Raje-RSS rift was at the root of BJP infighting in Rajasthan ever since she became the state’s first woman CM in 2003.

After defeat in the 2018 polls, Raje was sidelined by the BJP’s top brass (read Modi-Shah duo) and it is the combo of RSS-BJP bigwigs that has now led to her being denied the top job despite being the most popular BJP leader in Rajasthan.


End Of An Era In Rajasthan Politics

While Gehlot-Raje may continue to play significant roles, it’s quite unlikely that they will now return as CMs. BJP insiders say that Raje may move to national politics, become a Union Minister after the Lok Sabha elections, or be made a Governor. In contrast, Gehlot faces a more uncertain future.

He may get an assignment at the AICC level but with the Gandhis not too happy with him since the revolt by Gehlot-supporting MLAs in 2022, it poses a challenge in his accommodation by the Congress top brass.

The Gehlot-Raje era in Rajasthan politics is a complex tapestry of achievements and shortcomings. While their administrations brought undeniable progress, they have also left behind a legacy of missed opportunities.

As the state embarks on a new political journey, one wonders whether it will be defined by continuity or change, by stability or upheaval.

With neither the ‘Jadugar’ nor the ‘Maharani’ (as Gehlot and Raje were popularly called) holding the reins of power, it’s the start of a new chapter in Rajasthan, one that will have new leaders and hopefully a brighter vision for the future! 

(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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