The people of Jodhpur are known for their sweet tooth and soft-spoken nature. But there’s nothing sweet or soft in the slugfest between Jodhpur’s two political stalwarts – Ashok Gehlot and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. Instead, their animosity is beyond bitter and is heading for a fierce climax with legal swords hanging over both combative adversaries.
At present, the Rajasthan Chief Minister is on the back foot and faces a major dent in his pride just ahead of the Rajasthan polls. With a Delhi court refusing to stay the summons against him in a defamation case filed by Shekhawat, the Rajasthan CM will have to appear in the court of Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate via video conferencing on 7 August.
And many see prospects of a Rahul-Gandhi-like disqualification dangling on the horizon.
Gehlot-Shekhawat’s High-Pitched Battle Intensifies
The defamation case is an apt reflection of the bitter battle escalating in an election year though tensions between Gehlot and Shekhawat have been simmering ever since the CM’s son Vaibhav Gehlot was trounced in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by the Union Minister.
Launching an incessant tirade against Shekhawat since then, Gehlot has accused the Jodhpur MP of involvement in the over 900-crore Sanjivani Cooperative Society scam that ruined the lives of over two lakh investors.
Despite the Gehlot-Shekhawat verbal war continuing for years, it crossed all limits in February when Gehlot accused not just Shekhawat but all his family members of involvement in the Sanjivani scam.
Outraged, the Rajput leader and RSS strongman quickly slapped a defamation case against Gehlot claiming the CM’s remarks were aimed at tarnishing his image and damaging his political career.
With no stay on the court proceedings, the Rajasthan CM faces a tough legal battle even though the injured leader has been allowed to attend through video conferencing. Shekhawat has demanded Gehlot’s prosecution for criminal defamation while seeking appropriate financial compensation for the damages.
Legal Conundrum Grips Rajasthan Polity
If Gehlot is in a legal soup, he too has done his bit to tighten the noose around Shekhawat in a couple of cases. Soon after the defamation case was lodged in Delhi, the Rajasthan Police exhibited great urgency in the Sanjivani Case.
In a fortnight, the Special Operations Group (SOG), investigating the scam since 2019, lodged 123 FIRs on the basis of complaints from victims of the Sanjivani scam.
The sudden overdrive on the part of Rajasthan Police forced Shekhawat to move the Rajasthan High Court to stay his possible arrest in the Sanjivani case. Though constantly claiming his innocence, Shekhawat argued that CM Gehlot was paying "special attention” to just one cooperative society case.
Though Rajasthan High Court has extended the stay on Shekhawat’s arrest till 11 September, legal headaches haunt the Union Jal Shakti Minister in this case related to a huge money-making scam.
Significantly, Shekhawat even tried to move the probe out of Rajasthan Police jurisdiction and petitioned for the case to be shifted to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as the frauds in the Sanjivani Case were spread over several states.
Corruption, Money Laundering, and Pilot Revolt
Curiously, the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh government too asked for a CBI probe into the Sanjivani case as several victims were from their state. In contrast, Gehlot is keen to keep the case with the Rajasthan police and often slams the ED for taking no action on his pleas to probe the money trail in the Sanjivani scam and seize properties of its perpetrators.
Eventually, due to a separate plea filed by the victims of the Sanjivani Society, the Supreme Court rejected Shekhawat’s plea by pointing out that the CBI had itself opposed the transfer of the case from SOG in an earlier petition in the Rajasthan High Court.
Besides the current Defamation-Sanjivani imbroglio engulfing the duo, Gehlot and Shekhawat have been at loggerheads even over the Sachin Pilot revolt of 2020.
Gehlot claims that Shekhawat played a leading role in the plot to topple his government and cites leaked audio clips wherein Shekhawat is allegedly coaxing Congress MLAs to switch sides.
In the case pending before the state Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Gehlot government has accused Shekhawat of trying to topple an elected government by using money power.
The 'Raje' Factor
Despite repeated requests by SOG, Shekhawat has not given his voice sample to verify the voice on the clips - a fact that Gehlot mentions repeatedly to discredit the Union Minister.
In retaliation, Shekhawat too lodged a case in Delhi against Gehlot aide Lokesh Sharma for allegedly circulating his telephonic chats that sought to project the Union Minister's complicity in attempts to topple the Rajasthan government.
Shekhawat's case accuses Gehlot of tapping his phone illegally and the Delhi Police has questioned Sharma several times but the case has seen little progress since Delhi High Court has stayed the OSD’s arrest. If the Delhi Police have made little progress, the Rajasthan Police too have hardly made any headway in the two cases where Shekhawat could potentially face serious trouble.
What complicates the Gehlot-Shekhawat relationship further is the vexed Vasundhara Raje factor.
Shekhawat has been hostile towards Raje ever since she foiled Amit Shah’s bid to make him the Rajasthan BJP President in 2018. Curiously, it was lack of Raje’s support in 2020 that turned the Gajendra-inspired BJP effort to topple Gehlot’s government into a flop show.
Raje’s alleged nexus with Gehlot is infuriating for Shekhawat since he is not just her critic but also fancies himself as a strong CM option in case the BJP returns to power in Rajasthan.
How Will This Legal Battle End?
Beyond verbal jousts, tongue-lashing and legal tangles, the roots of their spiteful hostility lie in the desire of both opponents to dominate politics in their home turf of Jodhpur.
No leader from any party has been able to question Gehlot’s clout in western Rajasthan ever since his rise to prominence over four decades ago. But after emerging victorious in the last two Lok Sabha elections, and especially after routing Gehlot’s son in 2019, Shekhawat believes he is a formidable challenger to Gehlot’s undisputed sway over the Jodhpur-Marwar region.
In this bitter battle, Gehlot is keen to downsize Shekhawat and reassert his hold over western Rajasthan.
For Shekhawat, the clash with Gehlot is useful not just in raising his own profile but also scoring brownie points with the BJP top brass which could make him a frontrunner in the party’s internal race to be the next CM!
Ironically, a different Gehlot-Shekhawat battle in the 1990s had catapulted Gehlot to become Rajasthan CM since he had taken on the then sitting-CM Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to raise his own stature and grab the top job. Now, as Gajendra Singh adopts similar tactics, the state is seeing a new Gehlot-Shekhawat contest.
As the three-time sitting CM locks horns in a titanic clash with a Union Minister, residents of the desert state are witnessing a no-holds-barred confrontation. While the legal twists and turns script a heady climax, the bloody duel is surely becoming a searing precursor to the impending electoral clash in Rajasthan later this year!
(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.)