Gajendra Singh Shekhawat: A 'minister in hurry' with deep roots in the RSS

The year 2019 was a milestone of sorts. Shekhawat won the seat again by a margin of over 400,000, defeating Vaibhav Gehlot, the son of Ashok Gehlot who camped in Jodhpur to ensure his son’s victory.
It’s not mere happenstance or luck that brought Gajendra Singh Shekhawat in a good place. If Dharmendra Pradhan earned his stripes by overseeing the implementation of the Ujjwala Yojana, the crown jewel of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first tenure in office, it has fallen on Shekhawat to oversee the execution of Modi 2.0’s flagship Jal Jeevan Mission. The Mission is the highpoint of the newly constituted Jal Shakti ministry, which amalgamated water resources and drinking water and sanitation, and encompassed the Namami Gange project into one entity. Its objective is to bring piped water to every Indian house. Shekhawat works with a budget of Rs 3.5 trillion.

“Everything helped Shekhawat. He has deep roots in the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), belongs to the right caste (the Rajputs) and is amicable. Most important, he’s from the right region,” a Rajasthan Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veteran said. Although Shekhawat belongs to the Shekhawati region — he was born in the Sikar district’s Mahroli village — his father Shankar Singh Shekhawat’s job in the public health department took the family all over Rajasthan. He completed Master’s and M Phil from Jodhpur’s Jai Narain Vyas University (JNVU) and eventually adopted the city as his political karmabhoomi.

The Rajputs traditionally voted the BJP in Rajasthan but the Marwar region (also called the Jodhpur region) proved tricky. It is considered as the political turf of Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister, although success eluded the Congress in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In 2014, Shekhawat debuted in the Lok Sabha from Jodhpur. In the “Modi wave” that swamped Rajasthan, his win was another statistic among the 25 seats in the BJP’s kitty.

The year 2019 was a milestone of sorts. Shekhawat won the seat again by a margin of over 400,000, defeating Vaibhav Gehlot, the son of Ashok Gehlot who camped in Jodhpur to ensure his son’s victory.

The Marwar region shares a long border with Pakistan. After the Balakot airstrikes, he played the “nationalist” card to full effect. Where Shekhawat’s campaign combined shrill rhetoric with strategy and planning, Vaibhav banked solely on his father’s legacy as “Jodhpur ka beta”. The win earned for him the epithet of a “giant slayer”. “The BJP believed it had seriously breached a Congress territory,” a party source said. When it came to grooming a “successor” to former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, or at least nurturing a future leadership, the Lok Sabha “achievement” went to Shekhawat’s credit. “A big consideration for farming out the Jal Shakti ministry to him is because he’s from a desert area. The Mission is targeted to green the arid regions,” a source said.

Shekhawat is lately in news for reasons he might not care to remember.  He and his wife are facing the Rajasthan police’s probe for their alleged role in the Rs 884-crore Sanjivani Credit Cooperative Society fraud case.

Also, the Congress charged the BJP with using big money to topple the Gehlot government after Sachin Pilot revolted with 18 of his followers. While there’s no hard evidence on trading money, an audiotape, which purportedly carried an incriminating conversation between Shekhawat and Bhanwar Lal Sharma, a rebel Congress MLA, unsettled the minister. Shekhawat denied meeting Sharma.

Sharma’s name did not evoke pleasant memories for the BJP. An old-timer recalled that in 1996, when Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the then CM and highly regarded leader in the BJP, was away in Cleveland for heart surgery, Sharma — who supported his government as an Independent — engineered a revolt with a dozen legislators. He approached Gehlot for help, but the Congress leader refused. Sharma was miffed at Shekhawat because he did not induct him in his ministerial council. “Even a tangential association with this back-stabber is bad,” the old-timer said.

The audiotape had the unintended consequence of reinforcing a perception that Shekhawat was a “person in a hurry”.  “He’s convinced his moment as CM has arrived, not realising that the scenario is complex,” a BJP source said.  One element in the big picture is Vasundhara, about whom the party holds contrary views. “She has the unflinching support of 25 to 30 (of 72) of our MLAs who believe they win only on her name. If the high command pushes her around, she will fight to the finish,” a source claimed. The other opinion was Vasundhra “did nothing” in the Opposition and the BJP lost two elections under her stewardship.

If Shekhawat comes out of the audio ambush unscathed, he will owe a lot to the RSS, his mentor. The 52-year old began politics in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Sangh’s student front, and was elected as JNVU president in 1992. He later became part of the RSS’s Swadeshi Jagran Manch and simultaneously involved himself in the Sangh’s Seema Jan Kalyan Samiti. The latter’s objective is to create a “civil line of secondary defence along the international border”.

Shekhawat’s first stint at the Centre was as junior agriculture and farmers’ welfare minister. He claimed his farming background as an owner of 3,000 hectare of agricultural land in Ethiopia helped him evolve policies, such as the abolition of the monopoly of one insurance company over farming and bringing all crops under the ambit of an insurance cover.

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