NATIONAL CONDOLENCE: Limitless ambition, limited liberal thrust – the passing of the former ‘Lion of Rajasthan’ ?!!

NATIONAL CONDOLENCE: Limitless ambition, limited liberal thrust – the passing of the former ‘Lion of Rajasthan’ ?!!

Bhairon Singh Shekhawat

BY RADHIKA RAMASESHAN

New Delhi, May 15: The flag at the BJP headquarters flew at half mast, L.K. Advani called off his engagements, Nitin Gadkari deferred his departure to Europe by a day and a decision on government formation in Jharkhand was put off.

Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who died on Saturday in Jaipur, was a founding member of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the BJP’s earlier “avatar” with 28 others.

Most of them fell into oblivion. Only nine survived the vicissitudes of the Jan Sangh’s power politics — almost as vicious as the games at play in the BJP — and emerged as formidable national or state entities.

Shekhawat and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were among them. L.K. Advani’s name did not even figure in the party’s first working committee.

Yet, Advani indirectly proved to be Shekhawat’s undoing. In January 2009, when Advani was unveiled as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Shekhawat threw his hat in the ring. He announced he would contest the Lok Sabha election and even have a shot at the country’s top job.

By then, the “lion of Rajasthan”— as he was hailed in his heyday — was already battling throat cancer and had become slightly incoherent.

He claimed he picked up the gauntlet against Advani only because his party workers wanted him to: yet a week after saying this, he hosted a “janta darbar” in his Jaipur residence at which not even a hundred showed up. He eventually withdrew and the BJP abandoned him.

Today, when he died at 87, the facts and fables tumbled out of 11 Ashoka Road, the BJP headquarters.

Shekhawat was not of RSS provenance, a circumstance that stood him and his party in good stead whenever it wanted to pull out a liberal mask.

He joined the state police and got into a bit of a flap when in 1948 he was allegedly caught taking a bribe of Rs 50. He was suspended. He denied the charge.

An occasional rebel, he backed the jagirdari abolition and resumption bill, which sought to put a few curbs on land holdings by royal families, when it was introduced in the Rajasthan Assembly in 1952. Shekhawat carved out the image of an opponent of the palace and a people’s person.

Therefore, it was an anomaly for Shekhawat to join the Jan Sangh in 1952 because the party was a natural habitat of the Rajasthan royals who looked askance at the Congress brand of socialism.

He not only stayed in the party but rose from strength to strength without fundamentally compromising his niche capital. Shekhawat was the first BJP chief minister to launch the poverty relief programmes envisaged by the party’s ideologue, Deen Dayal Upadhyay — antyodaya, food for work and your village, your work — elements of which can be seen in the current blockbuster job scheme of the UPA.

He spoke out against sati after the Deorala tragedy when there were many in the BJP, including his own nephew, who protested the arrest of the culprits.

Shekhawat qualified his backing of Hindutva with a famous statement in Ayodhya in 1991. On a visit, he was asked how he regarded the “disputed” structure, as a temple or a mosque. He said it was both. The RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were incensed.

Yet, his mildly idiosyncratic politics was limited: he never criticised Narendra Modi for the Gujarat violence against the minorities.

However, his ambition seemed limitless. A latter-day manifestation was when he agreed to stand against Pratibha Patil in the 2007 presidential election.

Shekhawat’s affable ways, like Vajpayee’s, earned him friends and admirers from other parties. He was convinced some of those from the UPA, including the Congress, would cross-vote for him. The resounding defeat left him sad but not broken.

Shekhawat was shattered when the BJP pulled its weight behind Advani in the scramble for prime ministership, leaving him to fight alone: his best friend Vajpayee was too ill to help him and his second best friend, Jaswant Singh (not yet expelled) was too powerless to move a finger.

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