When senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal’s interview questioning his party’s ability to be an alternative to the BJP in backdrop of Bihar poll results hit the newspapers, the Congress was silent for an entire day. The silence was broken late evening when Rajasthan Chief Minister and party veteran Ashok Gehlot tweeted to say “There was no need for Mr Kapil Sibal to mention our internal issue in the media, this has hurt the sentiments of party workers across the country”.
Then again, a few days after it was clear that BJP-ruled states Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh were planning to pass the ‘love jihad’ law, it was again Gehlot who was the first to react from the party. He tweeted: “Love jihad is a word manufactured by BJP to divide the nation and disturb communal harmony. Marriage is a matter of personal liberty, bringing a law to curb it is completely unconstitutional and will not stand in any court of law. Jihad has no place in love.”
Till Gehlot spoke out, no one from the Congress had and even then, the party has been very guarded in its reaction to the law as it’s aware it could harm its attempt to project itself as a Hindutva party.
The common thread of Gehlot being the first to articulate a position throws up an interesting debate. Is Gehlot the new Ahmed Patel? Will he be used as the troubleshooter or fire fighter for the party in tough times? With Patel still recovering from Covid-19 complications and almost unlikely to be as active as before, the Congress needs someone like him even more.
To understand why Gehlot could be the best candidate for this job, it’s also important to understand what Patel brought to the table. Patel belongs to the old style of politics of reaching out to politicians across party lines, bureaucrats and corporates. Everyone is a potential ally is his mantra and a call from “Ahmed bhai” as he is called could actually deliver many times.
But Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is not in sync with Patel. It’s a known fact that Rahul Gandhi isn’t as comfortable working with Patel and his style and if made president of his party, would likely look for a replacement. But the problem is that very few in the party have the acumen which Patel had to negotiate and win over. Gehlot almost fits the bill.
First, he shares a good personal equation with Rahul Gandhi and also has his trust. When Rahul Gandhi was president, it was Gehlot who was in-charge of organisation and the two worked together. The Congress’s good performance in Gujarat state polls was also attributed to Gehlot’s strong grassroots mettle.
Gehlot has the stature and seniority and shares personal rapport with many seniors across party lines. A call from Gehlot could get immediate response. He is also a strong grassroots leader and this adds to his power. Like Patel, Gehlot prefers a low profile; though the only time Gehlot seemed to have shed his normally reticent image was when he attacked Sachin Pilot for being “nikamma”.
Those who have watched Gehlot closely were surprised. Gehlot is known to be silent, calm, fond of jasmine tea and Parle-G biscuit. His animosity with any leader is not revealed openly and given the complex political times, this is seen as an asset. “They say about Patel that it is very difficult to gauge what’s on his mind. Gehlot is almost like this; his smile camouflages his strategy and plans,” says a senior leader.
It’s not a coincidence that Gehlot spoke out on two contentious issues. Sources say the Gandhis wanted this said but through someone who had the stature and the political weight. While there is no talk of any eventual shifting of Gehlot to the Centre if Rahul Gandhi becomes party president, but the fact is that he will have an important role to play in ironing out the wrinkles in the party. And that’s where the need and indispensability of another Patel comes in. This time, someone who makes Rahul Gandhi comfortable.