An era has ended in the politics of northern India with the passing away of the former Vice President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat here on Saturday morning at the age of 87.
Mr. Shekhawat, who strode the Rajasthan politics like a colossus for over half a century, could make a mark as the Vice-President and chairman of the Rajya Sabha as well, though he lost out in his pursuit to become the President —curiously to a “bahu” (daughter-in-law) of his own native Shekhawati, Pratibha Devi Singh Patil.
A leader who had risen from his humble surroundings in a village in Sikar district of Rajasthan, Mr. Shekhawat was the quintessential Indian politician who befriended even his enemies and outwitted his friends. Learning his ropes from the late Mohanlal Sukhadia, the Congress leader who remained Chief Minister of Rajasthan for 17 long years, Mr. Shekhawat was the first non-Congress Chief Minister of the State. Interestingly two of his governments were dismissed — in 1980 and in 1992 — to make way for President's rule.
It was equally interesting to note that his was the only BJP government which could make a comeback after party governments were dismissed in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Though of Jan Sangh background his party men with RSS leanings never could get close to Mr. Shekhawat, who perhaps, like his good friend and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, was not prejudiced for or against any particular religious group or caste.
In feudal Rajasthan, as a young politician, Mr. Shekhawat had actively participated in the campaign for abolition of the Zamindari system. Again, much to the dismay of his Rajput kinsmen, he had stood against the glorification of sati in the wake of the infamous Deorala sati of Roop Kanwar in 1987. He was a politician one could love or hate but never ignore. There was a time in Rajasthan when even a good rain was attributed to Mr. Shekhawat. In the process he used to get the blame for the things he did not do as well.
Starting his political career in 1952 as a member of the Rajasthan Assembly, Mr. Shekhawat rarely chose the same constituency for re-election and got elected every time barring once. His image of invincibility was such that most of the Congress leaders in the State, barring Ashok Gehlot, perhaps, had tried to keep him in good humour. His meticulous style of gathering information kept both politicians and bureaucrats in dread of him.
As Chief Minister for the first time, from 1977 to 1980, Mr. Shekhawat, along with his then Secretary, M.L. Mehta, introduced many innovative schemes including Antyodaya, perhaps the mother of all anti-poverty programmes which followed in the country. An able administrator who knew the pulse of the people, Mr. Shekhawat was a visionary who could foresee the dangers of population explosion and the fragmentation of land holdings.
He enjoyed his tenure as Vice-President and proved his detractors within the party and outside wrong when he not only successfully managed the Upper House but even ushered in some widely accepted reforms. His lack of formal education in English did not deter him as he was a self-taught person. Towards the end of his life he had even turned a bibliophile enjoying the company of books. One could see this coming as his visits to Jaipur during his tenure as Vice-President were always crowded by book release programmes.