Four years into his tenure, the Rajasthan Chief Minister is still busy setting the house in order.
The miseries of the Congress party are unending. As if its poor showing in the recent Assembly elections was not enough, its troubles in Rajasthan, where elections are due in 2013, refuse to go away and have considerably weakened Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot's hand.
In its fourth year, the Gehlot Government, described by both critics and sympathisers as a pale shadow of his first from 1998 to 2003, is still struggling to make a mark. A series of setbacks, including non-cooperation by members of the Council of Ministers, the indifference of a rather unmotivated senior bureaucracy and caste conflicts over the reservations pie seem to have muddled the vision of the Chief Minister.
Mr. Gehlot's cabinet colleagues have been a source of much grief for him and the government. Most of his time has been taken up in damage control after their acts of commission and omission. And the public is not amused.
Ministers and cases
The latest addition to the Cabinet “rogue's gallery” is the State's Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister Mahendrajeet Singh Malviya, whose wife complained against him to the chairperson of the State's Commission for Women just a week ago.
Mr. Malviya, a tribal strongman from Banswara district, was accused by his wife Kamala of abandoning her for another woman. The new woman in the Minister's life is the Zila Pramukh of Banswara.
Mr. Malviya is the third Minister in the Gehlot Council to get mired in a controversy involving women; the total number of Ministers who have courted trouble due to various other reasons would be more than half a dozen.
The worst case, of course, had been that of Mahipal Maderna, who was removed as Water Resources Minister in October 2011, after Bhanwari Devi, an auxiliary nurse-cum performing artist, went missing on September 1 from a Jodhpur suburb, and was later confirmed by the CBI to be dead.
Now Mr. Maderna and Congress MLA Malkhan Singh are in jail in connection with the case. Their associates and family members, including Indira Bishnoi and Paras Ram Vishnoi, sister and brother respectively of Mr. Malkhan, are also accused in the case.
The episode proved a tightrope walk for Mr. Gehlot as it happened on his home turf. Besides, the High Court castigated the State Government for not promptly investigating the case; at the same time, the Jat community — in whose eyes Mr. Gehlot is always a suspect — accused him of plotting to bring down the Maderna family.
Mr. Mahipal Maderna is the son of senior Congress leader and former Speaker Parasram Maderna. Both the Madernas and the Mirdhas — former Rajasthan Minister Harendra Mirdha, who is the son of the late Ram Niwas Mirdha, is married to Mr. Mahipal Maderna's sister — are two clans who hold sway among the Jat population in the State.
Unfortunately for Mr. Gehlot, Mr. Malkhan Singh's family too happens to be equally important. His father, the late Ram Singh Bishnoi was a Congress Minister and president of the All India Bishnoi Mahasabha for several years. Mr. Malkhan has succeeded him as president. The Bishnois earlier had no problem with Mr. Gehlot but now are annoyed and hurt.
Another Minister who had to be dropped for his alleged involvement with a young woman in Bhilwara was Ramlal Jat. A prominent name in the milk cooperative sector, Mr. Jat was dropped in a recent Cabinet reshuffle after local papers reported on how the body of one Paras Devi, who died under mysterious circumstances, was taken away in his official car in the middle of the night, allegedly to avoid a post-mortem examination. Mr. Jat's explanation, that he is a close family friend of Paras Devi's husband Ratan Lal Choudhary, did not help settle the issue.
Mr. Jat too is from the same community as that of Mr. Maderna and his supporters feel that Mr. Gehlot let him down by not “protecting” him.
Leaders with a mass base
Yet another minister who caused embarrassment to the party is Master Bhanwarlal Meghwal, who with his objectionable language and comments was packed off by Mr. Gehlot in the November 2011 reshuffle. Though Mr. Gehlot changed the portfolio of another controversial Minister, Babulal Nagar, he continues to prove an embarrassment.
All the ministers involved happen to be leaders with a mass base in their respective areas. It is yet unclear what comeback plans these sulking Congress politicians have, but with the Assembly elections only a year away, their intentions could prove crucial to the fate of the party. And after the rout of the Congress in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the Rajasthan unit of the Congress is truly nervous.