Congress leaders Sachin Pilot (left) and Ashok Gehlot (right). 

Rajasthan Ministry: A Blend of More New Than Old for 2019 Success

TheQuintOpinion

The tricky task of Cabinet formation in Rajasthan was finally completed in 2018 but the Congress focus seems firmly fixed on the challenge of 2019.

With Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot keen to induct ministers of his earlier Cabinet but Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot insisting on fresh faces, the ministry formation was preceded by much debate and intense lobbying from the two camps.

Eventually, however, the team cleared by Congress President Rahul Gandhi presents a blend of youth and experience to woo voters and keep frictions within the party strictly under check.

Among the 23 ministers sworn in, 18 are first timers and only 5 have held ministerial berths in previous Congress governments formed under Ashok Gehlot.

In evolving an attractive mix of youthful and experienced MLAs from both Gehlot and Pilot loyalists, the new ministry has 34-year old Ashok Chandna as its youngest and 75-year old Shanti Dhariwal as its oldest member.

With 2 ministers in their 30s, 5 in their 40s and 9 in their 50s, it’s a council of ministers that’s far younger than any previous government in Rajasthan.

Despite the average age of ministers being 55 years, the gap of over four decades between its youngest and oldest member suggests a major ‘generation gap’ within the new cabinet. How harmoniously the ‘oldies’ and ‘newbies’ will pull along is something that will be closely watched by political observers.

Congress Gets Its Caste-Combo Right

With caste often being the kingmaker in Indian elections, the Congress has made a special bid to get its ‘caste-combo’ right to boost its prospects for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Akin to handing out party tickets in the Assembly polls, the largest number of ministers belong to the powerful agricultural community of Jats who have traditionally been Congress supporters and form about 12 percent of voters in the state. The most notable inclusion is Vishvendra Singh of the former royal family of Bharatpur who wields considerable influence in eastern Rajasthan.

The relatively younger Harish Choudhary, Lalchand Kataria and Govind Singh Dotasara are the other Jat leaders included in the ministry. Kataria was a Minister of State in the Manmohan Singh government while Dotasara was the chief Whip of the Congress in the previous Assembly in Rajasthan.

However, as no member from clans of prominent Jat leaders like Parasram Maderna and Sheesh Ram Ola have been accommodated, it may lead to a potential headache for the party.

Two leaders from the Rajput community, traditional rivals of Jats in many parts of Rajasthan, have also been included in the Cabinet. A noteworthy inclusion is that of Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, nephew of former BJP stalwart Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who as Jaipur Congress President led several agitations against the Vasundhara Raje government. Considered close to Pilot, Khachariyawas had recently raked up a major row with his statement that Ashok Gehlot cannot decide on who would be the Rajasthan CM just when the Pilot-Gehlot tussle was at its peak in early December.

Given the widely-held perception that Rajputs, a traditional BJP vote bank, are angry with the former Raje government, the Congress had inducted Manvendra Singh into the party in October and ministerial berths now are aimed at strengthening the bond with the Rajput community.  

To wean away more of the BJP base among the privileged castes, two Brahmins and two Vaishya leaders too have been inducted. Of course, to get its caste equations right among the oppressed sections, three ministers, each from among OBCs and Scheduled Tribes and four from Scheduled Castes have also found favour in the Cabinet.

The ministry reflects a fine caste balance but Muslims may feel disappointed since seven of the 15 Muslim candidates fielded by the Congress had won in the recent elections. However, the single Muslim representative in the Cabinet is a significant choice – Saleh Mohammad, the MLA from Pokhran. In perhaps the most polarised seat in the state, 41-year old Saleh had defeated the godman-politician Mahant Pratap Puri who was reportedly fielded at the insistence of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

A prominent Muslim winner ignored in the Cabinet is Zahida Khan, the sole Muslim woman MLA in the new Assembly. Seeing her huge victory margin, Zahida was tipped to be in the Cabinet and her omission, which ignited noisy protests in her constituency of Kaman, highlights the gender imbalance of the Gehlot ministry.

Despite eleven of its women candidates winning the elections, only Mamta Bhupesh has been given a ministerial berth. This seems a shocker given Rahul Gandhi’s promise that he would ensure a greater role for women in the party and at least half of Congress Chief Ministers should be women in the next five years. 

Since the party advocates 33 percent reservation for women in all constitutional bodies, making only one woman a minister seriously dents the Congress image as a progressive political force in the country.

Allies Kept Happy, Veterans Absent from Cabinet

While Muslims and women may be miffed, Congress has made a special bid to keep its allies in good humour. Included in the council of ministers is Subhash Garg, a first-time MLA who is the solitary success of the RLD that is an ally of the Congress in Rajasthan. However, induction of the lone winner from its allies reflects the seriousness of Rahul Gandhi to ensure a prominent role for allies and the Congress desire to stitch up effective alliances in its quest for a ‘maha-gath-bandhan’ for the 2019 polls!

However, many Congress veterans like CP Joshi, Bharat Singh, Rajendra Pareek, Mahesh Joshi and former Speaker of the Assembly Deependra Singh Shekhawat do not figure in the Cabinet. The political buzz suggests that many of them may be rewarded with constitutional or party posts or will be fielded as Lok Sabha candidates. Ignoring them will not only mean a loss of their vital experience but may also pose a challenge to party unity in the state.

Overall, Team Gehlot seems a delicate balancing act and the fresh faces in the ministry will hopefully inject a new energy into the Rajasthan government. Most people hope the new government will also ensure a more responsive attitude in the bureaucracy so that problems and needs of the aam aadmi in the desert state are addressed on a priority. As young blood gets a bigger role, greater vigour to resolve people’s problems at the grassroots may well be the litmus test that could determine Congress performance in 2019!

(The author is a veteran journalist, and expert on Rajasthan politics, who served as a Resident Editor at NDTV. He is currently a professor of journalism at the University of Rajasthan, and head of department of mass communication. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)