With Gehlot replacing Jaitley as Leader of the House in RS, reticence replaces flamboyance
Jaitley was deeply entrenched in Lutyens’ Delhi for decades, while Gehlot is a quiet, Dalit politician hailing from Madhya Pradesh.
From flamboyance to a guarded, disciplined, organisational approach: this is a key takeaway of the Narendra Modi government’s decision to replace an ailing Arun Jaitley with Union minister Thaawarchand Gehlot as the Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha.
Political observers feel that the appointment of Gehlot is a move that signifies a key change in the way the government will interact with opposition parties in the Upper House.
The 250-member House is legislatively more crucial than the larger Lok Sabha, so far as Modi government 2.0 is concerned.
For, the ruling party has just 70 members there. It was hoping to win one state after another to eventually carve out a majority in the Rajya Sabha. However, the recent losses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh mean that the BJP is not going to have a majority in the Rajya Sabha anytime soon.
Key Bills of the Modi government will have to be passed not just by the Lok Sabha – where the BJP has a brute majority with 303 MPs -- but also in the Rajya Sabha. A joint sitting is the only available option to undercut the opposition’s powerful presence in the Upper House, but even this option is not available in the case of constitutional amendment Bills. The latter have to be passed by both Houses of Parliament with a special majority to become Acts.
It remains to be seen how Gehlot fares in bringing Opposition leaders on board for the smooth passage of Bills.
Gehlot is in many ways the opposite of Jaitley, whom he replaces.
If Jaitley was outgoing and had wide networks across the political spectrum and the media, Gehlot is an organisational man and reticent in his approach.
Jaitley was deeply entrenched in Lutyens’ Delhi for decades, while Gehlot is a Dalit politician hailing from Madhya Pradesh. While the former was comfortably bilingual, the latter is primarily a Hindi speaker.
Of course, Jaitley operated with autonomy irrespective of who led the party, often engaging opposition leaders, media owners, editors and beat correspondents in casual conversations. He would sometimes share gossip doing the rounds in the capital and at other times discuss eateries in Delhi or shopping hubs in London or New York.
While he was more guarded as a minister in the Modi government, he continued to interact with reporters covering the BJP and the Finance Ministry, as also senior journalists in the Central Hall of Parliament.
Gehlot is a shy man who does not interact much. I interviewed him twice over the past five years, when he was Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, a portfolio he has even now. On both occasions he would keep looking at his files in his Shastri Bhawan office even as he fielded questions. He would avoid casual talk before and after the interview.
Interviewing Jaitley was another kind of experience. He would field and duck some questions, sometimes breaking into casual conversations regarding his choice of attire. The two men, in other words, are very different.
Gehlot does not like to share political gossip with journalists. When reports came in that Yashwant Sinha was looking to file his nomination papers to contest against Nitin Gadkari for the post of BJP president in 2013, media persons rushed to Gehlot, who was the party in-charge for the election process. Gehlot confirmed the news, but in as few words as possible: “Yashwant ji called me to ask about the nomination papers. I do not know anything beyond this.” Eventually, Sinha chose not to contest. In the BJP’s presidential election, there is always a single candidate who gets elected. And it stayed like that, the slight scare in the party leadership notwithstanding.
Veteran journalist Radhika Ramaseshan, who has covered both Parliament and the BJP for decades, said the move seemed well thought out and may well work for the ruling party.
“Yes, unlike Jaitley, Gehlot is shy and very soft-spoken. However, that may make his interactions with, say, Ghulam Nabi Azad, easier. His down-to-earth style may in fact work better than aggression,” she told Asiaville. “He is also a Dalit and this too may work, both in terms of symbolism and his interactions with opposition leaders. Modi and Shah carefully employ symbolism, be it the playing of the gender card when it comes to Nirmala Sitharaman or the Dalit card, if we consider President Ramnath Kovind or Gehlot.”
However, she agreed that the appointment of Gehlot might mean micro-management on the part of Modi and Amit Shah in terms of who in the opposition is to be contacted and when. It would be a precise task, minus much fanfare. She added, however, that the appointment of Piyush Goyal as the deputy of Gehlot would bring some flamboyance to the interactions with the opposition, though not of the scale a seasoned Delhi politician like Jaitley could bring.
Gehlot’s test is about to begin, as Parliament meets from June 17 to July 26.
Of course, the role of Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prahlad Joshi is also of significance here, though the ministry has the much bigger mandate of handling Parliamentary work on behalf of the government.