In yet another instance of dynastic politics, President Pratibha Patil’s son Rajendra Shekhawat sets out to prove himself in the poll fray, reports Shobhita Naithani
OF THE several election jokes doing the rounds in the Amravati assembly constituency of Vidarbha in eastern Maharashtra, this one takes the cake – Dr Sunil Deshmukh: Mere pas Vilasrao hai, roads hai, flyovers hai, vikas ki aandhi hai, cadre hai, public hai. Tere paas kya hai? (I have the support of former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh; roads, flyovers and development to my credit; cadre and the public in my favour. What do you have?) Rajendra Shekhawat: Mere paas maa hai (I have my mother).
The repartee (from the Bollywood blockbuster Deewar) sums up the controversy that is raging 160 km west of Nagpur. Sunil Deshmukh, 52, is the sitting Congress MLA from Amravati and has been representing the constituency for the past 10 years. Rajendra Shekhawat, 42, is President Pratibha Patil’s son. A few days before the list of candidates for the upcoming assembly elections was to be finalised, Sunil “was asked to vacate the Amravati seat for Rajendra”. He refused to budge. So the party went ahead and gave Rajendra the ticket for Amravati; a decision that has brought not only the Congress, but also Rashtrapati Bhavan, the country’s highest constitutional office, under a cloud of suspicion and scorn, especially because there was no rationale before the party to deny Sunil a ticket. After all, even his rivals, though grudgingly, acknowledge the work done by Sunil as the minister of state for finance, planning and energy.
While Sunil is “extremely hurt and saddened” by the move of the party that he has worked tirelessly for over three decades, the one who is hurting the most is the one with the ticket in his kitty. “Is it a crime to be the President’s son?” asked Rajendra, popularly known as Raosahab, a few hours after filing his nomination on the morning of September 25. Unconsciously or not, Rajendra is clearly nursing a gripe that he is being “targeted” for being the President’s son. During the two-hour long chat with TEHELKA, the only son of Pratibha Patil and Devisingh Shekhawat (a former Congress MLA from Amaravati), Rajendra didn’t miss a chance to talk about his persecution. “Why don’t people see me as an individual? Am I not a human being too?” he asks; wishing his decade-long association with the frontal organisations of the party, such as the Youth Congress and the Seva Dal, is acknowledged by those who claim he got the ticket only because of his parents.
When he chose business over politics in 1990, Rajendra became the object of ridicule for his friends and detractors a like
Given his background, Rajendra’s grouse is not totally unjustified. When he chose business over politics in 1990, he became the object of ridicule for his friends and detractors alike: “Kyaa dukaan laga ke baitho ho (Why have you set up shop) when you can join politics like your parents,” they would tell the Mumbai-based automobile dealer. That period of jibes has in a way characterised the psychological make-up of the man who comes across as gracious and unassuming.
But politeness and humility are not the only qualities that make a politician. While Rajendra may have the purpose, the determination, a decade’s work in the Seva Dal and a family that watches over from Rashtrapati Bhavan, he doesn’t exude the confidence of a seasoned politician. Lack of political acumen, the general perception that the assembly ticket was “simply handed to him” and its sheer timing are a few things that may work against him during the polls. “If he was so keen on proving himself, he should have either waited for his mother’s term to end or contested as an Independent candidate,” says a local Congressman who requested anonymity. But Suresh Shukla, a senior journalist in Amravati, feels there is a method to the Congress’ madness. “The Congress will undoubtedly put its might behind him because if he loses, it will cause immense embarrassment to the President. It has become a prestige issue,” says Shukla.
Rajendra, who presides over Vidyabharati Shikshan Mandal, a string of educational institutes established by his father in the district, had been desperately trying for a ticket since 2004. Amravati was the first choice because “that’s where his roots are”. Both his parents – President Patil and father Devisingh – have earlier represented the constituency in the state assembly and in Parliament. Asked if it would have been more prudent to have sought a ticket after his mother’s term had ended, Rajendra says, “It would have been easier on the family but I would be 47 years old (in the next election). I didn’t want to miss the chance. And why should I?”
IT IS alleged that more than the son’s unsophisticated, almost childlike impatience to be a triumphant politician, it is Rajendra’s father Devisingh who is running the show from behind the scenes. The exercise, to ensure that Rajendra got a ticket, apparently began almost a year ago when the Amravati City Congress Committee, headed by Vishwas Rao Deshmukh, a Shekhawat family loyalist, came into being in November 2008. The committee, of which Rajendra is the vice-president, is believed to be controlled by Devisingh’s men. And they forwarded only Rajendra’s name, ignoring Sunil Deshmukh’s candidature, to the party high command for nomination. But Devisingh, 76, refutes all allegations of interference. “People who make this allegation are foolish,” he says, insisting that Rajendra has personal access to the party high command. “So what if it’s because of his background? One cannot deprive him of a ticket just because he is the President’s son. He approached the party as an individual and got the ticket,” says the father who has decided to keep away from his son’s election campaign lest the family is maligned further.
‘I am under pressure. There is a deliberate attempt to kick, hurt and kill my personality,’ admits the president’s son
Amidst all this turmoil, Rajendra maintains a composed exterior as he answers a barrage of questions about favouritism, political influence and of being yet another beneficiary in the miasma of dynastic politics. Ask him about the opposition’s charges and he says he laughs at them. But press him further and he confesses: “I am under a lot of pressure and I don’t know how to deal with it. There is a deliberate attempt to kick, hurt and kill my personality.”
If this father of a 16-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son had a little more time on his hands, he would have played table tennis, a sport he enjoys, to relieve himself of the stress. But for now he has to make do with some yoga in the morning. As the fight gathers steam (Sunil Deshmukh is contesting as an Independent) Rajendra knows his handicaps – the lack of physical stamina for the exhausting campaign trail, talking a lot and undertaking less padyatras. So, eat less, talk less and walk more will be his new mantra. And as he takes his first steps towards emulating his illustrious parents, Rajendra signs off in his signature style, “At least give me a chance.”