Along with Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who passed away in Jaipur on Saturday at the age of 87, formed the trimurti (triumvirate) of the BJP parivar.
But among the three, Shekhawat was more like Vajpayee than Advani. Like Vajpayee, he enjoyed an image of a liberal who was less of a favourite of the RSS and could defy the Sangh if politics of the day demanded. What set him apart was his ability, as BJP leaders say, to play a double role: as an icon of the Rajput political class and as a broadly acceptable face not dented by Advani's style of Hindutva politics.
Shekhawat, as compared to Vajpayee and Advani, was more adept at realpolitik.
Having begun his life as police sub-inspector, and a farmer, he knew the ways of politics and administration. But, as he was out of Delhi's politics for the bulk of his career due to the internal dynamics of the BJP under Vajpayee-Advani duo, Shekhawat had to remain content with his domination in his home state of Rajasthan.
When he got an opportunity to show his realpolitik skill as NDA’s vice- presidential candidate, “Bhairon Baba” as he was popularly called, showed he could win more votes than the BJP-led combination in 2002.
From 2002 to 2007, Shekhawat worked hard to win friends across the political spectrum as chairman of the Rajya Sabha, with an eye on the Rashtrapati Bhavan. But the acrimonious affair that the 2007 presidential elections turned out to be left Shekhawat disappointed.
Upset with that experience, Shekhawat could not resist the temptation to throw his hat in the ring when the BJP decided to project Advani as the Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2009 polls.
Shekhawat’s desire brought in a new dimension to the BJP's internal debate over the issue of leadership, leaving Advani's campaign in tatters when three months were left for the elections. Though Shekhawat was persuaded to withdraw his claim, the damage had been done to Advani's standing.
But his best years were as Chief Minister. Shekhawat enjoyed the reputation of 'Ajatshatru' and was thrice Chief Minister of Rajasthan (between 1977-1980, 1990-1992, and 1993-1998). In 1993, despite a thin majority, the BJP government led by Shekhawat managed to complete its term.
His brainchild, the Antyodaya scheme to help the poorest of the poor, earned praise for him, with the then World Bank chief Robert McNamara describing him as the Rockfeller of India.
“Age is no bar for me,” Shekhawat had told this correspondent when as Vice-President he had climbed the Eiffel Tower at the age of 83.
His failing health did not keep pace with his political dreams.