India’s ‘first couple’ has its share of domestic friction, say those familiar with Pratibha Patil and Devisingh Shekhawat. But when it comes to their careers, the two seem to share a clear understanding. “Shekhawat never proved a stumbling block in his wife’s rising path. I did not see a shade of jealousy or inferiority complex in him,” says Sanjay Wagh, 47, director of Vidya Bharati Shaikshanik Mandal, an educational trust set up by Shekhawat in 1970.
Wagh, who has known the couple for a quarter of a century now, adds that Shekhawat’s hard talk has done him in at times. “He speaks his mind unmindful of the repercussions. But then, he’s a good administrator.”
Both these characteristics have marked the career of Shekhawat, 76.
A village boy who spent his early childhood near the Satpuda foothills in central Vidarbha, Shekhawat’s marriage to Pratibha Patil, then a fiery legislator and now President of India, was arranged in 1965 by the two landlord fathers — both from Rajput families.
A doctorate in chemotherapy from Mumbai’s Haffkine Institute, Shekhawat quit his job as principal of Shivaji College in Amravati to set up the Vidya Bharati trust in 1970, which spawned several well-regarded science, arts, technology and pharmacy colleges across the Vidarbha region.
The ‘investment’ in education paid off. In 1985, Shekhawat won the Assembly seat from Amravati. But the Marathas, who are in a majority in the region, ganged up against Shekhawat, a Rajput, and he lost the seat in 1990.
Then he went on to become the first mayor of Amravati. And it’s this role for which the region’s people remember him fondly. Ramesh Dhande, a former head of the zoology department in Amravati University who has known Shekhawat since college, says, “People remember him as the mayor who resolved the water and power problems. He took up a plantation drive too.”
But Shekhawat’s association with the region came up in a different light last week. Kishore Bansod, a local farmer, challenged the ownership of a plot of land claimed in Shekhawat’s name in Chandrapur village of Amravati district.
Shekhawat, whom HT asked about the allegation of land grab, dismissed it as a publicity stunt by the farmer. “I leave it to others who know me as a person, academician and politician... It’s unfortunate that people level charges without verifying the facts.”
But the issue isn’t all that new. Political rivals had raised it last October when Raosaheb, Shekhawat’s son, contested the Assembly elections from the seat and won. The Shekhawat camp blames the Marathas for raising the ruckus. After all, it was Sunil Deshmukh, a Maratha, who Raosaheb defeated in a pitched battle last year.
Locals say the son’s election was the toughest challenge for the father. “It was veteran Shekhawat who pulled strings to help his son,” says a local Congress leader on the condition of anonymity. But throughout the campaign, Shekhawat stayed away from media glare. It’s as if he was happy to see others in the family succeed.
Dhande recalls: “When Pratibha-tai was busy with her political career, Shekhawat played the role of mother to Raosaheb and Jyoti (daughter).”
Dhande adds Shekhawat has softened since his wife’s entry into Rashtrapati Bhavan. It’s no surprise then that, as Shekhawat has publicly admitted, he is alright playing second fiddle.