For a seasoned politician in his late seventies, former Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala is rather short tempered. Last month at a press conference in Chandigarh, he lost his cool with a journalist. “It was the state’s misfortune that you and your friend survived that night,” Chautala told him. The “friend” Chautala referred to is Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the state’s current Chief Minister and Chautala’s arch rival, and “that night” dates back to July 2003. Hooda, who was then leader of the opposition in Haryana, was travelling along with some relatives and the journalist in Uttarakhand when they got caught in a flash flood. The Pilli River had swollen to burst its banks. Hooda survived by clinging to a tree in the deluge, but he lost a relative in the incident.
Since then, Chautala’s party—the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD)—has suffered three electoral drubbings at the hands of the Congress. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and 2009, the Congress won nine seats out of 10, and the INLD, none. In the 2005 Assembly polls, the Congress won 67 seats in a house of 90, while the INLD won just nine seats. As a result, Chautala could not even become leader of the opposition.
Now, as Chautala takes on the Hooda-led Congress in the Assembly polls scheduled for 13 October, he has little hope but to cling to his family tree for his own political survival. The Congress, in contrast, is going into the polls with a complete sense of confidence. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, it led in 59 Assembly segments.“Development will be our plank in the election,” says Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, “The Congress regime has changed the face of Haryana. There has been unprecedented development in the power and infrastructure sectors.”
To the uninitiated, Chautala is the son of Devi Lal, a stalwart of Haryana politics who was briefly India’s Deputy Prime Minister twice. Riding on his father’s one-time popularity with the state’s agrarian masses is the son’s big idea. This is clear from his approach to electioneering: on 25 September, Devi Lal’s birthday, the INLD organised a massive rally at Jind. Party workers and supporters were ushered in from all corners of the state. Additional crowds were brought in from Punjab by Chautala’s old crony and Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal, leader of the Akali Dal. There were also thousands who thronged the place on their own accord to pay homage to Tau, as Devi Lal was called, as they do every year. Chautala made the most of the opportunity to promise a slew of populist sops. “Bring us to power, and Badal saheb and I will force the Centre to raise the MSP (minimum support price) of wheat to Rs 1,400 a quintal. But, our government will supply the same wheat to the poor at Rs 700,” he announced from the dais adorned with pictures of Devi Lal. “If we get elected, there might be power cuts in the US or Germany, but in Haryana there will be no cut for a single second,” the INLD supremo went on to add.
The INLD’s desperation to wrest power from the Congress has turned the party’s manifesto into a bundle of promises no government can possibly keep without going bankrupt: waiver of loans up to Rs 100,000; 25 kg of free rice or wheat every month for every poor household; 13 months’ salary in a year for female government employees; an unemployment allowance of Rs 3,000 to all unemployed graduates and 50 per cent reservation in the private sector. The INLD has promised two-wheelers to every girl in the state who studies beyond Class XII and free undergraduate education for all at state-run colleges including engineering and medical schools.
Are voters impressed? “Even if he gives bricks of gold to every voter, they will not vote for him anymore,” contends Sampat Singh, former Haryana finance minister. Singh was once a close confidant of Chautala, his deputy for all functional purposes in the last INLD government (2000-2005) and only prominent party leader not from Devi Lal’s clan. “People come to pay homage to Devi Lal, but they no longer vote for his son or grandsons. It was always a one-man party, but of late, it had become even more undemocratic, with others’ views ignored,” says Sampat Singh, who parted ways with Chautala two months ago and is now the Congress candidate from Nalwa in Hissar district. Here, he takes on yet another political legacy in Haryana politics—that of Bhajan Lal, another former CM and stalwart who quit the Congress after Hooda’s ascendance in 2005. Bhajan Lal’s wife Jasma Devi is contesting as the candidate of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), a party floated by his son Kuldeep Bishnoi.
The HJC’s symbol is the rising sun. “Bhajan Lal is a spent force trying hard to secure his son’s political future,” scoffs Sampat Singh. The son, Kuldeep Bishnoi was once also a Congressman. He was the Congress’s Bhiwani MP, but after he started speaking against Hooda and the party High Command, he was suspended from the party.
If Bishnoi’s political ambitions saw Bhajan Lal exit the Congress, his second son Chander Mohan more or less ruined his public image in spectacular fashion. Till late last year, he was the state’s uncontroversial Deputy CM, a husband and father of two. But in December 2008, he announced that he had converted to Islam and polygamously married his lover Anuradha Bali. Chander Mohan was now Chand Mohammed, and his second wife Anuradha, Fiza. It was a scandal made for prime-time TV, and the cameras couldn’t ask for more by way of drama. With his political stock crashing, Chander Mohan reconverted to Hinduism and scampered back to his first wife. But he is now neither a Congress nor HJC candidate. Nor even an independent. His father Bhajan Lal, who won the Lok Sabha berth from Hissar earlier this year, is 78 now and perhaps too old for another electoral battle.
THE LOST TRINITY
There was once a time that guessing the name of Haryana’s CM was easy. Say something ‘Lal’, and you would be half right. After all, the triumvirate of Devi Lal, Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal ruled the state for 35 years after it was carved out of Punjab in 1966. And it was not just the three Lals who held sway, it was literally their ‘lals’ (sons) as well. Party loyalties did not matter much in this scheme of things; Haryana’s enduring contribution to national politics is the phrase ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’, a quip about the state’s rampant party-hopping (that originally described an independent MLA Gaya Lal who changed his political affiliation thrice within a single day in 1967).
Sample this: between themselves, the three Lals and Chautala have been CMs of the state 11 times. The three were often accused of running a cosy political cartel of their own—to the exclusion of others’ interests.
“I was a minister in Bhajan Lal’s cabinet, but I resigned after serious differences with him. He brought Chautala to defeat Randeep and funded his election,” alleges Shamsher Singh Surjewala, a former minister and Kaithal MLA. Surjewala’s seat this time has gone to his son and state power minister Randeep Surjewala.
Devi Lal was also a Congressman to begin with. Between 1962 and 1970, he left and rejoined it at periodic intervals. He opposed the 1975 Emergency and went on to form many parties including the present day INLD that Chautala heads. All said, Devi Lal arguably achieved the most prominence of the three Lals—though in opposition to the Congress. He was Deputy PM under the United Front dispensation twice for brief stints from December 1989 to March 1991. When Devi Lal died in April 2001, Chautala was in the middle of his only five-year term as CM.
Regardless of the party he was with, Devi Lal kept a firm finger on the pulse of his core constituency: farmers. Whether Chautala has managed to do this is still a question mark. He is contesting from Ellenabad and Uchana Kalan. “His politics has been exposed and the aura of being a farmers’ leader has been busted. Chautala is scared of losing from one place, so he is contesting from two seats,” alleges the Congress’s state finance minister Birender Singh, who faces Chautala in Uchana Kalan. In the last Assembly elections too, Chautala had contested from two places: Rori and Narwana (he won only the former). And he isn’t the only politician in the family. His elder son, Ajay Chautala, is the party’s Rajya Sabha MP, but his brothers Ranjit Singh and Pratap Chautala are Congressmen.
DYNASTIC DECLINE AND DEJA VU
While Devi Lal opposed the Emergency, Bansi Lal stayed loyal to the Gandhi family during that dark period. His last stint as CM which began in 1996 was as head of the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP), which was cut short by the BJP’s withdrawal of support in 1999. Bansi Lal merged his party with the Congress in October 2004. His son and chosen heir Surender Singh was a minister in the Hooda cabinet when he suddenly died in a chopper crash in 2005 (his wife Kiran Choudhary contested the bypoll and took his cabinet berth). Bansi Lal died within a year of his son’s death, in 2006, leaving his granddaughter Shruti Choudhary to win the Lok Sabha poll from Bhiwani this year. Sources within the party reveal that while Choudhary is again contesting from Tosham and Bansi Lal’s MLA son Ranbir Mahindra (better known as a former BCCI president) is in the fray, tickets distributed by the Congress in Bhiwani do not bear the family’s stamp. “Whether it was Devi Lal, Bansi Lal or Bhajan Lal, they have all regretted leaving the Congress,” claims Randeep Surjewala, “Their politics was always complimentary to each other. That era has ended.”
The Congress has been mopping up whatever remains of the Lal legacy. The party has fielded three candidates who were ministers in the last INLD government, a former BJP MLA and two HJC leaders who joined the Congress. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the HJC led in nine Assembly segments and the BSP in eight, while the INLD and the BJP led in seven each. The HJC-BSP alliance broke up in August, as did the INLD-BJP tie-up over seat sharing. So, with the opposition divided and the Lal clans reduced to small boroughs of local influence, the Congress is upbeat about the 13 October polls in Haryana.
But then, over-confidence has doomed many a political force, and it’s not that there is no discontent with the Hooda government. In fact, the CM seems to have dynastic ideas of his own; he has managed tickets for six of his own relatives and even a nurse who took care of his father Ranbir Hooda on his death bed earlier this year.