I would be sharing archives of my articles and stories written for North India Kaleidoscope (NIK) and published in the print edition (currently temporarily ceased publication) and this portal. I will not edit them to make them current but post as they were printed.
In my last two pieces in this series, I focused on two strongmen of Haryana — Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal. In this one, I will be talking about another strongman, “Tau” Devi Lal, and his son, Om Parkash Chautala — and my good old “friend” Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
I met “Tau” Devi Lal in 1988 for the first time at my marriage at Delhi’s prestigious Ashok Hotel. I had heard many tales about his rustic and simple style from many old-timers. Truly a “kingmaker” in Haryana and indeed national politics in the turbulent political decades of 1980s and 1990s, Chaudhary Devi Lal served as Haryana Chief Minister and Deputy Prime Minister before his “love” for his son Om Parkash Chautala who was anointed the new Chief Minister brought about the apparent “downfall” of the clan in the early 1990s thanks to the infamous violence in Meham and the notoriety gained by the Green Brigade.
I heard from many people that Chaudhary Devi Lal easily established affinity and rapport with the commoner, especially in the rural Jatland.
Mr. Chautala’s style of functioning was a different matter altogether. I don’t want to go into personal matters but my father, a veteran journalist now in his eighties, experienced firsthand the “arrogance” of the CM in the early 1990s.
I was posted to Chandigarh in 1993 to cover Haryana for The Hindu and I met Mr. Chautala, then out of power, at a farmhouse in Narwana where he was campaigning in the run-up to a by-election. A colleague and I asked him questions fearlessly and we could feel he was getting annoyed. Suddenly, he smiled and remarked, “I am not the old Chautala. Come, join me for lunch.”
I vividly recall that the Lok Dal’s media managers used to entertain the media over drinks. Once Mr. Chautala remarked in a lighter vein to a scribe that he was aware of his drinking habits and to another about his fondness for “chicken”. Nobody seemed to mind.
I once phoned the INLD office and asked for a friend. The voice at the other end remarked rather arrogantly that that person was not there. I asked him who was speaking. Pat came the reply, “Om Parkash”. I asked again, “Who?”, and the voice boomed, “Ahuja Sahib, I have recognised your voice. I am Om Parkash Chautala.”
I also recall that once Mr. Chautala called up the Haryana Public Relations Joint Director and asked to speak to me as a phone was not installed at my office-cum-residence then. I also vividly remember that Mr. Chautala phoned my residence after midnight to enquire about my health as I had suffered burn injuries.
Then came the elections in 1996. Mr. Chautala apparently was angry over my coverage. I was giving a lift to his media manager while on my way to Hisar to cover the polls. We stopped at Narwana and were asked to proceed to Narwana Civil Rest House where Mr. Chautala was staying. He was having an argument with the caretaker. Looking at me, he asked his media manager “who have you brought?” and told me abrasively that he would “teach me journalism”. Just before the polls, Mr. Chautala addressed a Press conference in Chandigarh and virtually snubbed me and a few other journalists.
The Lok Dal and the Congress fared badly in the elections and the Haryana Vikas Party-BJP combine formed the new government in the state under the leadership of Mr. Bansi Lal. One fine morning I got a message that Mr. Chautala wanted to meet me at the residence of his friend. He told me that I could ask any question and he would not mind.
I remember Mr. Chautala used to meet the media frequently during the HVP-BJP rule. Then came the events of 1999 when the BJP withdrew support to Mr. Bansi Lal. After the deal between the Congress and Mr.Bansi Lal did not fructify, both the Congress and the INLD tried to engineer defections. I chanced to drop in at Mr. Chautala’s official residence in the evening with another colleague. He was sitting depressed and said that all was lost and offered us dinner.
The next day, however, the media was asked to reach Haryana Niwas where a beaming Mr. Chautala announced that several HVP and BJP legislators had given him support and he was going to Raj Bhawan to stake claim to form the government.
Mr. Chautala ruled the state for nearly six years with an iron hand. The tie-up with the BJP did not last long, but Mr. Chautala was undeterred. I remember his sons Ajay and Abhay virtually called the shots and bureaucrats, as well as politicians, were “afraid” of “reprisal”. While Mr. Chautala used to lose temper with my colleagues and even derided them as having “learnt nothing in their mother’s womb”, his relations with me were normal and he never criticised me for my critical articles in The Hindu.
Without touching the sensitive issue of “corruption”, I would say that the Chautala regime undertook many development works and initiated many projects which were completed by the successor Congress regime headed by Mr. Hooda. However, what made it unpopular was the police action in Kandela against farmers who refused to pay electricity bills and similar actions all over the state.
When the Assembly polls were held in 2005, the people had made up their minds to throw out the Chautala regime and bring in the Congress which was headed by Mr. Bhajan Lal at that time. However, Mr. Bhajan Lal and other Congress veterans including Birender Singh were pipped to the post by Mr. Hooda.
A bit of background here. After the Congress under Bhajan Lal lost in 1996 and the Sonia Gandhi-led leadership took over the reins of power in the party, the eclipse of Mr. Bhajan Lal started in right earnest. A new group consisting mainly of Jat leaders such as then Rohtak MP Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who defeated Devi Lal three times, Birender Singh and Shamsher Singh Surjewala came to the forefront in the Haryana Congress claiming proximity to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi.
I remember one evening in 1996 when a young man came to my house and introduced himself as Mr. Hooda’s cousin and took me to a hotel owned by a politician, Venod Sharma, where Mr. Hooda was staying. We struck a rapport and very soon we started calling each other “Bhai Sahib”. I could see that Mr. Hooda was rather intolerant when any reference was made to his bete noir.
Mr. Hooda suffered a setback when his cousin went missing near Haridwar. He was swept away in the Ganga while Mr. Hooda and a few others were rescued.
Mr. Hooda was removed as Haryana Congress chief and replaced by Mr. Bhajan Lal as mentioned earlier.
After becoming CM, Mr. Hooda retained his friendly approach and started relying more on the bureaucrats and his hotelier-politician-newspaper magnate friend Venod Sharma. According to seasoned Haryana-watchers, this virtually proved to be his “undoing” and in the 2009 polls, the Congress under Mr. Hooda did not even secure a simple majority. However, Mr. Hooda retained power with the support of Independents and Haryana Janhit Congress legislators who “defected” to the Congress.
However, Mr. Hooda’s second stint was marked by “scams and corruption” and the “Robert Vadra land deals” were used by the Opposition parties, particularly the BJP, to dismantle his regime.
In my personal opinion, Mr. Hooda relied a bit too much on his political aides and a bunch of senior bureaucrats who “misguided” him and the consequence was the “rout” of the Congress in the 2014 Assembly polls and the emergence with a bang of the BJP.
I also feel that Mr. Hooda and his young son Deepender Singh Hooda, who represents Rohtak in the Lok Sabha, became “arrogant” and “ignored” old friends who had stood by them when they were striving to put their roots in state politics.
(Rajesh Ahuja is a veteran journalist with over 35 years experience and is based at Chandigarh.This article appeared in North India Kaleidoscope in January 2015.