This week instead of routine analysis of politics, I am inspired to undertake a nostalgic trip down memory lane and write about my experiences and perceptions of some of the key “movers and shakers” of North India including Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. I will write about my birthplace Delhi some other time.
My father was representing The Hindustan Times and The Tribune in the national Capital in the 1970s and 1980s. As a school boy and later a college student, I vividly remember Punjab politicians including President Giani Zail Singh, Chief Minister Darbara Singh, ex-Himachal Chief Minister Thakur Ram Lal, the Akali leaders including Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and G.S.Tohra, the three famous Lals of Haryana — Devi Lal, Bansi Lal and Bhajan Lal — dropping in at our residence in New Delhi often.
I entered journalism in 1982 soon after completing my post-graduation and joined the National Herald as an apprentice, becoming Staff Reporter soon after. One fine evening Yashpal Kapoor, the big boss at Herald House and the seasoned treasurer and fund-raiser of the Congress Party, summoned me to his office and asked me to perform a “secret” errand. At his behest, I went to Haryana Bhavan and was ushered into the presence of Chief Minister Bhajan Lal. I was offered tea and sweets and asked politely if I needed anything. I said “no, thank you” and got up to leave. As I did so, I was handed a sealed bag to be handed over to Kapoor Sahib. My mission was over within minutes as I delivered the consignment to its addressee.
Then in 1986 I joined The Hindu as a Staff Reporter in New Delhi. In 1993 I was promoted as Special Correspondent and posted to Chandigarh to cover Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Since the transfer process would take some time, I was asked to cover the Vidhan Sabha session to begin with. I met the Chief Minister at the customary dinner hosted by him but he did not recognise me.
On my return to Delhi I was asked to cover the Surajkund session of the Congress and was surprised when I was asked to write a commentary for the paper’s prestigious “Sunday Nation” page, reserved normally for much senior staff writers. On Sunday morning when my write-up appeared, I got a phone call from Haryana Bhavan saying the CM wanted to meet me. I went to the CM’s suite and was offered tea and sweets. He appreciated my piece and expressed happiness when I told him that I had been transferred to Chandigarh and would be writing boldly without any malice as per my newspaper’s policies. He laughed and told me that he believed in having good relations with the media and did not even mind criticism of his regime but at the same time he was very touchy about any comments about his family. I did not ask him for any favour such as allotment of a house in Chandigarh.
In the weeks that followed, I wrote several critical pieces about his regime. One fine day I got a message from my head office in Madras asking me to be rather “soft” than being “harsh”.
I also recall I wrote a piece on “sons and fathers in Haryana politics” for the Sunday page which was accompanied by cartoons of the three Lals. I happened to be in Haryana Bhavan soon after when a CID man cautioned me that the CM was “furious” with me. I also got a frenetic call from the Director of Public Relations.
However, despite all these episodes, Mr.Bhajan Lal did not react much and was nice at the personal level. But when I continued with more of my “critical pieces”, a businessman approached me and offered me “inducement” to mend fences and take whatever I wanted. It was conveyed to me that the CM was more concerned as my newspaper was the staple diet of the then Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao and Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi. Things came to such a pass in early 1996 that attempts were even made by the powers that be to get me “shunted out”. Then just before the State Assembly elections, I got a phone call from the Chief Minister in the wee hours of the morning apologising for his “behaviour” and appreciating the “articles” as these were “eye-openers” regarding the functioning of the government.
What people openly say in Haryana is that Bhajan Lal despite being a non-Jat and a Bishnoi, had friends among all communities and castes including the Jats even though several Jat leaders including Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Bansi Lal, Birender Singh, Shamsher Singh Surjewala and others were at loggerheads with him in the game of political supremacy.
Bhajan Lal came to be dubbed as a master in the game of defection and manipulation. He always managed to remain on the right side of Prime Ministers — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao — and was regarded as a “loyalist”. What stands out in my mind is his “accessibility” to the common man.
But after the crushing defeat of the Congress in 1996 and the formation of the Haryana Vikas Party-BJP alliance government headed by Bansi Lal, his political career reached the nadir and he was virtually relegated to the wilderness as his opponents called the shots with the new party dispensation headed by Sonia Gandhi. The era of Bhupinder Singh Hooda had begun.
People recall that Bhajan Lal ruled the state with an iron hand and despite having risen from humble beginnings and not being much educated, he had a good working relationship with the bureaucrats. Even though there was corruption, the officials were afraid and delivered the goods so far as the general public was concerned. I have several anecdotes to narrate which I will do some other time.
Observers say that in the last days of his government, he was let down by senior officers who apparently misguided him about the impact and aftermath of the floods that ravaged the state, especially the Jat-dominated belt.
His attempts to revive his political career met with a dead-end. However, he came to terms with the reality and waited, and before long the “man of the masses” got a call from 10 Janpath appointing him President of the Congress unit in Haryana to revive the party and counter the impact of the “green brigade” which was ruling the state. It is a matter of record that the Congress performed well in the 2005 Assembly polls but Mr.Hooda, ably assisted by Venod Sharma, and with the blessings of 10 Janpath was anointed CM. Obviously, Mr.Bhajan Lal was shattered and as a stop-gap arrangement to stem the “resentment” among his supporters his eldest son Chander Mohan was made a titular Deputy Chief Minister.
The “shabby treatment” meted out to the four-time CM was resented by his younger son Kuldeep Bishnoi who influenced his father, who was now keeping frail health, to leave the Congress and float Haryana Janhit Party. He suffered yet another setback after Chander Mohan converted to Islam to marry Fiza (Anuradha Bali) whom he later “divorced”. Bhajan Lal died in 2011 and it is very sad indeed that his sons could not maintain and preserve their father’s legacy and goodwill as became evident from “immaturish” political actions and now the HJC has only two seats in the 90-member Assembly.
(Rajesh Ahuja is a veteran journalist This article, which was the first part of a series, was published in North India Kaleidoscope, weekly print edition in December 2014.