Even as the Team Anna was moving from place to place in Hisar calling people to hand over a historic defeat to the Congress in the October 13 by-elections, Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and his core team have been working hard to woo Dera Sacha Sauda, a religious sect that has considerable influence in the constituency.
Congress sources said Hooda and his trusted men have been "silently working" on the Dera for the past several days.
"The Dera's call to its followers to vote for a particular party completely changes the poll outcome in many constituencies in Haryana and Punjab. The millions of dera followers vote as a block," a Congress functionary said. Based in neighbouring Sirsa constituency, the followers of Dera Sacha Sauda are mainly Dalits but also include Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.
Though the Dera claims to be apolitical, it started a political affairs wing (PAW) in 2007 to advise its followers who to vote for in the elections. Its political influence in Punjab's Malwa region with strong presence in Bhatinda was seen in 2007 assembly elections.
The Dera's call to its followers to vote for the Congress in 2007 saw the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) being decimated in the politically-sensitive Malwa region. This was a departure from the past as till then the dera was traditionally anti-Congress and used to support candidates based on merit.
The reason for extending the support to the Congress was the alleged repression of the Dera and its followers by the SAD and other radical Sikh groups after Dera Chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, in 2007, posed in a dress that made him look like the Tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.
The Congress is now banking heavily on the Dera to repeat that call and change its fortunes in Hisar, where otherwise dull and listless by-elections have turned into an interesting battle with the Team Anna coming into the picture. But Congress leaders claim that the Anna Hazare factor has, in fact, helped the party in moving from third to second place from where it could even win the elections.
"We have gained a lot since the Team Anna started campaigning against us. It has also united all the factions," another Congress leader said.