He is calling it his last electoral outing — the 14th, to be precise. But it is also the first significant political sortie for the Haryana Janhit Congress (BL), which former Haryana chief minister Bhajan Lal (78) and his younger son Kuldeep Bishnoi launched two years ago.
Lal earned a controversial reputation as a master manipulator but isn't known for his campaigning skills. In the past, he however managed to strike a bond with his audience, using a conversational style instead of rousing speeches.
The irony is that the future of the fledgling political outfit hinges on the showing of a man who is in the winter of his four-decade-long political career and has not been keeping well.
“He created job opportunities for the people, improved the quality of their lives and has been with them through ups and downs. He will win the seat without difficulty,” Bishnoi, who is spearheading his father’s campaign, said.
Lal does have an enviable electoral track record winning 12 of the 13 polls he has contested so far in different parts of the state. The constituency also includes a few segments with traditional pockets of strong support for him.
There is, however, a change in the way he will be looked at this time: he is not the Congress candidate. And the family is battling for political survival. Lal did win the Adampur assembly by-election last year after quitting the Congress, but it is a much bigger playing field this time.
His opponents, sitting MP Jai Prakash (54) from the Congress and former Finance Minister Sampat Singh from the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), are both seasoned players. Jai Prakash, who is popularly known as JP, has the reputation of a crusty fighter who rarely declines a scrap. He has won the seat three times in 1989, 1996 and 2004.
While the Congress nominee is banking on his long association with the electorate, development and the flurry of pre-poll incentives such as increase in old-age allowance and widow pension announced by the government in recent months, his biggest worry is internal wrangling in the party.
Sampat Singh is known as a mild-mannered politician. His reach goes beyond the traditional support for his party. He is focusing on his personal contact with the people through door-to-door campaigning, attacking the Congress for its failures. JP and Sampat Singh belong to the Jat community, which has dominated the poll scene in the area in the last eight elections. And both are looking to the community for support. The caste profile of the constituency has, however, got altered somewhat after delimitation.
In contrast, Bhajan Lal hopes to make the most of his influence among the non-Jats in the area. While his health does not permit him to take the burden of a gruelling campaign, Bishnoi and other family members are doing most of the campaigning for him.
Even then, the frail campaigner is toiling hard, hoping his old charisma, which seems intact in several parts of the area, works for him in his “last election”.
Lal’s failing health and weak vocal chords are however hampering his campaign. His speeches are short and the boastful one-liners, which always drew cheers from his supporters, are missing. In fact, some of what he says is often indecipherable.
With elections in Haryana slated for Thursday, Lal’s rivals have been targeting the veteran’s failing health in their campaign speeches.
The INLD and the Congress appear to see their best chance in Bhajan Lal’s poor health.
“He can neither express himself nor understand what others are saying. He also cannot walk without support and has trouble recognising people. If you elect and send Bhajan Lal to Parliament, he will not be able to raise your voice and express your concerns there. Elect me and I will make sure that your voice is heard,” is what INLD candidate and former finance minister Sampat Singh had to say at one of his public meetings.
Similarly, Congress leaders are also frequently referring to his frail health in their speeches.