Don’t make the mistake of judging Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Om Prakash Chautala by the nine seats his party has in the 90-member Haryana Assembly. This wily politician with muscle power at his command can play a crucial role in the election this time.
Chautala, 74, who has been chief minister of Haryana three times, but only once for a full term, is the only challenger to the Congress in the state’s bipolar political arena.
The sharp-tongued INLD chief is also known as perhaps the most aggressive politician in the northern region. He holds sway in the rural belt, where he has managed to retain the support base of his father, former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, among the Jats, Sainis and other farming communities.
His party has been protesting against the release of land acquired or under acquisition from farmers for Reliance Industries Limited and several realty firms. Haryana may be among the smaller states with just 10 Lok Sabha seats but it is closely watched by India Inc. The reason: most of the big companies have manufacturing facilities, plans for special economic zones, commercial offices and realty projects in Gurgaon and Faridabad townships.
An uncompromising anti-Congress force, the INLD is important for the BJP-led NDA if it has to form the next government at the Centre. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister in 1999, the INLD and BJP had together delivered all 10 seats (five each) from the state. A few months later, the two formed their own government but fell out subsequently due to acrimony between their state leaders.
As a result, when the INLD and BJP contested the parliamentary elections in 2004 separately, both were routed. The Congress won nine seats and the BJP managed to retain only Sonepat. Now, they have kissed and made up in the hope of reviving their fortunes.
While the INLD has traditional pockets of support in rural areas, the BJP complements it well in urban Haryana. However, they are yet to decide on the seat adjustments.
Being an out-and-out family-run party in which only Chautala and his sons, Ajay Singh and Abhay Singh, call the shots, the family has maintained an iron grip on the INLD. Unlike similar regional outfits in the state, the party has not faced any desertions and there is no dearth of resources. It also has a strong cadre of workers who are willing to slug it out for the family anytime, anywhere.
When in power, the party had taken good care of its workers. Ajay and Abhay also developed friendships with several actors, including Sanjay Dutt, besides taking a keen interest in sports bodies. While Ajay heads the Table Tennis Federation of India, Abhay runs the Indian Boxing Federation.
The party is, however, not getting the response it seeks in certain pockets where their alleged aggressive and highhanded style of functioning and charges of corruption — some of which are being investigated by the CBI — are still fresh in public memory. They will also have to contend with the dent made by Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda in their support bases in Rohtak, Sonepat and Jhajjar districts and the torrent of freebies and populist incentives announced by the Congress ahead of the elections.
Chautala, however, is not one to back down easily. His oratory, marked by biting sarcasm and innuendo, is unmatched in this region, and he has a tremendous ability to slog despite his failing health. Count on him to take the fight to his rivals.