Owing to his role in the formation of Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, the 79-year-old Harmohinder Singh Chattha has emerged as one of the most talked-about politicians at the fag-end of the Congress rule in the state.
Once considered close to the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leadership, the Pehowa legislator is the only Sikh face in the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government.
The four-time MLA, Chattha started his political career by being elected as a Congress candidate from Naggal in Ambala in the 1972 assembly polls.
In the 1987 assembly elections, he contested as an independent and defeated Nirmal Singh of the Congress with the support of Devi Lal's Lok Dal. He was appointed speaker by the Devi Lal government but later they parted ways.
Chattha rejoined the Congress and was elected from his home constituency Pehowa in 2005, and in 2009 retained the seat, which is dominated by Sikhs.
Those keeping a close watch on the state government say the veteran Chattha depends on bureaucrats for the key portfolio of finance. "The minister has no clue about the portfolio and relies heavily on officers. As far as irrigation portfolio is concerned, he acts on the chief minister's advice," says an official who has worked with him.
Chattha's inability to handle financial issues became apparent when after making the 2014-15 budget speech, he fielded his more articulate counterpart parliamentary affairs minister Randeep Singh Surjewala for the post-budget speech briefing. "No one can elaborate on what is written in the budget speech," he said apologetically. Even last year, Chattha had surprised many by finishing off his reply on the budget debate in a hurry.
In the past five years, Chattha has concentrated his activities in his assembly constituency and groomed his son as his political heir. Sources say that as a minister of agriculture and irrigation, Chattha was not active in field visits but remained closely associated with the development of his constituency. Now, Chattha hints that his son Mandeep may be fielded this time.
According to political observers, Sikhs constitute around 40% of the population here and are the single largest community in Pehowa assembly constituency. Barring the first assembly elections of the newly formed state of Haryana in 1967 and in 1987, only Sikh candidates from various parties have bagged the seat. Pehowa is located on the Patiala border and the segment is influenced by the socio-political influence from across the state border.
Political observers say Chattha enjoys respect in the Congress government and is popular among the voters of his rural constituency.
However, voters in Pehowa allege that despite having had several important ministries, Chattha has failed to provide anything special to the area.
He is credited with providing employment to youth in various government departments, but key demands like upgrade of basic health facilities, planned residential growth and absence of parks in the area have not been met.
Chattha is also criticised for his failure to resolve the issue of resettlement of several Sikh families at Karah Sahib village in Pehowa sub-division. Locals also slam Chattha for delay in providing fresh water at the ancient Saraswati tirath, a pilgrimage for both Hindus and Sikhs.
Chattha is known for being accessible to his voters and his son Mandeep plays an important link with the electorate. He is known for distributing grants to villages and ensuring a better road network.
Responding to the demand of a separate Sikh panel in 2004, the Hooda government had urged Chattha, the then assembly speaker, to look into the issue.
It was following the Chattha Committee report that the Haryana Shiromani Gurdwara Management Committee was born in July this year. The bifurcation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee invited a strong reaction and Chattha faced the wrath of the Akal Takht. He was excommunicated from Sikhism.
However, Chattha says the formation of the separate Sikh panel was a legitimate and popular demand by Sikhs of Haryana and he does not regret his role in it. "Being an elected representative, it is my duty to consider people's genuine demands. People with vested interests have given it a twist, which is unfortunate," he says.
Name: Harmohinder Singh Chattha
Assembly constituency: Pehowa (Kurukshetra)
Assets: In 2009, Rs. 25.21 lakh (movable) and Rs. 10.26 crore (immovable)
Career graph: Chattha was first elected as a Congress candidate in 1972 from Naggal in Ambala. In 1987, he contested from Naggal again, but as an independent. His candidature was supported by Devi Lal's party and Chattha defeated Congress heavyweight Nirmal Singh from Naggal.
After his fallout with the Devi Lal clan, Chattha rejoined the Congress and was consecutively elected from Pehowa in the 2005 and 2009 elections.
Chattha was the target of the opponents of the HSGMC and was excommunicated from Sikhism. Chattha is expected to face opposition in the constituency on the issue.
Recently, a Congress woman councillor from Pehowa accused Chattha of sexual harassment. Though the police have given him a clean chit, the issue may be exploited during the upcoming election.
Portfolios held in last five years: Agriculture, irrigation, finance, power.
Performance in the house: Not very comfortable speaking extempore on facts. Good at making short political points in the assembly.
Achievements: Chattha was instrumental in granting the status of a block to Ismailabad and upgraded a private school into a government college in Pehowa town. Strengthening of road and irrigation network, providing financial grants to the panchayats are his major works. His constant touch with the electorate is considered his major strength.
Failures/unfulfilled promises: Due to lack of land availability, the much-demanded upgrade of hospital has been shelved.