Seat number 1 in the Congress Vijay Rath, an air-conditioned poll campaign van, is always reserved for the star campaigners. Occupying the hot seat, though, has its downside. If it was Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who occupied this van’s front seat during campaign in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2012, it is the turn of Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda to be in the same seat as he singlehandedly tries to negate nearly a decade’s anti-incumbency in the state to win the LS polls now.
The CM, who is scheduled to hold a road show in Sonepat constituency on Wednesday, flies down to Bighan village before boarding the Vijay Rath. He is accompanied by assembly speaker Kuldeep Sharma, sitting Sonepat MP Jitender Malik, close aide MS Chopra and the party candidate, Jagbir Malik.
A fire- tender and half a dozen police cars follow the cavalcade as it meanders at a leisurely pace through the countryside, halting every few minutes to acknowledge the waiting crowds. After touring at least six villages, the CM is running late by over two hours.
ASSEMBLY POLLS ON THE MIND TOO
“I know you people are upset about over certain statements in the past few days. Some people are saying we will wrest the government from Hooda. That won’t happen as long as you are with me,” he tells a gathering at Bajana Kalan.
He is quick to underline the significance of the Lok Sabha polls, which come barely months before the assembly elections are due: “You do one thing for me, and I’ll do one for you. If your 36 communities get together and ensure Jagbir Malik’s victory, I will form the state government for you the third consecutive time. Manzoor hai? (Agreed?) Haath khade kar do bhai (Raise your hands if you agree).”
Just then, he is distracted by noise coming from the back of the van. He stops and scolds: “Yeh kaun beech mein baat kar raha hai (Who is this, interrupting)?” That settled, he reads out details of money spent on Ganuar. “There is no comparison actually. We spent Rs 1,092 crore as compared to the Rs 109 crore spent by the INLD-BJP regime,” he says.
Led by security vehicles and an electronic signal jammer, the van carrying the Z-plus protectee moves to the next stop a few kilometres away, Khubru village. A posse of cops forms a human chain around the van to keep the slogan-chanting crowd at bay. The CM along with assembly speaker and local MLA Kuldeep Sharma gets on to the battery operated elevator to go up the van’s roof. Security guards take the ladder outside the van.
‘TIED DOWN’ BY THE MODEL CODE
Hooda’s political aide, Virender, tells the crowd that had the model code of conduct not been in place, the CM, like he did in Gohana in November, could have made new announcements for the people. Then he hands over the mike to the CM, who says, “You very well know how much public welfare and development we have undertaken. If I start them listing out, it will take hours.” But he lists some initiatives anyway.
Back inside, Hooda says initiatives taken by the UPA government at the Centre and his Haryana government “cannot be brushed aside”.
“We have focused on all the sections, and delivered. The kind of response we are getting is tremendous. We can repeat our 2009 tally of winning nine out of 10 seats in Haryana.”
About BJP offering tickets to Congress deserters, Hooda says, “They have been exposed. It is a shame that a national party like the BJP does not even have eight party workers in Haryana who can be fielded. Their workers are alleging that tickets have been sold. How can people trust the BJP when the party has lost confidence of its workers?”
As for the INLD, Hooda says, “They will be wiped out after the election.”
About the much-publicised ‘Gujarat model’ of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi, he asks, “What is that? If we implement the ‘Gujarat model’ here, the old age social security pension will have to be decreased to Rs 400 from Rs 1000. We give pension to 81% people as compared to their 22%. Farmers get electricity at the rate of Rs 2.70 per unit in Gujarat as compared to 10 paise in Haryana. Diesel is Rs 7 costlier than Haryana since VAT in Gujarat is higher.”
As assembly speaker Kuldeep Sharma asks for a Diet Coke, the exhausted CM, normally a tea buff, too expresses his wish to have some. A makeshift pantry at the back of the Rath, manned by attendants from Murthal’s famous Sukhdev Dhaba, even serve sugar-free rasmalai to Hooda’s campaign team.
‘VENOD MY CHILDHOOD FRIEND, STILL ONE’
While Hooda dismisses turncoats Dharambir and Rao Inderjit as selfish, about old pal Venod Sharma, who is now singing praises of Modi, he is ambiguous: “You better ask him. He is my childhood friend and still remains one. I have no differences with him. There might be some political reasons why he quit the Congress.”
The friendship part rings true, since a crew from India News, a channel by Venod’s son Kartikeya, travels along for poll coverage.
The cavalcade stops at Larsauli on National Highway (NH-1) where Hooda gets down for paying obeisance to Goddess Durga at a temple.
Security personnel accompanying him have a tough time controlling the crowd as the Rath reaches Sector 14 in Sonepat town. While Hooda accepts garlands, pink turbans and shakes hands with enthusiastic supporters, cops try to push them back.
Many local workers including BJP rebel-turned-Congressman Pradeep Sangwan get on board. As Hooda and his team again takes the elevator to go up on the roof for a fresh address, piping hot samosas are served inside the van.
Suresh Kumar, the caretaker of the Vijay Rath, tries to catch a wink. But an end to the road show looks nowhere in sight yet. It will be well after dark when Hooda finishes after a dozen scheduled stopovers, and more.