Different strokes for Haryana’s sporting icons in political arena
Phogat, Dutt and Singh are entering politics in a state where akhadas and wrestling pits are found in every village. A veritable sports powerhouse, Haryana accounted for every third medal India brought home at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.Updated: Oct 12, 2019 02:43 IST
With folded hands, 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal winner Babita Phogat walks into Hindol village, and talks about her struggle. She describes herself as the “pride” of the region and urges people to bless her by voting for her from Charkhi Dadri assembly constituency in central Haryana.
Her campaigning style is not very different from that of another wrestler and Olympic medal winner Yogeshwar Dutt contesting from Baroda in Sonepat district and hockey player Sandeep Singh, who is in the electoral fray from Pehowa in Kurukshetra district.
All three use their speeches to showcase their sports achievements and impress voters. The only time they mention anything political is when they talk about nationalism and the scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
All three ride on their celebrity status in these primarily rural constituencies. Phogat is the most aggressive of the three in tone and tenor. Dutt speaks less but his short speeches generate thunderous applause.
There is one more common connection between the three: All three have been fielded by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the October 21 elections in Haryana.
The fight for the trio is uphill. Two of these seats --- Baroda and Pehowa --- were won by the Congress and Chakhri Dadri by the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in 2014. Krishan Hooda won from Baroda, Mandeep Chadha from Pehowa and Rajdeep Phogat, who is not contesting this time, from Charkhi Dadri.
“The sports stars have been introduced in these seats to attract voters as the BJP has never won from there,” said a senior BJP leader from Haryana, requesting anonymity. “We wanted someone who can take voters away from a deep caste divide in these seats and also create some buzz,” said a second senior party leader.
Phogat, Dutt and Singh are entering politics in a state where akhadas and wrestling pits are found in every village. A veritable sports powerhouse, Haryana accounted for every third medal India brought home at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Phogat, whose village Balili falls in the neighbouring Balda assembly constituency, was fielded from Charkhi Dadri. The constituency has 10% vote share of the Phogat khap (self-styled caste body), apart from traditional BJP voters --- Brahmins, Rajputs and other backward classes (OBC) --- who constitute another 25%. The remaining voters are from other Jat sub-caste khaps such as Sangwan and Suran and from scheduled caste communities.
“Babita was given ticket as she is a commoner and is very hardworking having ability to develop Chakri Dadri,” said Swami Sumeedanand, member of Parliament from Rajasthan’s Sikar and in-charge of 16 assembly constituencies in the region. Phogat’s main rivals are Satpal Sangwan of the Jannayak Janata Party, headed by Dushyant Chautala and BJP rebel Somvir Sangwan.
Babita, the eldest of the three Phogat sisters who are all international wresters, says her “humble background” and her “tough” training regime have made her “mentally strong”. “As people have seen in the movie Dangal, I have worked very hard and honestly to succeed in sports. I will show same dedication in politics also,” said the wrestler, clad in salwar and kameez with her head covered, referring to a 2016 Bollywood biopic.
After Hindol, her next campaign stop in Jhahdu Kalan village has a large number of young women, some of whom want to emulate her and become wrestlers. The women say they are to meet her. “In villages, young girls come and touch me and ask, are you real and same Babita Phogat of movie Dangal,” she said.
In village after village, Phogat uses her sports achievements to connect with the crowd. “These medals are not mine, they are yours,” she says.
She also uses the BJP’s often-used nationalism pitch, and focuses on Modi’s popularity. “With PM Modi blessing, I will turn Chakhi Dadri into heaven,” she tells a crowd on Thursday evening.
Roughly 120 kms north in Ahmadpur Majra in Sonepat district, Dutt waves at a crowd of young boys from his car as it makes it way through village dirt tracks. Clad in a kurta and pyjama, the 2012 Olympics broze medal winner seeks the blessings of elderly women, who tell her he has made Baroda popular the world over. Young women with their faces covered watch him from home roof tops and balconies.
On stage, Dutt is a man of few words. “I am your son, your brother and have brought sporting laurels for you, please send me to the Vidhan Sabha (assembly). Please give me a chance to serve you. Unlike other candidates, I am from Baroda and will always stay with you,” he says, finishing his speech in less than two minutes.
He repeats the same lines at two other villages, Badana and Mulat Majra, and most of the political talk is handled by senior BJP leaders, who mention on Article 370, the Balakot air strikes and development projects. As politicians take the stage, Dutt fiddles with his phone.
Once the rallies are done, he visits local village temples, has multiple cups of tea at the homes of prominent persons and touches the feet of countless elders. “So many young boys ask me whether I would train them. I say I will create such infrastructure that every boy can dream of becoming an international wrestler ,” he says. Dutt is pitted against Congress candidate and sitting MLA Kishan Hooda.
About 80 kms further north in Kurukshetra district, Sandeep Singh, popularly known as Flicker Singh, is as impressive taking potshots at the Opposition as his shots on the hockey turf. In a constituency dominated by Brahmins, Jat Sikhs, OBCs and other Punjabis, he brings up the issue of how PM Modi has restored India’s pride in the international community.
“Life of a hockey player is tough. I was out of Indian team for long because of injury and it was really tough mentally and physically to make a comeback. I did it. And I assure you I will make a similar effort to ensure development of Pehowa,” he says in Punjabi while addressing a late-night programme.
Singh is facing Congress’s Mandeep Chadha, who is trying to make the contest as one between a local and an outsider, because Singh hails from the neighbouring Shahbad. “I am not new to Pehowa, I have played for the country and everybody knows me in Pehowa and entire country,” said Singh, who covers 15-18 villages every day between 7 am and 10 pm.
At every meeting, local BJP leaders introduce the sports stars by invoking Pakistan and fanning nationalism.
In Dadri, before Phogat climbs on stage, municipal councilor Virender Gupta hollers, “Meet our girl (Babita) who defeated wrestlers from Pakistan and China. In Hindol, local leader Rajkumar Phogat says, “Pakistanis feared her so much that they refused to fight with her.”
In Ahmadpur Majra, village chief Naveen Sharma introduces Yogeshwar Dutt as the wrestler who was never defeated by a Pakistani.
For Singh, this varies. In localities dominated by Punjabis, he is described as “King Singh” and in non-Punjabi areas, he is the “one who scored the most goals against Pakistan”.
All three say they refrain from attacking the Opposition because they are not regular politicians. All three also have dedicated social media teams. “They are one of the most watched BJP candidates in Haryana and if there is a slip of tongue it may become a huge embarrassment for the party. Senior leaders have been deputed to guide them as they are new to politics. We have social media teams with them to ensure that their presence on field also has impact in other constituencies,” said a senior BJP leader.
Experts say fielding the trio is an effort to cash in on the thriving culture of sports in the state. “The previous Congress government gave huge incentive to sportspersons. The BJP government had continued the policy. These efforts have made Haryana a sporting hub. The BJP is trying to cash in on this sentiment,” said Sunit Mukherjee, associate professor at Maharishi Dayanand University.
First Published: Oct 11, 2019 23:29 IST