On the campaign trail of Haryana Congress president Kumari Selja
It’s lunchtime and the mood after the release of the manifesto of Congress’ Haryana unit at the party headquarters in Chandigarh’s upmarket Sector 9 is cautiously optimistic.
Party workers from across the state mill around leaders, while television reporters jostle for that exclusive byte.
Suddenly, the buzz dies down as Kumari Selja, the state unit’s first woman chief, emerges in a simple cream-coloured suit to see off Congress’ Haryana affairs in-charge Ghulam Nabi Azad at the gate.
“She has turned Haryana from a one-sided to a keen contest,” says Deepak Kaushal, a 66-year-old advocate at the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Kaushal says he has been Selja’s supporter since her first election from Sirsa three decades ago.
“I was her father Dalbir Singh ji’s supporter too. She is an honest leader. She has put us back in the striking range. We sense an undercurrent against the BJP due to rising prices and the slowdown,” he adds.
Requesting anonymity, another party worker from Sirsa chips in: “With (her predecessor) Ashok Tanwar at the helm, we were looking at barely 10 of the 90 assembly seats. That perception has changed. Now we are hopeful of 30 to 40 seats.”
Minutes later, Selja steps out after meeting a battery of workers and welcomes a bunch of new ones with Congress scarves before heading for the UT Guest House for a quick refresh.
Two hours behind schedule, the 57-year-old leader then cruises to Pinjore town of Kalka constituency in the foothills bordering Himachal Pradesh.
“It’s been only three hours since the manifesto release and we’ve crossed 3000 calls,” her political adviser, Ajay Chaudhary, updates her en route about the party’s newly-launched helpline.
Asked if she sees this as a make or break election, Selja says, “I happily accepted the responsibility of leading the party in Haryana even if it was just three weeks before the elections. I appreciate everyone for coming together whether it’s (Bhupinder Singh) Hooda ji, Kiran (Chaudhary), Randeep (Surjewala) or Kuldeep (Bishnoi). Barring me, they are all contesting.”
Though former party president Rahul Gandhi will be campaigning in the state on October 14, she will be inviting Congress’ acting president Sonia Gandhi, too.
“I hope she comes, her health permitting of course.”
On the voices of dissent in the party against Rahul Gandhi, she is clear about her stance.
“(Salman) Khurshid ji is a respected leader. So is (Jyotiraditya) Scindia. Our party does not gag leaders. Everyone is free to voice their opinion though personally, I wouldn’t go public. There are platforms within the party to raise these issues,” she says.
Trick or treat
She has an interesting take on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) blitzkrieg on national issues.
“Do you remember that childhood game of a trick present when we would gift wrap a matchbox in layers as a prank?” she asks before coming to the point.
“The BJP does just that. In five years, the people of Haryana have been sold a trick present of hollow promises. The party is good at packaging and repackaging lies,” she says.
She calls the ruling BJP’s narrative on Kashmir and Rafale as a bid to divert attention from Haryana’s pressing issues of unemployment, drug abuse and women’s safety.
“Industries in Gurgaon, Faridabad, Panipat, Yamunanagar and Panchkula are folding up,” she points out.
As her convoy of SUVs leaves the breezy highway for a bumpy ride to squeeze through the congested market of Pinjore town, she smiles after seeing a board welcoming her to canvass for Pradeep Chaudhary
Chaudhary jumped the sinking Indian National Lok Dal recently to stay afloat with the Congress ticket.
“It’s not that we didn’t have capable candidates in the Congress but this area is Chaudhary’s stronghold. Winnability has to be seen,” she says before counting her achievements as a former member of Parliament from Ambala.
Spotting another board announcing the visit of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, she asks her adviser, “What did Yogi say at his rally (for BJP candidate Latika Sharma)? I don’t want to comment till I know.”
Selja reminds him that she would want to visit a loyalist’s place at Ramgarh to offer condolences after the rally.
The convoy comes to a halt in a narrow lane with open drains on both sides. The Congress leader offers to walk the last few yards to Chauna Chowk in the heart of Vishwakarma Colony.
“I come from a similar background,” Selja says before melting into the crowd of supporters, ringed by tight security.
Though sleep-deprived—she got up at 3.30am to catch the first flight to Chandigarh for the manifesto release—she patiently sits through speeches of local leaders and slogans by enthused party workers.
She speaks at the end in chaste Hindi, addressing all sections and keeping the focus firmly on local issues.
She says a “positive outlook” keeps her going. “Life is too short to be spent brooding.”
She loves to travel, read and watch movies, particularly those of Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao.
“They’re both talented and happen to be Haryanvis,” she says with a smile.