I WAS led. And I merrily bit, chewed and swallowed the bait: “Travel through Haryana. A month before the elections, gauge the mood of people — in rural boroughs and urban pockets,” came the decree. A Haryana travelogue? By the time ‘reality’ dawned, it was too late for any rescue mission. So on an arctic morning, when this part of the world snoozed and snuggled in their quilts, shutterbug Pawan Singh and I hit NH 22 — he’s smiling (for a change) and I’m grumbling (like always).
Ambala, from where Kumari Selja trumpeted her return to active politics, is the first halt. Hari Shankar Verma, the balding owner of Murari Electronics at B.C. Bazaar, is preparing for yet another day. Politics, or the elections slated for February 3, is the last thing on his mind. “Dhanda manda hai,” he says grimly. Prod him about elections and he’s cagey: “Bauji (Chautala) has done a lot for people,” he says. He lists the enhanced pension for aged as one of the reasons that will see him back as CM.
But rising unemployment (especially his M.Com son’s) gets Verma’s goat. It also ruffles the otherwise unflappable Ashutosh Angiras, a Sanskrit lecturer at S.D. College on Jagadhri Road. This academician, when not spewing fire against politicians, takes pains to explain how unemployment leads to crime. “But why should politicians care? They’re doing their work — of making money,” he spits out the words. On elections, his take can’t get simpler: “They’re all thugs — does it matter who I vote for?”
Government report card
In Haryana, talkathons are synonymous with politics — the trait seems to have percolated down to youngsters too. A five-minute break is all these sportsgirls need to discuss politics. “Political equations,” point out Reeta Gupta, Pooja Atri and sisters Neena and Meena Choudhry of S.D. College, “have drastically altered since LS polls”. These first-time voters know that last-minute announcements are nothing but gimmicks. “For votes,” they sum up.
While electioneering is yet to start on a high decibel note, predicting winners and losers is already the moot point for this motley group at Wholesale Cloth Market in the heart of Ambala City. As the morning fog gives away to sunlight, the political banter starts. Dalip Singh of Bhatti Cloth House, and Gulshan Kumar of the neighbouring Gulshan Di Hatti join hands against BJP-supporter and archrival Subhash of Subhash Traders. For Singh and Kumar, O.P. Chautala is a has-been. “Bees saal tak Chautala Haryana mein nahin jeetega,” declare the duo. “BJP le dooba.” Subhash doesn’t agree. “It’s the Congress wave,” he explains feebly. The other two, however, rake up the issue of ex-local BJP MLA Veena Chibber. “Achhi hain but wasn’t able to help people in any way,” they gripe. They voted for her and are now “regretting it”.
In the recent LS polls, Haryana, claimed a buoyant Congress, foretold its verdict for the soon-to-be-elected Vidhan Sabha. Harsh and Vikas Verma, brothers and co-owners of Verma Sarees, are chary of commenting but their smiles say it all. “In cities, not much has changed in the past five years — infrastructure’s still dilapidated, power plays hookey and unemployment is rising.”
The urban-rural divide
But at Saha, 15 km from Ambala on Jagadhri Road, Lal Chand Bhardwaj, who ekes out a living from Krishna Dhaba, pooh-poohs all talk of Chautala’s imminent nemesis. “Development in villages has been tremendous,” he says, giving his village of Chudiali as a point in case. A backward hamlet, it’s been transformed. “Bauji made money available.”
In villages, there’s one Hero No. 1: O.P. Chautala. Bhardwaj’s point finds echo in Khanemadpur, a Sikh-dominated village on the eucalyptus-lined main road near Mullana. Maan Kaur, tending to billowing hay, says “Chautala is the leader of the masses”. Sister-in-law Paramjit Kaur nods. “Kisan ke liye bahut kiya hai,” she points to bored tubewells and metalled roads. Brother Sukhdev Singh, however, isn’t sure whether he’ll make it back to to power. “Rising prices have brought on this disenchantment.”
At Mohra village near Ambala (a bit of fast-forward and then rewind), the same story plays out. “We voted for Bauji and he’s not let us down,” says Dharamveer Singh, a former sarpanch. Rating five years of Chautala, he sums it up in one word: “Great.” Chautala again? “Is there any choice?” parries Inderjit Singh, of the local phone booth. “Congress will ruin farmers.”
An incomplete SYL never figures in any conversation.
The issues remain
Jagadhri’s a crazy town on the move. Amidst the cacophony, three wisened old men sit on a bench, watching traffic whiz by. Septuagenarians Mohinder Singh, Ramesh Chand and 80-year-old Krishan Lal aren’t impressed with INLD’s performance. Their rating: dismal. “MLAs have no power at all — it’s all vested with the Chautalas,” says Chand. What about old-age pension? Lal throws a repartee. “I’ve tried thrice — no one is interested in processing my application.” Singh and Chand reply: “Rishwat nahin di hogi.”
Bingo. Corruption is an issue. For naïve Haryanvis, it’s tough to turn a deaf ear to allegations of corruption by Chautala and his sons, Ajay and Abhay. Congress’ Randeep Surjewala’s clean image, conversely, a happy change. “Chautalas have looted the state coffers,” says Ramesh Chand plainly. His son, he alleges, cleared an interview “but didn’t get the call because I couldn’t pay money”.
In Devi Lal’s own country, corruption charges fly fast and thick. At Anaj Mandi, Yamunanagar, traders Bakshish Singh and Sanjay Kashyap are wrapping up work for the day. “Corruption is a point,” they agree “but so is nepotism. This government has only favoured its own.” Five years ago, they’d voted for Chautala — “we’re regretting it to date,” he sums up the sentiments of the business class.
“Inflation and taxes too,” add I.C. Singhal and Sanjay Kumar at the nearby jaggery auction centre. VAT, they say, has been a downer. “There’s no VAT in UP — we end paying more for jaggery,” frowns Singhal. He’s not anti-Chautala or pro-Congress but his stance is crystal clear: “I voted for Chautala last time, this time I won’t.” On the highs and lows of the past five years, he says: “Village development has been tremendous. If he’d paid half that attention to us, the story would’ve been different.” Samay Singh, a visitor from the neighbouring Hafizpur village, adds another twist: “His sons will lead to his downfall,” he prophesies.
Besides INLD versus Congress, Yamunanagar is currently tizzy with Chetan Sharma’s ‘offer’ to fight polls. “Local leaders should get tickets,” says Aman Verma, a shopkeeper, vehemently. And if Sanjay Dutt were to stand from here? “Celeb politicians rarely find time for constituencies. It’s better to have locals,” he clarifies wisely.
A rejuvenated Congress might be counting days to assume power in Haryana but leadership issues remain. Singhal predicts a power struggle between old warhorse Bhajan Lal and Youth Congress’ posterboy Randeep Surjewala. “It won’t be a smooth transition.”
The winds of change
Winds of change seem to be sweeping across the state. Punctilious to a T, people accept that Chautala has brought about development but “a change is on the anvil”, says Ladwa-based Rajeev Arora, owner of a hardware store. He doesn’t claim to be a political analyst “but in the straight fight between Congress and INLD, Congress seems to be the heavyweight”.
BJP, curiously, finds a rare mention anywhere.
For INLD, it’s the anti-incumbency factor. While a majority is predicting a devastating rout for INLD, some advice a wait-and-watch policy. Like Shashank Kumar, a businessman from Kurukshetra. “People might be fed up of the INLD government but until the vote is cast, you can’t be sure where the tide turns.”
It’s iffy. That the tide is turning is as plain as the nose on your face but acknowledging that doesn’t come simply. Ask for an accompanying photos and Haryanvis’ bravado falls flat. Youngsters are an exception. At Kurukshetra University, students Satinder Malik, Rahul Chahal and Ajit Dahiya sit discussing the polls. The government, they acknowledge, has done a lot “but people want a change,” says Malik. Jind’s Dahiya and Chahal, beg to differ. “Development has been restricted to Chautala boroughs. That’s why this angst against the government.”
Nextdoor at Rhythm General Store, Meena Girish rummages for New Year cards for customers. “This year,” she hopes, “will see a more responsible government in Haryana.” Thanks to Chautala and his henchmen, “goondagardi has increased manifold, even on the campus.” She blames the “prevailing bhai-bhatija vaad” for the perceptible tilt in Congress’ fortunes.
Further ahead near the Brahm Sarovar, M.Sc students Rajesh Kumar, Naresh Kumar and Shashi Bhushan are taking a leisurely stroll. Admittedly, they’re Congress supporters “but that’s got nothing to do with what we feel for the Chautala trio. Thanks to them, crime and corruption has spiralled”. On the campus, they allege, even cops don’t take any action against goondas “because they belong to Narwana, a Chautala stronghold”.
At their villages in Kaithal district, INLD is a dirty word. “First they hiked power tariff — later, with polls looming, they brought it down. No MLA has any power; it’s the dictatorship of Chautalas. Jobs are only for ones who can give rishwat. Give us one reason to vote for INLD.”
Winds of change or just groundswell?
Voices from across state
By Hitender Rao
ONE thing which even the worst critics of Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala acknowledge is that for the past five years, his regime has been at the vanguard of accelerating the pace of development, predominantly in the countryside. Yet there is another dimension to the tale of Chautala’s five-year reign, unarticulated till the Lok Sabha elections but now finding voluble expression as the Vidhan Sabha polls draw closer.
As I traverse across the state through Kaithal, Jind, Hisar and Bhiwani, people, I discover, have a voice — they’re forthcoming at places, reticent at others.
The sun’s barely peeped over the horizon this foggy December morning but for retired Army havildar Jagdish Singh of Taragarh in Kaithal, it is time to water his wheat-sown fields. Clearing muck from the water-channels in his field, the Jat farmers speaks his mind: “It is time for a change of guard. For five years, people have lived with broken promises of free power and water. The ruling party will suffer the same way as the Congress did in 1996. People seem to have forgiven the Congress as of now but if they swindle people, they too will get kicked out next time.” His parting shot: “Don’t forget to visit Kandela.”
I do just that. The next stop is Kandela, the epicentre of a bloody farmers’ agitation over the non-payment of electricity bills two winters ago. Many here would not have known much about journalists till a couple of years — now, things have changed. I look for unbiased souls. Randhir Singh, a retired Haryana Roadways employee, beckons. “Aao ji sahab. Baitho. Arrey hookah bhar laiyo re,” he orders. As the hookah gets ready, Randhir is joined by a visiting relative, Kapoor Singh of Sulchiani in Hisar and another villagemate, Kashmira. “Bill kaun na bharna chavey (who does not want to pay the power bills). Par isne sochi, hamari marod kadega. Yon hi kahve hai! (But Chautala said I will set them right). Raja ko atyachar nahi karna chahiye (The king should not oppress his people). After the BKU agitation, they victimised 30-35 government employees from this village by transferring them to far-off places. I was posted to Narwana but accusing me of BKU affiliation, they sent me to Jhajjar. I am retired now but even now I can say that I have no association with BKU. This was sheer vindictiveness. The government booked our kids in false cases. We have never supported the Congress. But it seems that there is a tilt in their favour,” says Randhir as he offers me a tea prepared in a kaddhawni. His hookah partners chip in: “Yeh kaam to karey hai par thokar bhi marey hai.” (No doubt, he has done a lot of work but has simultaneously kicked people also).
Mundhal Khurd in Bhiwani is a constituency from where Bansi Lal’s son, Congress nominee Ranbir Singh Mahendra, had lost the last Assembly election to little-known INLD’s Shashi Ranjan Parmar, who had crossed over sides in 2000 and gave Chautala a win from here after 13 years.
So I picked Dhanana, an INLD stronghold in Mundhal, as the next stop. Neat cemented lanes of the village came as a revelation. As did a mature discussion between a group of card-playing villagers of diverse political affiliations. Not surprisingly, each one of them was a poll pundit in his own right as they set off a lively debate. “Bhai saheb dekho, logon ka kya hai. Woh to sab se naraaz ho jaate hain. Chautala ne par kaam to bahut kiye hain naa. Par is baar hawa kharab lag rahi hai. Lekin yeh to Tau Devi Lal ka gaon hai. Yahan se to jeeta ke hi bhejenge,” defends Pratap Singh, an INLD supporter, only to be countered by Risal Singh, a Congress supporter: “Kya kaam kiye hain? Apne worker ka hi kaam kiya hai chahe who bharti ho ya kuch aur. Isise to logon mein jalan hi paida hoti hai.”
Surprisingly, majority of them unanimously agree on one thing: “Their MLAs are zero. Sirf bapu-bete ka raaj hai. And this is their undoing. Satta ka kendriyakaran nahi hona chahiye.” (There should not be centralisation of power).
That the urban voter has not been on good terms with the INLD is a well-known fact. But the sentiments echoed by businessmen during my overnight stay at Bhiwani was another revelation. “Goondaism is at its pinnacle. Har din badmashi badh rahi hai. Law and order situation is chaotic. The business community does not feel safe. It is but natural that there will be anger against the government,” feels Rohtak-based entrepreneur Mahender Kumar and a commission agent from Bhiwani, Suresh Goyal.
Moving out of Bhiwani the next morning, I start my Haryana journey back home to Chandigarh via Bawani Khera, a reserved constituency in Bhiwani. Looking for a photo oppportunity, I asked the cab driver to pull up the vehicle alongside a bullock-cart.
“What is the mood of people this time around?” I ask Mohan Lal, a farmer from Bawani Khera. “It is common belief that people want a change. They appreciate what Chautala has done, yet criticise him. This is because there is a feeling that those around him, his kin and aides, are not straight. Chautala should have been firm enough to put an end to their misdemeanors. He should have stopped them from spreading fear and anarchy.”
Mohan Lal is worried when I take a photo. “Dekhiyo bhai saheb, hamein koi tangi na ho jaye. Yeh dhayan rakhiyo.” (Please ensure that I do not land in trouble.)
A few kilometers down from Hansi on the Jind Road, I manage to catch hold of a group of camel merchants who are returning from a fair in Garhi to their native Masoodpur village in Hisar district. With great difficulty, I convince them that I was not a party campaigner but a journalist. “Vote to jisko deni hogi, de denge. Aapne kay batayen. Par Panditji (Narnaund MLA Ram Bhagat) ne hamare logon ke liye bahut kuch kiya hai. Hum to saudagar hain, ghar ja kar hi mahual ka pata chalega,” said Ram Dhan and his partners as they tried to restrain the camel caravan from scampering off.
Rajthal is the last village of Hisar district before one enters Jind. There are farmers levelling their fields, quite unusual at this time of the year. The trio of Anil Kumar Mann, Satyawan Lohan and Soppad greet me with warmth and explain the field-levelling exercise threadbare.
Then, the political talk: “In this regime, the influential can get away with anything while a commoner gets penalised. Chautala might have done a lot for public but as farmers, we are dissatisfied. When people who do not pay electricity bills, too, get power, what is the fun of paying bills? This time, we got Rs 1,500 per quintal for selling narma variety of cotton produce which was less than last year’s Rs 2,500-2,700 per quintal. After Diwali, procurement prices of paddy also came down, apparently due to the badmashi of rice-shellers. The government should’ve intervened. But they didn’t. Yes, it’s time for a change.”