When the Congress bagged 67 of the 90 Assembly seats in Haryana in the March 2005 polls, it was presumed that the then state party president Bhajan Lal would be anointed the chief minister a third time in his political career. He had been the CM from 1979 to 1985 and again from 1991 to 1996. The party’s victory in the 2005 election was largely attributed to the veteran leader. Yet, in a move that shocked everyone, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the then MP from Rohtak, was appointed the chief minister of Haryana.
Bhajan Lal accused the party leadership of betraying him and his supporters held protests across the state against Hooda’s appointment. In a bid to mollify the two-time CM, his son Chandramohan, who would later be better known as Chand Mohammed, was made the deputy chief minister. But, apparently, that was not enough and Bhajan Lal nursed the grouse until his death in 2011.
In the 2009 Assembly election, the Hooda-led Haryana Congress failed to secure a majority, winning only 40 seats — 27 seats less than its tally in the previous election. Although Hooda managed to cobble together sufficient support on the floor of the House and formed the government by buying out a few legislators from the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) — floated in 2007 by Bhajan Lal’s son Kuldeep Bishnoi — his credibility took a big hit.
The decline in the Congress’ electoral fortunes reached its nadir in the 2014 General Election, where the party won just one of the 10 Lok Sabha seats — a complete reversal of the 2009 Lok Sabha poll results in which it had won nine seats. Not just political analysts but also a large section of the Congress rank and file seem to be convinced that the party is heading towards doom in the forthcoming Assembly election, expected to be held in October.
“No one was surprised when the Congress was reduced to just one Lok Sabha seat — Rohtak,” says analyst Naveen S Grewal. “And the party has already accepted defeat in the forthcoming Assembly polls, even before the battle has begun.”
So, who is to blame for this sorry state of the Haryana Congress? Several state leaders of the party point fingers at Hooda. “Ever since he became CM in 2005 with Sonia Gandhi’s blessings, Hooda has been focussed on two things: getting back at those who had opposed his appointment and pushing to the margins anyone who could pose a threat to him in the future,” says a state Congress leader on the condition of anonymity. “No wonder, the party has been deteriorating steadily.”
When Bhajan Lal quit the Congress after Hooda was made the CM, a whole army of party workers and state leaders left along with him. It was a heavy blow for the Congress, as it meant losing its grip on the substantial non-Jat vote bank in Haryana. Matters became worse when some of the leaders who had supported Hooda’s elevation as chief minister started ruing their decision soon after. Among them were Rajya Sabha MP Chaudhary Birender Singh, Gurgaon MP Rao Inderjit Singh (who joined the BJP ahead of the 2014 General Election and retained the seat), former Union minister Kumari Selja and former Faridabad MP Avatar Singh Bhadana (who quit the Congress on 5 August).
Halfway through Hooda’s first term, hushed voices of dissent could already be discerned within the party. “But no one dared to speak out openly against Hooda. The dissenters had seen how even a towering figure like Bhajan Lal had to leave the party after taking on the CM,” recalls political analyst Kamal Jain.
However, all that changed after the party under Hooda failed to secure a majority in the 2009 Assembly polls. This emboldened Hooda’s rivals to express their dissent publicly. Today, the situation has reached a point where a large section of the state Congress leaders do not trust their CM.
Hooda’s opponents allege that he has concentrated all the development efforts of the government in his son Deepender Singh Hooda’s Lok Sabha constituency, Rohtak, and its neighbouring areas, while ignoring the rest of the state. He is accused of working on a hidden agenda aimed at making the leaders from other constituencies unpopular in the eyes of the electorate.
“Not only did Hooda try to weaken other Congress leaders, he even discriminated between constituencies in developmental matters. So, the debacle in the General Election came as no surprise. If you can’t get work done in all the regions where you are in power, why would the people vote for you?” asks Birender Singh, who was among Hooda’s staunch opponents in the state Congress until he quit in July. “There is no sign of progress in the interior parts of the state such as Jind, Hisar, Fatehabad, Kaithal, Kurukshetra and Karnal.”
Before joining the BJP, Rao Inderjit Singh, too, was a relentless critic of the Hooda government within the state Congress and accused the CM of limiting development work to Rohtak and neighbouring areas. Sharing the information he received in response to an RTI application, he claimed that between 2007 and 2012, 60 percent of the announcements of new development work made by the state government related to Rohtak, Jhajjar and Panipat.
Kumari Selja, too, has been accusing the government of intentionally ignoring her constituency Ambala for the past three years. Moreover, Bhadana is also said to have accused the Hooda government of favouring a particular community in matters of employment.
“These charges are absolutely correct,” says analyst Jain. “There is no doubt that Hooda discriminates among constituencies in development work. If you visit Rohtak and compare it to other parts of the state, you will see what I mean.”
Since last year, several state leaders have turned their backs on the Congress, alleging that they faced discrimination and their views were not heard in the party forums. The exodus started with Panipat MLA Balbir Pal Shah, who quit the party after accusing Hooda of discriminating against his constituency. Shah was followed by former MLA Kulbir Singh Beniwal, who went on to join the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). Former state Congress spokesman Karamvir Saini also ended his party membership, alleging neglect of workers and discrimination in development.
“Hooda neglected the loyal workers and leaders of the party,” says Beniwal. “For years, I have been asking the CM to start development work in the Adampur Assembly constituency in Hisar district. But my plea fell on deaf ears and so I left the party.”
Another senior leader miffed with Hooda was Power Minister Captain Ajay Yadav. Accusing Hooda of intentionally sidelining him and neglecting south Haryana (his stronghold), Yadav submitted his resignation from the Cabinet post recently, but backtracked within 24 hours. Apparently, Yadav was displeased with Hooda ever since his son Rao Chiranjiv was denied the Lok Sabha ticket from Gurgaon.
The exodus of top leaders was accompanied by the desertion of thousands of party workers, a state Congress leader told TEHELKA.
Soon after assuming the CM’s post, Hooda began establishing his hegemony over both the party and the government. Those accusing Hooda of monopolising the party believe that he “remote-controlled” Phool Chand Mullana, who was appointed the president of the Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee in 2007. As a result, the boundary between the party and the government became blurred.
Though Mullana resigned after the party suffered a crushing defeat in the 2011 Lok Sabha bypoll in Hisar, he was asked to continue in the post for some time. According to political analyst Mukesh Bharadwaj, Mullana was a “puppet with the strings in Hooda’s hands”.
“When the CM does not listen to you, you approach the party. But in Haryana, even the party president danced to the CM’s tunes,” alleges a senior leader on the condition of anonymity.
Ashok Tanwar replaced Mullana as the state party chief, but he turned out to be another “remote-controlled” leader. When Tanwar dissolved all the district committees after the debacle in the 2014 General Election and announced the formation of new ones, allegations of favouritism were levelled against him. He was accused of filling the new committees with Hooda’s supporters. Hooda’s detractors allege that the intention was to ensure that Hooda held complete control over the distribution of tickets for the forthcoming Assembly polls.
There are more serious allegations against Hooda. Some leaders accuse him of having engineered the defeat of several Congress candidates in the General Election. Bhadana, who lost the Faridabad seat, told the AK Antony Committee — set up by the party to probe the causes of the debacle — that Hooda and his aides had collaborated with the BJP to ensure the defeat of Congress candidates. The former Faridabad MP alleged that Hooda was only concerned about his son Deepender winning from Rohtak. “I submitted the evidence to the committee and warned that Hooda may repeat this in the Assembly polls,” says Bhadana. Like Bhadana, a majority of the defeated candidates blamed Hooda for the poll debacle.
Cabinet minister Kiran Choudhry also blamed the CM after her daughter, Shruti Choudhry, who contested from Bhiwani- Mahendragarh, finished third. She alleges that Hooda did not make any effort to help her daughter win.
Fingers are also being pointed at Hooda in the context of caste oppression. “Atrocities against Dalits increased during Hooda’s reign but the government did nothing to deal with them,” says Rajya Sabha MP Ishwar Singh Hooda, who has organised several Dalit conferences in the state. “Look at our neighbouring state Punjab. Have you ever heard of mass exodus of Dalits from any village there because of persecution? But there have been many such incidents in Haryana.”
Clearly, Hooda is up against growing resistance to his leadership from the rank and file of his party. During several rallies in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, party workers raised slogans like ‘No development, No vote’.
Hooda’s opponents deny they have any hidden agenda behind trying to corner him. “What’s wrong in bringing up the issue of Dalit oppression?” asks Ishwar Singh. Similarly, Birender Singh asks, “What’s wrong if a leader raises his voice when the people are persecuted and his constituency is discriminated against? We are public representatives. Tomorrow, when we go to seek votes, won’t the people ask us what we did as MLAs and MPs when the government was ours?”
In addition to opposition from party leaders, Hooda also faces several allegations of corruption, especially relating to the land deals of Robert Vadra and others. Many other Congress leaders have been been accused of corruption. A number of incriminating CDs surfaced in the past one year, in which Congress leaders, including MLAs, and their family members, were heard discussing illegal change of land use and other such deals in exchange for hefty bribes. A sting operation caught on camera Hooda’s close aide, Bawani Khera MLA Ramkishan Fauji, demanding a bribe of Rs 5 crore for changing the permitted land use. Other such CDs implicate leaders such as Haryana Health Minister Rao Narendra Singh, chief parliamentary secretary Vinod Bhayana, Ratia MLA Jarnail Singh and Barwala MLA Ram Niwas Ghorela.
Opposition to Hooda’s leaderhip got a fillip when all three rebel Congress leaders, who quit the party and fought the General Election on BJP tickets, won. Rao Inderjit Singh won from Gurgaon, while Dharambir Singh, who was chief parliamentary secretary in Hooda’s government until a month before the polls, won from Bhiwani-Mahendragarh and Ramesh Kaushik, from Sonepat.
Congress leaders claim that the BJP did not have enough candidates to field in Haryana and approached disgruntled leaders of the grand old party. They fear that the saffron party will repeat that tactic in the Assembly polls as well. Birender Singh had met BJP chief Amit Shah and Home Minister Rajnath Singh before quitting the Congress and is expected to join the BJP soon. Sources reveal that several senior state leaders are in touch with the BJP brass.
According to observers of Haryana politics, the Lok Sabha election showed that not just non-Jat voters but also the Jats have forsaken the Congress. The latter community seems to be drifting once again towards the INLD. That’s bad news for Hooda as it was his Jat identity that had led to his elevation as CM. “The Jats are outraged over the imprisonment of Om Prakash Chautala and hold Hooda responsible for it. The INLD got a huge number of sympathy votes in the Lok Sabha polls, and it could happen again in the Assembly election,” says a political analyst.
Though the Congress high command is aware of the anti-Hooda mood in the party — complaints against the CM had started coming in two years ago — it has chosen to ignore it. “To deal with the growing anti-Hooda opposition, (Congress vice-president) Rahul Gandhi called a meeting of all senior state leaders,” says a state leader. “All of them told him how Hooda was harming the Congress’ prospects in the state and that if things don’t change, the party would surely lose the Assembly election. Rahul promised that he would take it up with Hooda and things would improve. But nothing changed. Instead, Hooda became even more stubborn.”
There were several such meetings between Rahul and senior state leaders. Every time, the state leaders raised their concerns about Hooda’s style of functioning and discrimination against constituencies in development work. “We spoke to Rahul several times but things did not change,” says Birender Singh. According to another state leader, the high command believes that Hooda is doing everything right. “He is the apple of their eyes and whoever opposes him is the villain,” says the leader on the condition of anonymity.
Frustration is at its peak. “Hooda’s blunders are being overlooked,” complains another leader. “It is a vivid example of how the top leadership is driving the party to its doom.” Analysts say that as Hooda shares close ties with the high command, the pleas of his rivals go unheard.
Hooda’s political strength stems out of his devotion to the Gandhi family. It all began around two decades ago. In 1996, Hooda was among the strategists of an aggressive campaign to get Sonia Gandhi appointed as the Congress president. “He was part of the 24-member group that sought the removal of PV Narasimha Rao to make way for Sonia Gandhi. That’s when he entered the club of Gandhi loyalists,” says a Congress leader.
For the high command, Hooda is the goose that lays golden eggs. “Hooda sends across more money to the Central fund than any other Congress-ruled state,” says a state leader. Besides, Hooda became a favourite with the Gandhis after he came to the aid of Robert Vadra in the controversial DLF land deal.
Rahul Gandhi is also said to be close to the CM’s son Deepender Hooda, who represents Rohtak in the Lok Sabha. As a member of Team Rahul, Deepender was given charge of planning the party’s social media strategy. Hooda’s detractors claim that Deepender plays a major role in keeping Rahul from being influenced by his critics. Whenever the state leaders approach Rahul Gandhi, the CM gets wind of it beforehand. The drubbing received by the state Congress in the General Election has not affected Deepender’s relationship with Rahul. In fact, it has only grown stronger as within Team Rahul; the Hooda scion is the only one other than Jyotiraditya Scindia to have managed to weather the Modi wave.
Hooda’s ability to influence the Gandhis was revealed during the UPA-2’s Cabinet reshuffle last June. After Pawan Bansal was forced to quit the post of railway minister following the Railway Board appointments scam, Birender Singh was being considered to replace him and had been told informally about the decision. But just a day before Singh was supposed to take oath, he was told that the appointment was being called off. Allegedly, this was done at the behest of Hooda.
Two months later, another embarrassment was in store for Singh, who had invited Sonia Gandhi for a rally in Jind on the occasion of Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary. But Sonia turned down the invite at the last minute, allegedly on Hooda’s advice.
Despite a wave of anger against Hooda across the state, the top leadership of the Congress remains adamant in its support for him. “The party has decided not to bring about any change in leadership before the Assembly election,” says Congress general secretary Shakeel Ahmed, who is in charge of Haryana. The high command insists that a leadership change at this stage will prove detrimental for the party’s electoral prospects at the hustings.
Hooda has consistently refused to accept responsibility for the party’s poor performance in the Lok Sabha polls. “Forget about resigning, the chief minister did not even own responsibility for the drubbing in the polls and acted as if only the UPA government at the Centre was to blame,” says Kumari Selja.
Others like Birender Singh were initially hopeful that the high command would rethink its decision to back Hooda. “It’s true that the high command has turned down the demand to change the CM. But, in the Congress, such major decisions are taken overnight, so it can happen anytime,” Singh had told TEHELKA a few days before he shared the stage with BJP national president Amit Shah at a rally in Jind on 16 August. Though he has not yet formally joined the BJP, sources reveal that he will do so after the poll dates are announced.
Many office-bearers of the Haryana Congress and several former MLAs and MPs formally joined the BJP at the Jind rally. Among them was Birender’s wife Premlata Singh, who was a member of the AICC. “Development in Haryana is confined to just one district and the Congress paid a price for it in the Lok Sabha polls,” she had earlier told TEHELKA. “Moreover, the voice of the party workers went unheard. The people do not want a CM who discriminates in matters of development and employment. You cannot win elections under such a leader.”
Experts claim that the Congress high command is doing in Haryana what it has done in other states as well. “First, they install a loyalist of the party’s first family as the chief minister of a state. If other leaders criticise him, they make it a point to support him. A rebellion against a chief minister means revolt against the high command. It’s also true for Uttarakhand and Maharashtra,” explains analyst Jain.
Hooda, meanwhile, misses no opportunity to dismiss the allegations against him. Addressing a public meeting recently, he said, “I am responsible for the development of the people, not individual leaders. Only those leaders whose individual interests were not fulfilled are whining now. My responsibility is to take Haryana forward. I will hold on to my post as long as people have faith in my leadership.”
Despite all the negative criticism, one thing is still true about Hooda. None of his rivals in the party match up to him in terms of the degree of influence over people across the entire state. He had defeated Haryana’s political giant and former deputy prime minister Choudhary Devi Lal in three Lok Sabha elections. In a state that had seen the government change after every Assembly election since 1972, Hooda managed to successfully bring the Congress back to power for a second term in 2009. But, with a growing list of leaders quitting the Congress and making a beeline for the rival BJP, it will take nothing less than a miracle for the beleaguered CM to score a hat-trick.
Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman