It is 1 am on 6 September. The Kanda Mahal — as it is locally known — is getting ready to welcome its lord, Gopal Kumar Goel. “Mahal ke chaaron taraf pehredaar laga do. Jab tak tau Gopal na aa jayen, koi bhi diya bujhna nahi chahiye, (Depute guards all around the palace. Make sure all earthen lamps remain lighted for uncle Gopal’s arrival),” says a woman putting a lamp on the portico of the sprawling palace located in Haryana’s Sirsa town, 300 km from Delhi.
Better known as Gopal Kanda, the 48-year-old former Haryana minister of state for home is out on a one-month interim bail granted by a Delhi court on 5 September to attend the Assembly session and meet his constituents. Accused of abetting the suicide of the 23-year-old Geetika Sharma, an airhostess of the now defunct MDLR Airlines, which he promoted, Kanda was granted bail after spending a year and 18 days in Delhi’s Tihar and Rohini jails.
After his release, Kanda first visits the Sheetla Mata Mandir at Gurgaon to offer prayers. It is in Gurgaon that Kanda made his fortunes. He owns two five-star hotels and a palatial house here. MDLR Airlines, where Geetika worked, also had its corporate office in Gurgaon.
From Gurgaon, Kanda leaves for Sirsa, his constituency and hometown. En route, his motorcade is thronged by his supporters at Agroha, 65 km from Sirsa. Agroha is believed to be the birthplace of the Agarwal and Agrahari trader communities to which Kanda belongs.
He finally arrives at Sirsa at 2.15 am and heads straight to the Tara Baba Kutiya temple adjacent to his palace. Kanda is a follower of Tara Baba and believes he owes all his political and business gains to the Baba’s blessings. He then holds a short meeting with his loyals who are waiting for him.
Later in the day, he goes to Chandigarh to attend the Assembly session. A senior Chandigarh-based journalist, who covered the Assembly proceedings, says that Kanda remained quiet and did not raise any question. “His entry went unnoticed amidst the pandemonium in the House over a CD allegedly showing the Congress parliamentary secretary acting as a middleman for a land deal,” says the journalist, requesting anonymity. “He took a seat besides Congress MLA Savitri Jindal and exchanged pleasantries with her and other members.”
Outside the House, in reply to the media’s questions on the Geetika case, Kanda simply retorts by “Aap meri jagah hote to kya kehte? (What would you have said in my place?)”, before heading back to Sirsa.
The next day is reserved for meeting his constituents. That Kanda is a political strongman can be gauged from the long line of people waiting under a shamiana in the lawns of his palace. A conservative estimate could peg the number anywhere from 3,000-4,000. Incidentally, the lawn also has a tennis court and a helipad.
His role in the suicide of Geetika Sharma does not seem to have dented Kanda’s popularity in Sirsa. The people in the crowd belong to various age groups, including even girls as young as the air hostess who had killed herself at her Delhi residence on 4 August 2012, accusing Kanda of harassment in her suicide note.
Kanda knows that he could be on a sticky wicket because of the case, and this is his attempt to reconnect with his voters and show them that he cares. To an extent, it seems to be working. “We don’t know how true the allegations by Geetika and her family are,” says Siv Ram, 45, an office peon who has come to meet Kanda. “What we know is that he has done a lot for us.”
What also works for Kanda is his apparent generosity. Arranging mass marriages, the occasional cash gift, annual Shivratri functions and other religious gatherings in Tara Baba’s Kutiya has earned him the image of being a pious and religious person.
The ruling Congress government is only too aware of his popularity. At the time of his arrival at his Sirsa residence, police sources inform this reporter that sleuths of the state CID are keeping a tab on Kanda’s movements. With the state going to polls next year, Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda will want to ensure that the independent MLA remains close to his party. After all, Kanda secured the support of six other independent MLAs for the Congress in Haryana’s 90-member Assembly. Facing dissidence from within his own party — Panipat MLA Balbir Pal Shah and MPs Rao Inderjit Singh and Kumari Selja have all alleged Hooda of being biased to his own constituency Rohtak, while ignoring the rest of the state — Kanda is one person who the CM can ill-afford to alienate. That he is an independent, therefore, makes it even more important for Hooda to keep a close watch on Kanda’s movements and who he is meeting.
Kanda’s critics, though, believe the Geetika suicide case will affect his popularity. “With the Geetika case, he is exposed among the womenfolk of Sirsa,” says Padam Jain, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) candidate, who lost to Kanda in 2009 by over 6,500 votes. “It is these women who voted for him as he had succeeded in fooling them to believe he was very religious.”
Interestingly, Kanda has managed to carve out his own political space in the INLD stronghold. Of the five Assembly constituencies in Sirsa, four have INLD MLAs except for the one that Kanda holds. In the 2009 Assembly polls, he had depended on the 2,000-odd votes from the trader community to which he belongs and the women voters in the 31 villages in his constituency, thanks largely to his religious image.
This image, say his critics, is one that he has carefully maintained in Sirsa, but is completely different to the one he has when in Gurgaon. “He would attend parties, wear flashy clothes there,” says a Sirsa-based Congressman on condition of anonymity. “In Sirsa, he appears before the public only at religious ceremonies or at meetings and strictly adheres to his crisp white kurta pyjama.”
Any attempt by the media to meet Kanda is stonewalled by his men. “He is taking down the grievances of his constituents and will take up their problems with the district administration and the government,” says younger brother Govind Kanda. In his brother’s absence, it is Govind who has been looking after the political and business affairs of the former minister.
This reporter is even warned by his supporters against recording anything. “If you do,” says a burly man, “you will be in a problem. By the way, who let you inside?”
Eventually, Kanda agrees for a meeting but politely declines to comment on the suicide case, “since the matter is in court”. He says he will use the time outside jail to attend the Assembly session and “meet my people”. Refusing to answer any other question, he excuses himself and goes back inside his palace.
On the other hand, Geetika’s family has expressed its disappointment at the court’s decision to let him out of jail for a month. “It is unfortunate and surprising that he has got bail,” says Ankit Sharma, Geetika’s younger brother. “My sister and mother have both committed suicide because of Kanda’s torture. We fear that he will use his political muscle to influence the case.”