Bhupinder Singh Hooda: The man who came out of the cold
Bhupinder Singh Hooda managed to almost oust the BJP in Haryana despite being put in charge by Congress only at the last minute
Unlike Narendra Modi and Sharad Pawar, Bhupinder Singh Hooda has not harboured Prime Ministerial ambitions. A four-time Member of Parliament, who defeated one of the tallest Jat leaders Chaudhary Devi Lal not once but thrice, Hooda has been chief minister of Haryana for two successive terms between 2005 and 2014.
But put in charge of the assembly election barely a month before the polls, he almost pulled off a miracle. While the BJP in Haryana moved into poll mode some six months ago, Congress was in poor shape till the election was announced. And whether by accident or by design, the Election Commission allowed for the shortest time for ticket distribution and the campaign. This put the Opposition firmly on the back foot and lent credence to BJP’s war cry ‘Ab ki baar 75 paar’ to back up its claim that it would win 75 seats in the 90-member Assembly.
But Hooda almost single handedly spoilt BJP’s party and stopped its tally below 40 while doubling the Congress tally to 31. The BJP, which had unleashed the CBI and the ED against Hooda as well, did not expect him to fight back so hard. But he did and like Sharad Pawar, he campaigned all over the state while paying the least attention to his own constituency in Rohtak.
Bhupinder Singh Hooda will be 77 years old in 2024. But he can certainly take heart from Sharad Pawar, who at 79, campaigned so hard in Maharashtra that he could put much younger leaders far behind. And like Pawar, Hooda is a hardcore political leader, who understands Haryana like the back of his hand.
Eight of BJP’s sitting ministers lost the election and two ministers were denied the party ticket. Thus, out of the 13-strong council of ministers only two ministers, besides the incumbent chief minister, could make it to the new Assembly.
The BJP came to power in Haryana in October 2014. The Congress ranked number three in the Assembly elections behind the Indian National Lok Dal. Still it was he who was picked up by BJP as its target.
The reason was simple. Within a year or so of the Congress losing to the BJP, Hooda became a favourite of the Haryana masses. By February 2016, he had become so popular that even in the so-call non-Jat belt of the state, people started saying that if the elections were held now, Hooda would sweep the elections. But things changed very fast in the last week of February 2016. Activists of the Jat agitation targeted establishments of non-Jat communities, particularly of those who had migrated from Pakistan. Supported by a false narrative propagated by the BJP, the communities were sharply divided on caste lines. The popularity of Hooda took a hit.
A split in the Indian National Lok Dal due to a family dispute among the Chautalas gave an opportunity to Hooda to re-establish himself as the tallest leader of the state. However, he was hamstrung by a hostile state Congress leadership. If the party had accepted his demand for a change in leadership before the Lok Sabha elections, observers believe not only the outcome of the parliamentary poll in Haryana would have been different but the BJP would also have been ousted from power in the Assembly elections.
When Hooda was made the Haryana Congress President in 1996, he was considered a greenhorn and a local leader from Rohtak. However, he quickly increased his area of influence in almost all districts barring Sirsa and Hisar districts, which remained under the influence of the Chautalas and Bhajan Lal. In 2001, he demitted office of the party president, but his followers continued to address him as ‘Pradhan ji’ till the time he became the chief minister in 2005.
In 2003, he was swept away by flood waters into Pili Nadi, near Hardwar, along with nine persons. While his cousin drowned, he and others were rescued. The unfortunate incident earned him the nick name of ‘Ganga Putra’. Pili Nadi is a tributary of the Ganga. The close shave with death brought about a major change in his thinking.
While being the chief minister, he was never vindictive towards anyone. He was friendly even with his political rivals. He was able to establish personal rapport with the chief ministers of non-Congress ruled states also. This was the reason that when his nephew got married, Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with several Central BJP leaders came to bless the newly-wed couple. But this did not dent his loyalty to his own party.
It is a measure of his popularity within Haryana that after filing his nomination papers from his home constituency, he did not campaign there much. Instead he devoted most of his time in campaigning for other party candidates throughout the state. This was in sharp contrast to what his colleagues did, who mostly remained confined to their respective constituencies.
Five years is a long period. Will his legal battles tire him out? Will the BJP pressure force him to quit the Congress? Will he bargain with the BJP in return for a respite from court cases and a gubernatorial post?
Those who know him would answer to all these questions in the negative. He comes from a family of freedom fighters. He had refused to join Congress (Tiwari) even when a close friend Birendra Singh jumped ship. His father had never left the Congress, Hooda is said to have told Birendra Singh, and he too would not leave the party. The uncharitable explanation is that if he deserts the Congress, the political career of his son, also a former MP, too would suffer.
The more he is harassed by the BJP, the more powerful he would emerge, believe people close to him. He would not like to quit active politics. He was a challenger and he would remain a challenger, they add.