Chandigarh: On 2 December, Abhay Singh Chautala, the lone Member of Legislative Assembly from Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), announced he was embarking on a 7-month-long ‘Parivartan Padyatra’ across Haryana.
The yatra, which is set to begin on 20 February, comes about 20 months ahead of the assembly polls in Haryana.
With the INLD now reduced to one seat in the 90-member Haryana assembly, the padyatra assumes greater significance. It’s seen as an attempt to recapture the legacy of a party that was first founded by former deputy prime minister Chaudhary Devi Lal — Abhay’s grandfather.
“I’ve named this padyatra Parvartan Yatra. As the name suggests, the Parivartan Yatra aims to bring a change in Haryana, and bring back the regime of farmers and common people. The people of Haryana are longing for the good old regimes led by Chaudhary Devi Lal and Om Prakash Chautala,” Abhay told The Print.
The last four years have seen the party’s fortunes gradually decline. The year 2018 saw a roiling in the party, when INLD patriarch Om Prakash Chautala expelled as Dushyant and Digvijay Chautala, sons of Abhay’s brother Ajay Chautala, for anti-party activities.
In the Haryana assembly elections held a year later, the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), a party founded by Dushyant soon after his expulsion, won 10 seats, cutting into the Jat-dominated INLD’s traditional voter base.
The JJP formed an alliance with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, with Dushyant even managing to secure the deputy chief minister’s post. Meanwhile, the INLD — a party that ruled the state from 1999 to 2005 and was the principal opposition in the state until the split — was reduced to a single seat.
Political experts believe that despite Abhay’s efforts, it would be hard to reclaim INLD’s lost glory.
Pawan Kumar Bansal, a veteran journalist and author of Haryana Ke Lalo Ke Sabrange Kisse, says although there’s no doubt that Devi Lal was a great leader with a huge following and an “ability to read the pulse of people”, the state has changed since.
“Much water has flown under Ghaggar (the seasonal river that passes through Haryana) since Devi Lal left,” Bansal told ThePrint. “Now, we have a different generation of electorates with different aspirations.”
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The fight for Devi Lal’s legacy
The padyatra, which is scheduled to begin at Nuh, will end in Kurukshetra on 25 September. That day is significant — it’s the birth anniversary of Chaudhary Devi Lal.
The yatra is arguably the longest undertaken by a Haryana leader — in February 2019, Abhay’s older brother Ajay undertook a month-long Jan Aakrosh Yatra that began in Mahendragarh and ended in Chandigarh.
In order to mobilise the state’s youth, Abhay’s sons Karan and Arjun launched a mobile application app called ‘INLD App’ to enroll youths and hold elections to the youth wing of the party last week.
INLD’s December victory at Sirsa Zila Parishad polls has further rekindled the party’s hopes.
Seen in this light, Abhay’s yatra is seemingly a battle to regain lost ground and establish himself as the rightful claimant to Devi Lal’s legacy.
Although he was born in Teja Kehra, a village in Haryana’s Sirsa district, on 25 September 1915, Devi Lal’s roots are in Bikaner, Rajasthan.
It was his oldest son, Om Prakash, who began using Chautala, the village where his forefathers settled when they came to Haryana, as his surname.
“After that, his sons and grandsons have been using the word Chautala with their names,” Kamal Vir Singh, a former political advisor to Devi Lal, told ThePrint.
Chaudhary Devi Lal, an activist in India’s Independence movement, was chief minister of Haryana from 1977-79 and 1987-89 and was deputy PM of India in 1989-91.
It was Devi Lal who forced then prime minister V.P. Singh to implement the Mandal Commission report in 1990. That year, on 9 August — days after he was sacked from the Cabinet over “differences” with the prime minister — Devi Lal held a farmers’ rally in Delhi as a show of strength.
It was this announcement that lead Singh to hastily declare 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes.
It’s precisely this kind of popularity that Abhay is seemingly trying to recapture through the yatra. But political observers believe that’s a tall order.
Former Haryana minister Sampat Singh, who became a minister in Devi Lal’s cabinet in 1987 and claims to have learned politics “holding Devi Lal’s finger”, said that although Devi Lal’s legacy would never die, a generational change was certainly causing its shine to fade.
“People remember Devi Lal for what he did for them. Old age pension, waiving off token tax on cycles and registration fee on tractors, free bus travel for job seekers during interviews and school kids were some of the decisions he took,” Singh, now a Congress leader, told ThePrint.
He added that no leader in the Chautala clan could ever match the leader.
“I don’t think the Parvartan Yatra by Abhay Singh Chautala will help him in any manner to regain the ground his party INLD has lost since 2005,” Singh, who Devi Lal’s political secretary during the former’s first term as CM from 1977 to 1978.
What the future holds for the Chautalas
Of Devi Lal’s four sons, his oldest, Om Prakash Chautala, succeeded his father — to both the party and the state.
Having first taken his father’s place as Haryana CM in 1989, Om Prakash went on to head the state twice more between 1990 and 1991— both of those times for less than a fortnight.
Of O.P. Chautala’s two sons, his oldest, Ajay, started his career in Rajasthan politics before he returned to Haryana in the 90s. After serving as the Bhiwani MP from 1999 to 2004, he became a Rajya Sabha member in 2004 and remained there until 2009, when he successfully contested the assembly election from Dabwali, Haryana.
In August 2020 — two years after the INLD split — he was made the JJP national president.
On the other hand, Abhay has kept himself to state politics, successfully contesting assembly elections four times — from Rori assembly segment in 2000 and from Ellenabad in 2009, 2014, and 2019.
In January 2021, Abhay, the lone INLD legislator, resigned from the assembly as a mark of protest against the Modi government’s controversial farm laws. He was reelected in the Ellenabad bypoll held in November 2021.
In 2013, O.P. Chautala and Ajay were among 55 people convicted in the Junior Basic Trained (JBT) Teachers recruitment scam. That racket involved irregularities in the recruitment of JBT teachers — educators who taught at elementary schools in the state.
The Chautalas were sentenced to 10 years in prison. That sentence has since been completed.
However, their legal troubles were far from over. In May 2022, Om Prakash was sentenced to 4 years in jail in a disproportionate assets case, although the sentence was suspended last August.
Bansal said that while both Abhay and Ajay were trying to stake claim over Devi Lal’s legacy, neither leader could match up to their grandfather’s stature.
“I will say that Om Prakash Chautala could take forward Devi Lal’s legacy to some extent, but whether Abhay or Dushyant Chautala would be able to have the same popularity among the masses as Devi Lal remains to be seen,” Bansal concludes.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
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