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Haryana has a flashback as OP Chautala’s sons fight it out over father’s legacy

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Former Haryana chief minister OP Chautala also rose to political prominence after a battle of supremacy with brother Ranjit Singh.

Chandigarh: Life has come a full circle for Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) supremo and five-time Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala.

Thirty years after a Bollywood-style battle with his brother Ranjit Singh for the political legacy of their father, former deputy prime minister Devi Lal, he finds himself at the centre of a similar tussle between his sons Ajay and Abhay.

The very public battle for supremacy has placed the INLD on the brink of a split at a sensitive time, when the 2019 Lok Sabha and Haryana assembly elections are months away.

Chautala, 83, the party’s national president, and Ajay, its general secretary, have been in jail since January 2013, after their conviction in a teacher recruitment scam.

While the former virtually runs the party from jail, Abhay, the Ellanabad MLA and leader of the opposition in Haryana, has become the face of the party in his absence and stakes claim to the “true” legacy of Devi Lal, who also served as Haryana chief minister two times.

In his absence, meanwhile, Abhay’s elder brother Ajay wants the party to be run by his sons Digvijay and Dushyant, the Hisar MP.

There have been reports that Dushyant seeks to be projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in 2019, and it is reportedly this ambition that has transformed the family tussle into a very public blowout.

Out in the open

The tug-of-war between the brothers came to the fore last month, when Dushyant’s supporters allegedly hooted against Abhay in Chautala’s presence [he was out on bail] at an event to mark Devi Lal’s birth anniversary.

Despite several requests from the stage, from Abhay as well as Dushyant, the members kept chanting slogans, demanding that a youth INLD leader head the state.

A peeved Chautala subsequently expelled Dushyant and Digvijay from the party for indiscipline, and also disbanded the youth wing and the INLD student affiliate Indian National Students Organisation (INSO), both of which were commanded by the brothers.

Out on furlough, Ajay reportedly met Abhay for talks Sunday, but it turned out to be a failed bid for peace.

Ajay, upset about the treatment meted out to his sons, has now called a meeting of the party’s state executive Saturday at Jind, where he is likely to announce action against Abhay and his supporters.

Meanwhile, at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Abhay and state INLD chief Ashok Arora announced Ajay’s expulsion from the party. Arora said he had also convened a state executive meeting at Chandigarh, a move clearly aimed at foiling the one called by Ajay at Jind. He also read out a directive purportedly issued by Chautala on 12 November expelling Ajay from the party.

Also read: Family feud in INLD takes a dire turn, OP Chautala expels grandsons Dushyant and Digvijay

Déjà Vu

Veteran observers of Haryana’s political landscape will no doubt admit to a sense of déjà vu as they see the Chautala saga unfold.

In 1989, Chautala and his younger brother Ranjit Singh were in the same shoes Ajay and Abhay find themselves now, with their battle dominating the state’s political narrative all through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It all started when Devi Lal became the chief minister of Haryana for the second time after the election in 1987. By August, Chautala had become a Rajya Sabha member while Ranjit Singh, an MLA, was appointed a cabinet minister in his father’s government.

A battle for supremacy soon ensued between the two brothers, with both claiming to have the support of the majority of the party’s MLAs.

In 1988, disturbed by the feud between his sons, Devi Lal threatened to resign as chief minister, but retracted the decision when party members said his departure would lead to a split.

It is also believed that Ranjit, sure that Chautala would do his best to declare himself the chief minister if Devi Lal resigned, contacted V.P. Singh, then the Janata Dal president, to change his father’s mind.

Singh, one of the two prime ministers whom Devi Lal would go on to serve as a deputy, drove down to Chandigarh and made the Haryana chief minister see reason.

When Ranjit Singh quit

The “soft spoken and sweet” Ranjit Singh was clearly not the favourite of his father.

Though Devi Lal had disowned Chautala in 1978 after he was detained by customs for bringing in a wrist watch too many, he considered him his “go-getter and shrewd” political heir.

Ranjit was correct in his estimation of what Devi Lal had in mind. When Devi Lal became the deputy prime minister in December 1989, Chautala was chosen as his successor.

After six hours of drama involving a royalty-like succession, Chautala was sworn in as chief minister the same day his father took over as deputy prime minister in the V.P. Singh cabinet.

Ranjit Singh was miffed because while he was a minister in the state government at the time, Chautala was not even an MLA. Devi Lal asked the sulking Ranjit Singh to keep quiet, which he did even though he refused to attend the swearing-in ceremony of his brother.

The BJP, a partner in the state government led by Devi Lal’s Lok Dal [INLD’s earlier name], refused to work with Chautala, but continued its support from outside.

The unprecedented violence that accompanied an assembly bypoll for Meham, where at least eight people, including a rebel Lok Dal candidate, were killed, gave Ranjit the way out he was looking for.

It was alleged that the violence was carried out at the behest of Chautala, who was contesting from Meham, and Ranjit resigned a few months later.

Chautala failed to become an MLA within six months of being sworn in as CM, but, with the help of Devi Lal, wrested three brief stints in office until the government was dissolved in 1991.

Ranjit Singh, meanwhile, was made a Rajya Sabha member in 1990.

Also read: Congress and INLD MLAs come to blows with shoes inside Haryana assembly

Battle continues

The more educated and soft-spoken of the two, Ranjit was not cut out for the rough and tumble of Jat politics.

Ranjit, who won a seat in the assembly in the 1980s, went on to join the Congress and the BJP before eventually returning to the former. He has not won an election for over two decades now, a fact Abhay cited to warn his detractors in a speech at Hisar on 29 October.

“Whoever tries to weaken the party will suffer the fate of Ranjit Singh Chautala, who never won any election after leaving INLD,” he said.

In September, Ranjit Singh told a local TV channel that he did not want to discuss why Devi Lal chose Chautala over him.

“The reason that the party created by Devi Lal has gone down in the state is because Chautala’s public relations [skills] were always bad,” he said, “Even in 1979, when [former chief minister] Bhajan Lal revolted, it was not because of Devi Lal but because of Chautala.”

In the ongoing battle, Ranjit Singh is rumoured to be supporting Dushyant.

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