The Ul­ti­mate Loy­al­ist

Haryana Chief Min­is­ter Bhupin­der Hooda has used realty and loy­alty to the first fam­ily as un­fail­ing cur­ren­cies to ef­fect a quiet rise in the Congress party

India Today - - INSIDE - By Asit Jolly

Haryana Chief Min­is­ter Bhupin­der Hooda has used realty and loy­alty as un­fail­ing cur­ren­cies to ef­fect a quiet rise in the Congress party.

He spurned Prime Min­is­ter P. V. Narasimha Rao to stand be­side the then po­lit­i­cally in­ex­pe­ri­enced So­nia Gandhi when she ad­dressed a pub­lic rally in Ame­thi in 1993, the first since her hus­band Ra­jiv Gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion in 1991. Three years on, he was the first among 24 MPs to de­mand Rao’s ouster and clam­oured for So­nia as party pres­i­dent af­ter the Congress suf­fered one of its worst elec­toral de­feats in 1996. He wears his un­fal­ter­ing de­vo­tion to the Nehru- Gandhi fam­ily like a proud badge. “I am here to im­ple­ment pro­grammes and poli­cies drawn up by So­nia Gandhi,” he de­clares with­out ap­par­ent qualm.

Bhupin­der Singh Hooda, 66, has to­day emerged as the most in­flu­en­tial Congress chief min­is­ter in the coun­try, in­dis­pens­able not just be­cause of his prox­im­ity to the Gand­his but equally the un­matched fi­nan­cial clout he gained by suc­cess­fully ex­ploit­ing Haryana’s only ‘ nat­u­ral re­source’— the never imag­ined pre­mi­ums on al­ways- in- de­mand land banks con­tigu­ous to Delhi.

An un­likely politi­cian who started out in the mid- 1970s try­ing to es­tab­lish a le­gal prac­tice in his home­town Ro­htak, Hooda qui­etly worked be­hind the scenes with few even notic­ing his steady as­cent up the po­lit­i­cal lad­der. His en­try into pol­i­tics in 1982, he says, was a fam­ily de­ci­sion. “There was al­ways a full- time politi­cian in the house. First my grand­fa­ther Chaud­hary Matu Ram and then my fa­ther Chaud­hary Ran­bir Singh,” he says.

The ca­reer move clearly paid off. In March 2005, So­nia re­paid Hooda’s un­wa­ver­ing loy­alty by in­stalling him as Haryana’s chief min­is­ter, un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dump­ing Bha­jan Lal who had led Congress to a stun­ning vic­tory in the state and was viewed as the ob­vi­ous choice for the top job. In the eight- anda- half years since, Hooda em­ployed ev­ery ounce of the po­lit­i­cal wis­dom from four suc­ces­sive terms in Lok Sabha both to curry favour at the AICC while milk­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties in his home state through Machi­avel­lian ma­noeu­vring that has left ri­vals gasp­ing.

On Delhi’s Coper­ni­cus Marg, the plush in­te­ri­ors of the Chief Min­is­ter’s cham­bers on the first floor of Haryana Bhawan seem like a cross be­tween a cor­po­rate head­quar­ters and a po­lit­i­cal of­fice. A cu­ri­ous mix of civil ser­vants, khadi- clad ne­tas, busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives and a builder with his cronies await their two- and- a- half min­utes while Hooda rushes through a se­ries of “ur­gent” meet­ings in­side an even more im­pec­ca­bly ap­pointed con­fer­ence room. He fi­nally emerges. Ev­ery­body stands. He smiles eas­ily, ap­par­ently un­per­turbed by re­cent al­le­ga­tions that he col­luded in un­fairly ben­e­fit­ing So­nia Gandhi’s son- in- law Robert Vadra and big con­struc­tion com­pa­nies in­volved in du­bi­ous land trans­ac­tions.

“That ( al­le­ga­tions trig­gered by IAS of­fi­cer Ashok Khemka’s re­port on the con­tro­ver­sial Vadra- DLF deal and other land scams) is sheer non­sense,” he says, in­sist­ing “not one inch of land” was given di­rectly to de­vel­op­ers since he be­came chief min­is­ter in 2005. He says per­mis­sions to con­vert agri­cul­tural land for com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial projects were granted as per a 1975 land- li­cens­ing pol­icy. The pol­icy, he

“I’ve given eco­nomic value to farm­ers’ land. Haryana has seen more rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion than Delhi in the past 8 or 9 years.”

says, has even ben­e­fited po­lit­i­cal ri­vals like Rao In­der­jit Singh, the Gur­gaon MP who de­manded an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of all land trans­ac­tions in the dis­trict in­clud­ing the Vadra- DLF deal. “In­der­jit him­self got a li­cence for 83 acres of land,” he says. The MP re­fuses to re­spond, say­ing he doesn’t want to be drawn into any more con­tro­ver­sies. He was re­port­edly ad­mon­ished by the Congress lead­er­ship for crit­i­cis­ing Hooda’s poli­cies.

Hooda is not shy about ad­mit­ting his govern­ment has been ex­ceed­ingly gen­er­ous in hand­ing out li­cences. “Haryana has no nat­u­ral re­sources but has an ad­mit­ted ad­van­tage be­cause it fringes Delhi on three sides. This ben­e­fits the peo­ple in bring­ing them bet­ter prices for their land, and the govern­ment by at­tract­ing in­vest­ments,” he says.

But con­sider this: Of the 30,418.65 acres for which suc­ces­sive Haryana gov­ern­ments granted li­cences since 1981, nearly 22,000 acres were doled out to favour builders, at times al­legedly fronted by cronies or spe­cial friends like Vadra, un­der Hooda’s watch since March 2005. Data ac­cessed from the state’s Town & Coun­try Plan­ning Depart­ment shows Hooda al­lowed the con­ver­sion of 2732.16 acres of agri­cul­tural land to res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial use ev­ery year. That is eight times more than the 356.72 acres per year by six of his pre­de­ces­sors— Devi Lal, Bha­jan Lal, Bansi Lal, in­terim CMs Hukum Singh and Ba­narsi Das Gupta, and Om Prakash Chau­tala.

He in­sists the crit­i­cism is un­fair. “I have given eco­nomic value to farm­ers’ land,” he says. Land prices have spi­ralled fol­low­ing his govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to fix floor rates. “Com­pared to the Rs 1 lakh per acre that farm­ers got for land ac­quired dur­ing Chau­tala’s ten­ure ( un­til 2005), I was able to get them Rs 1 crore per acre,” he says. Hooda il­lus­trates with the com­pen­sa­tions paid out for the 135- km Kundli- Mane­sar-

Pal­wal Ex­press­way for which the Chau­tala govern­ment had pro­jected an ac­qui­si­tion cost of Rs 160 crore: “We got the own­ers Rs 650 crore,” he says.

By fix­ing floor rates, Hooda says he has been suc­cess­ful in spread­ing the ben­e­fits be­yond prime lo­ca­tions. “Li­cences have been granted for nearly 13,000 acres out­side Gur­gaon,” he says, point­ing to con­struc­tion projects in hith­erto ‘ vir­gin’ ter­ri­to­ries in­clud­ing Panchkula, Am­bala, As­sandh, Re­wari, Ba­hadur­garh, Bhi­wani, Ku­ruk­shetra, Kaithal, Karnal, Pal­wal, Sirsa and Ya­mu­nana­gar. “Haryana has wit­nessed more rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion than Delhi in the past eight- nine years,” he says look­ing dis­cernibly smug.

Both his ri­vals and as­so­ciates ac­knowl­edge that be­sides ben­e­fit­ing al­most ev­ery­one in­volved, the lu­cra­tive land li­cens­ing pol­icy has given Haryana’s Chief Min­is­ter deeper pock­ets than any of his con­tem­po­rary coun­ter­parts. A small mea­sure of this was ev­i­dent in the grand show Hooda hosted for the Congress Work­ing Com­mit­tee meet at Su­ra­jkund in Novem­ber 2012. This was an event that Ra­jasthan Chief Min­is­ter Ashok Gehlot had lob­bied hard to get. In fact, So­nia Gandhi’s Po­lit­i­cal Sec­re­tary Ahmed Pa­tel had even cleared Jaipur as the venue but Hooda con­vinced him that prox­im­ity to Delhi made Haryana a bet­ter choice.

In­sid­ers say what makes him spe­cial to the Congress lead­er­ship is his ca­pac­ity to raise funds. Whispers that have turned into myths sur­round­ing Hooda even talk of how he sin­gle­hand­edly funded the party’s poll ef­fort in 2009. Ac­cord­ing to an aide, sev­eral cen­tral ob­servers sent out to Haryana dur­ing the Lok Sabha polls were al­lowed to pocket large sums of cash os­ten­si­bly dis­bursed to or­gan­ise ral­lies by cen­tral lead­ers. “There were clear in­struc­tions: If it is a man from Delhi don’t seek ac­counts,” he re­called.

His years as chief min­is­ter have brought Hooda even closer to the Gand­his than be­fore. “He is the only Congress leader I know who can ad­dress Rahul Gandhi with­out both­er­ing with the manda­tory suf­fix— ji,” says a se­nior IAS of­fi­cer who has wit­nessed Hooda’s con­fi­dence and clout grow.

Dis­miss­ing the claim, Hooda, how-

ever, ac­knowl­edges the prox­im­ity: “My fa­ther worked with Jawa­har­lal Nehru and later as deputy leader of the Ra­jya Sabha when Indi­raji was the leader,” he says adding he has con­tin­ued the old ties with Ra­jiv Gandhi and now So­nia. “Rahul is about the same age as my own son Deepin­der,” he says.

Hooda left al­most no doubt of the in­flu­ence he en­joys when, in a Cabi­net reshuf­fle in June, he re­port­edly scut­tled Haryana Congress party ri­val Biren­der Singh’s in­duc­tion as a Union min­is­ter. “That wasn’t me. I never play dirty pol­i­tics,” he in­sists. His de­trac­tors scoff at the claim. They say he goes out of his way to en­sure the po­lit­i­cal demise of his ri­vals. So­nia’s last- minute de­ci­sion to stay away from a rally Biren­der Singh or­gan­ised to mark Ra­jiv Gandhi’s birth an­niver­sary at Jind on Au­gust 20 also had ev­ery­one point­ing fin­gers.

“I have no par­tic­u­lar en­e­mies,” Hooda says, clearly not happy dis­cussing his friends with the press. In­sid­ers privy to his house­hold say he only trusts a close group that in­cludes politi­cians, of­fi­cers, busi­ness­men and some old chums from his Ro­htak days. Top­ping the list of “men Hooda can­not refuse,” an aide says, is the in­dus­tri­al­ist- politi­cian and for­mer Union min­is­ter Venod Sharma who re­mains his old­est friend and po­lit­i­cal ad­viser.

Whispers that have turned into myths sur­round­ing Hooda talk of how he sin­gle­hand­edly funded Congress’s 2009 poll ef­fort.

Sharma, who has ex­ten­sive in­ter­ests in sugar, mul­ti­plexes, tele­vi­sion, pub­lish­ing and lux­ury ho­tels, is viewed by some as the man who em­ployed his po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions in the AICC to push Hooda’s can­di­da­ture for chief min­is­ter­ship in March 2005. In­ducted ini­tially as a min­is­ter in the Hooda Cabi­net, Sharma re­signed af­ter the Delhi High Court sen­tenced his son Manu to life im­pris­on­ment in the Jessica Lal case in De­cem­ber 2006.

Like So­nia Gandhi, Hooda too be­lieves in re­ward­ing loy­alty. Be­sides plum post- re­tire­ment jobs, he has been de­cid­edly par­tial to­wards his trusted of­fi­cers. State Chief Sec­re­tary P. K. Chaud­hary, for in­stance, was given an un­usual six- month ex­ten­sion. Hooda’s Prin­ci­pal Sec­re­tary Ch­hat­tar Singh too is on ex­ten­sion, at the end of which he will join UPSC as a mem­ber.

An avid ten­nis player since his days as a boy at Sainik School Kun­jpura, he ad­mits the favourite part of his day is the manda­tory hour ei­ther on the grass court at the CM’s res­i­dence in Chandi­garh or play­ing against for­mer Davis Cup player Jaideep Mukher­jee at the Delhi Gymkhana Club. “I played dou­bles against Boris Becker when he was in the coun­try ear­lier this year,” he says, de­light­ing in the mem­ory.

Bhupi Hooda, as all good friends ad­dress him, greatly rel­ishes re­count­ing fa­mil­ial ac­com­plish­ments. “At 33, my fa­ther Chaud­hary Ran­bir Singh was the youngest mem­ber of the Con­stituent Assem­bly and pos­si­bly holds the world record for be­ing a mem­ber of eight dif­fer­ent leg­isla­tive houses,” he says, beam­ing as he goes on to nar­rate how in 1923 his grand­fa­ther Matu Ram won an elec­tion pe­ti­tion and dam­ages worth Rs 3,000 against Rai Ba­hadur Lal Chand, Pun­jab’s then agri­cul­ture and in­dus­tries min­is­ter and fa­ther of Raghven­dra Singh, owner of the realty ma­jor DLF.

In the present gen­er­a­tion, bar­ring his son, Lok Sabha MP Deepin­der, none among the CM’s ex­tended fam­ily is in pol­i­tics. In­der Singh, his older brother, looks af­ter the ex­ten­sive fam­ily hold­ings in Ut­tarak­hand’s Bazpur area and the youngest, Dhar­min­der Singh, cares for Har Devi, their 95year- old mother in Ro­htak.

Bhupin­der Singh Hooda sees him­self as the Congress party’s ver­sion of Naren­dra Modi. His of­fice has a ready reckoner of statis­tics to prove that Hooda’s Haryana has out­per­formed Modi’s Gu­jarat on ev­ery eco­nomic and so­cial pa­ram­e­ter. Per capita in­come of Rs 109,227 in Haryana, he points out, is sig­nif­i­cantly higher that Gu­jarat’s Rs 75,115. “I im­proved re­source mo­bil­i­sa­tion by 192 per cent com­pared to the 96.5 per cent be­ing tom- tommed by Gu­jarat. Rates of hon­o­rar­i­ums, schol­ar­ships, min­i­mum wages, MNREGA wages and other re­mu­ner­a­tions are higher. We also reach, in many cases, four times the per­cent­age of ben­e­fi­cia­ries,” he says.

Hooda en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­veals his own Gu­jarat con­nec­tion— his first few months as a Class V stu­dent at the Sainik School in Jam­na­gar. So then why is ev­ery­body talk­ing about Modi? Be­cause, says Hooda, he is a per­former, not a pro­jec­tion­ist.

RO­HIT CHAWLA

BHUPIN­DER

HOODA

VIKRAM SHARMA/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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