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
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.