|Illustration: Ashoke Mullick
Comparisons, as the wise man said, are odious. So Kuldeep Bishnoi wouldnt like to compare his recent victory from Hisar in Haryana to Sharad Yadavs memorable win from Jabalpur in 1974. If he has to draw a parallel, he would rather do so with Mohsina Kidwais triumph in Azamgarh in 1978.
But there are some parallels that you cant miss in the three victories staged in sleepy little Indian towns. All milestones — big or small — in the countrys electoral history, these were by-polls to the Lok Sabha and fought against strong incumbent governments. Kidwai, once a Congress stalwart from Uttar Pradesh, won against the Janata Partys candidate; Yadav, a former student union leader, trumped the Congress in Jabalpur as a unified Opposition nominee.
Theres more. If Indira Gandhi pulled herself out of post-Emergency ignominy and campaigned for Kidwai, Jaya Prakash Narayan staked his personal prestige on Jabalpur because the election was to be the first test of his mass movement against the Congress.
For Kuldeep Bishnoi, the battle was similar. The Congress was in power, he was fighting an established politician, and Anna Hazares team was campaigning against his opponents. But no, says Bishnoi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gave him moral support but there was no help from Anna Hazare.
Hazareji had nothing to do with the verdict. In an election, the mahol (ambience) is created in advance, he says. My victory is like Mohsinajis because while that marked the rise of the Congress, Hisar will mark the fall of the Congress.
The Anna team, he suggests, campaigned in Hisar because Bishnois win was certain. Why didnt Hazarji campaign in Khadakwasla (the Maharashtra Assembly seat that also polled with Hisar)? Because he wasnt sure the Congress would lose there. In Hisar, the Congresss rout was foregone.
We are meeting in the home of his cousin, former MLA Duara Ram, where the extended family has gathered to mourn the sudden death of Rams young son-in-law, at Fatehabad, near Hisar. Bishnois mood wanes from small bursts of joy to grief and disillusionment.
His political statements are overlaid with bitterness towards the Congress and the short shrift Sonia Gandhi allegedly meted out to his father, Haryana leader Bhajan Lal, when Bhupinder Singh Hooda was anointed chief minister in 2005 instead of him.
Hooda was awful to my father and his supporters. He slapped false charges against them and had them thrown in jails. It hurt my father to see his loyalists in pain because of him. We met Soniaji and pleaded with her to stop Hooda. My father told her, Who will carry the Congresss flags and banners to fight (former CM) Om Prakash Chautalas criminals? My men have been doing it for years. But nobody heard him out because Soniaji is flanked by a coterie of vested interests.
Bhajan Lal suffered a brain haemorrhage from which he partially recouped but died of a heart attack in June 2011. Before that Bishnoi says he figured out it was pointless remaining in the Congress. He, however, didnt depart on an impulse.
He first organised protests against Hoodas land policy and Reliance, which he believes was the principal beneficiary of Haryanas special economic zones. I am not against Reliance or the SEZ policy, says Bishnoi, whose family possesses large tracts of agricultural land. He also owns a hotel in Delhis swish sibling, Gurgaon. The Congress grapevine has it that his crusade was instigated by the anti-Reliance cabal.
He rejects the allegation. I was against the way in which the policy was formulated and implemented. If corruption was on my mind, I would easily have become a junior minister (at the Centre), a post that was offered to me along with Ajay Maken. I realised it was a bait to neutralise me and said so to (Janardhan) Dwivedi, he says, referring to the Congress general secretary formerly in charge of Haryana. My fight went on and I was suspended.
Like other Congress clans, Bishnois has courted its share of controversies. Although Bhajan Lal earned his place by being the only non-Jat chief minister in a state in which Jats, though only 21 per cent of the population, call the shots in politics, administration, education, business and agriculture, his CV is blotted with the Aaya Ram, gaya Ram taint.
The slogan, a metaphor for defections in politics, owes its provenance to a Haryana MLA, Gaya Lal, who switched loyalties thrice in a single day when Bhajan Lal was cobbling for himself and the Congress a majority in 1980.
Another issue that Bishnoi has had to deal with is allegations of amassing money. His assets — despite being out of the ruling Congress — ballooned from Rs 31.05 crore in 2009 to Rs 48.85 crore in 2011, making him the wealthiest candidate in the Hisar election, richer even than his nearest rival, Ajay Chautala, the scion of the Devi Lal-Om Prakash Chautala khandaan that ruled Haryana for years. Was that the reason he thought that personal aggrandisement and graft didnt count with the voters despite the looming presence of Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal?
I have never held a political position like that of a chief minister, he replies. I am a businessman. I have Maruti dealerships, family agricultural land. My property value has grown manifold. I believe corruption becomes an issue only if it involves a public servant. So corporate corruption is pardonable? Bishnoi does not reply.
How does he slot himself politically, I ask. He has his own party, the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), which won five seats in the 2010 Assembly elections but forfeited them all to the Congress which desperately needed a majority. The HJC signed a written covenant with the BJP to fight the Hisar by-election and he swears the pact will stay till the next Lok Sabha and state polls. What about the Haryana bazaar buzz that attempts were made by Chautala, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and Telugu Desam Party leader Chandrababu Naidu to undo the pact because the last two were keen on keeping the BJP option for Chautala? Kuldeep doesnt confirm or deny it.
I am open-minded and flexible. If an alliance is mutually beneficial, I will go for it. I am not interested in the BJP or the RSSs ideology because I am not going to join either. Perhaps my father, who was of pucca Congress vintage, might have hesitated to tie up with the BJP, he says.
While his traditional role models were his father and Rajiv Gandhi, he admits to being enamoured of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. I respect Modi for developing Gujarat. While everyone is entitled to his own view, the general perception is that he is a good leader who has given his state a comfortable government.
Enough of politics, I decide, and ask him about his colourful older brother, Chandra Mohan Bishnoi, who briefly re-christened himself Chand Mohammad to take on Anuradha Bali aka Fiza as his second wife without divorcing his first spouse Seema.
Yes, he was the deputy chief minister (in the Hooda dispensation until his expulsion) and he blew it all up. We were both our fathers favourites but somewhere I think father, being a shrewd man, divined that I had the potential to make it big. My brother and I meet off and on. I am in touch with my sister-in-law.
His brother, he adds, was in Warwick during the election. I was touched because the first SMS came from him when I won. He must have been net surfing all night, he says.
On the day Chandra Mohan was to announce his conversion to Islam, Bishnoi was tipped off in advance and advised to be with his parents for fear that they might not withstand the trauma. It was a horrible moment when the news was flashed. I saw for the first time tears rolling down my fathers face, he remembers. The family officially disowned Chandra Mohan, who has since left Fiza and returned to Seema.
Like a home-grown Haryanvi, he says his wife will remain confined to the home rather than tread into politics. But his older son, studying at the London School of Economics, has political aspirations. We have to continue the lineage, he says.
I started from scratch, building a party. I worked like a donkey and visited each of the 6,832 villages. In four years I raised a cadre in every village and polling booth. That is why everything was at stake for me in Hisar. Had I lost, I would have had to restart, he admits.
He brushes aside the talk that the Congress is about to make overtures to get him back. He is not interested, not even if Sonia or Rahul Gandhi, with whom the 43-year old Bishnoi used to be good friends, were to extend the olive branch. I want to see my Haryana, where there will be no caste discrimination or corruption, he declares.
The BJP has already promised to make him the chief minister if the alliance wins the next election — albeit in a power-sharing rotational arrangement to which Bishnoi has consented.
So even as he joins a new club of ex-Congress scions such as Jagan Mohan Reddy, Bishnoi thinks where he has scored over Jagan is in getting the BJP on his side.
Now that he is so enwrapped in party work, he has stopped attending something he loved to when he was in Delhi — book launches. Bishnoi, however, doesnt recollect the name of a single author or book of the many launches that he attended — often making it to the celebrity pages. But now he has opened up a new chapter in his life. For him, its time for public meetings in dusty towns.