There’s a need for speed everywhere: kids ask for faster WiFi instead of NREGA, better names for their colleges than the ones after gurus and babas. Hospitals sell botox dreams, smile clinics promise to dazzle your teeth. A polytechnic student tells you why Rahul cannot connect here and why ‘BJP ke donon hathon mein laddu hain’
YOU have to be ridiculously parochial to say something as outrageous as what Haryana thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Risks rise further when you work out of a newsroom spilling over with Bengalis. But that is an old and truly genuine grievance with us Haryanvis. That we have always been denied our due as real trendsetters for modern India, particularly since the decline of Bengal started, in fields as far apart as politics and sport. Remember, however, that I said trendsetters. I made no claims to all trends set by us being virtuous. Certainly, political defection wasn’t.
A minor Haryanvi politician immortalised himself in India’s political history by giving it its most enduring Aaya Ram-Gaya Ram metaphor for defection. He was named Gaya Lal (how did his parents know?) and made history, crossing the floor three times in one day in the still new Haryana assembly in 1967. Then, because the rest of the country had still not woken up to the threat of the Aaya Ram-Gaya Ram culture, we served an even ruder reminder with the first en masse, and until now unmatched, defection of an entire ruling party and its cabinet. So Bhajan Lal’s Janata Party government overnight transformed itself into a Congress government. We Haryanvis, therefore, believe that we inspired the great reform called our anti-defection law. Or how two pesky Haryanvis, Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav, have transformed our politics, with their AAP adventure. But nobody gives us credit. We are such a tiny state after all.
We are resilient too. Many decades ago, Arun Shourie, then editor of this newspaper, explained our politics brilliantly in his front-page article “B. Lal, D. Lal, B. Lal” (after Bansi, Devi and Bhajan Lal). The three Lals are now gone, but their dynasties prosper. And true to tradition, one thing they have in abundance is political pragmatism. In this election, for example, Bhajan Lal’s son Kuldip Bishnoi’s Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) is in alliance with the BJP, and continues its blood feud with the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), being run by the grandson of Devi Lal ,while his father, Om Prakash Chautala, serves a jail term for corruption.
This is where things get interesting. The INLD has also stated that they will support a Narendra Modi government at the Centre, whether he asks them to do so or not. Further, the Shiromani Akali Dal in adjoining Punjab, the BJP’s second most loyal ally after the Shiv Sena, has broken ranks and is supporting the Chautalas in Haryana, given their old family relationships. The two fine Oberoi hotels next-door to Delhi in Gurgaon are owned by the Badals, built on land allotted when senior Chautala was chief minister. So this is why the BJP is smiling. Whether their ally Bishnoi gets a couple of seats or his arch rival, Chautala, these will be the NDA’s seats.
“Bhajapa ke toh donon hathon mein laddu hain,” is the line you would hear often if you followed the campaign trail in Haryana. Is this going to be the new trend in national politics as well? That smaller, regional parties elsewhere too will treat their ideology as entirely fungible with a share in power at the Centre? Then don’t say Haryana did not set an example for the rest of you. The TRS and YSRC in Andhra/ Telangana, H.D. Deve Gowda’s JD(S) in Karnataka, the smaller parties in Tamil Nadu, Ram Vilas Paswan, would all make great Haryanvis.
THERE are a few more new trends, particularly as you walk around, reading the writings on the wall. Congressmen around the country now know that they are in deep trouble in this election. Nobody gives them a chance of forming the next government and Rahul Gandhi simply does not cut it with their voters in 2014. But full marks to Haryana for total political honesty. It is the one state where one Congress candidate after another has dropped Rahul/Sonia names and portraits from their election hoardings and posters. Candidates, particularly sitting MPs, have their own pictures, and promises are sharply confined to making the state stronger, their constituencies more prosperous.
There is no pretence of giving India a third UPA government. “We will have to be idiots not to see reality,” says a senior local Congress leader as we chat on the sidelines of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s well-attended rally at Safidon, the region’s second-oldest and truly buzzing grain mandi in the heart of the Jatland, just about 30 km west of Panipat. “Candidates know they are on their own now,” he says, “so their strategy is to focus on themselves, to reposition this election along local issues and hope that local loyalties will work to their advantage.” The Gandhis have not been particularly popular in Haryana for a long time. They are now a liability. Modi and the BJP target them: mother, son and son-in-law, non-stop. So the Congressmen are trying to switch to another, more local game. Once again, if you find this trend of every Congressman for himself catching up in the rest of India, you know who pioneered it.
Listen carefully to young voters, and read the writings on the wall and you can understand the Congress party’s Rahul problem better, particularly in a state like Haryana. The idiom he speaks, rights-based governance, minimum this, minimum that, food, free education, NREGA, leave young Haryanvis bemused. Because they moved on from there a long time ago. Sure, Haryana has its problems, terrible urban decay being one of them. But widespread poverty or hunger is not among them. Haryana is today the richest among the larger (25 lakh-plus population) states in India. It has urbanised much more rapidly than the Census or Planning Commission figures will tell you. In a typical village in the Green Revolution zone, Brahmanvas or Makrauli between Panipat and Rohtak, for example, you will find nearly a third of the houses with air conditioners, about a half with washing machines, almost each one has a refrigerator. Haryana’s prosperity shows in its strides in sports.
It is India’s little China. Hooda gets a big cheer at his rallies when he reminds people that of the 38 gold medals won by India at the Commonwealth Games, 22 were won by Haryanvis — it is probably the only time something about that forgettable CWG is cheered anywhere in India. He gets an even louder cheer when he uses another relatively modern metaphor to underline the risks in voting for the BJP, many of whose candidates are “defectors who bought their tickets for money”. “How will they keep their promises to you”, says Hooda, “they are like Made in China goods, they come without any guarantee.” He said this to a bored and tired (he was two hours late) afternoon crowd in Safidon and brought it to life. It’s a line Baba Ramdev, born in a village close by, would have loved to steal.
Hooda knows the pulse of modern Haryana. He talks about how it is becoming a national education hub with an IIM, fashion technology, hotel management and law institutes and medical colleges. If I were a young Haryanvi, though, I would ask him why, while he celebrated the arrival of the finest Central institutions, he was ruining the brand value of his own state’s by naming them after sundry babas, gurus and forgotten politicians.
The once well-respected Rohtak Medical College is now a post-graduate centre, but named after former chief minister Bhagwat Dayal Sharma (just who’s he, if I am under 35?). Its well-funded new university is named after Maharshi Dayanand and while I have to be careful in the heartland of the Arya Samaj, this isn’t a gurukul, for heaven’s sake. The old and reputed Haryana Agricultural University is now named after Chaudhary Charan Singh and a new one in science and technology at Hissar after Guru Jambheshwar, who must have been a wonderful preacher or mystic or gyani. But science and technology? There is a Baba Mastnath University at Asthal Bohar outside Rohtak.
Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology at Murthal, the big dhaba stop on G.T. Road, and the Bhagat Phool Singh Mahila Vishwavidyalaya. “Ye honge toh sab mahaan aadmi, sir,” rise protesting voices in a group I chat with on the outskirts of Jind, “but when we walk around with degrees from institutions like these, log sochenge hum chholey dey kar degree laaye.” Now this is untranslatable, how do you explain what a Haryanvi means when he complains it may look like he got his degree in exchange for parched gram. But you get the drift. You want some such brand name on the tee from your alma mater?
ASHOK ARYA, a prominent Youth Congress worker (son of a former minister) drives me in his Mahindra XUV along the region’s jugular, the Hansi branch of the wide, frequently brick-lined canal that hauls the sparkling blue-green Sutlej waters to what used to be one of the more arid zones in the north and is now transformed into a grain bowl. The wheat is now ripe. Its golden sheen stretches endlessly in the soft, early-evening sun.
Ashok points at more evidence of this change, as the monotony of ripe, dwarf hybrid wheat is broken not just by an occasional clump of sugarcane, but also two kinds of walls that represent somewhat unfamiliar shades of architecture. There are poultry farms, a poultry-feed factory, and then, grain warehouses. In rapidly prospering Haryana, he tells me, the children of land-owning farmers no longer want to work on the farms.
But they are still living off their farmland, only even better than before. There’s been a poultry boom in what is largely a vegetarian state and it reminds me of my friend Neelkanth Mishra, India equity strategist at Credit Suisse, saying how more jobs have been created by poultry in recent years than any other new business. But the other walls, of grain warehouses, underline the new phenomenon of farmers building these on their land, making use of the interest-free government loans and guaranteed 10-year business.
“You know, sir, in our country, 80 per cent of the grain lies in the open. So there is always need for more warehouses,” Ashok says. But who will do the farming, grow food for us, I ask. The answer is the old one: the landless farmers and labourers. They are willing to take your land on contract, and pay you a decent rent while they farm and grow. All along the highways, patches of land are being contracted out to farmers who specialise in growing vegetables for which demand in cities, particularly Delhi, is insatiable.
You can easily get a lakh per acre as rent for land used for vegetables, Ashok says. That is almost two and a half times what you will make from your conventional crops in a year. And this is risk-free too. An even greater prosperity, howsoever revolting you may find it, comes from land acquisition. The price is now good. Most families use part of the money to buy a house, even a small apartment in a nearby city and at least one son from the family shifts there, to help educate his siblings and their children as well — in English medium. Ashok shows me the evidence of change: every day, he responds to 100-150 of his young, rural constituents on WhatsApp. Young Haryanvis want WiFi in their homes, not NREGA. In fact, it is difficult to find farm labour even at Rs 300 a day in Haryana and in peak season, it goes to Rs 600-700 per day. A simpler way to explain how prosperity changes attitudes is to say that just when Punjab is tiring and flagging, Haryana is taking its place. A new Haryanvi machismo and urbanisation-fuelled hedonism is on the rise. Haryana rules India not just in contact sports: boxing, wrestling, but also in many others. Don’t forget that Saina Nehwal is a Haryanvi as well. Its boys and girls are now breaking into modelling and Bollywood. And inherited good looks can certainly be made better. So three boom industries in Haryana: cosmetic dentists, cosmetic surgery and, most original of all, DJ “academies”. Any celebration now needs a DJ and it takes only three weeks for you to learn and you are always in demand. In Rohtak, I find an entire mall’s front lit up by a nursing home offering hair transplant as well as hair reduction, tattoo removal, botox, tummy tuck, acne and burn scar removal, and male breast reduction. Elsewhere, you have smile clinics. There must be a market for all of these to exist.
I walk around villages, including Makrauli Khurd, where I spent two weeks as an NSS volunteer in 1973, trying to help dig a water channel in the middle of the college summer vacation, but now to seek an answer to the question that’s been assailing me for almost three years now, starting with the Bihar elections.
Why is Rahul Gandhi not catching the fancy of India’s youth? Why, on the other hand, is there even some kind of an anti-Rahul wave among the young? You caught it in Rajasthan during the recent assembly elections, in Uttar Pradesh before that, and in Bihar earlier. One reason, I now figure, is that there is a wide gap between what he is saying and what is on his younger audience’s minds. “The only thing he keeps telling us is that he will give us cheap food and reform the Congress party,” goes the clamour as I gather a small, young crowd at a mobile repair shop.
“Main bolya bhai (I said, brother), taine agar apni party theek karni hai toh kar le (if you want to fix your party, go ahead by all means), mere pe kya ahsan hai, main uske liye tere ko vote kyon doon? Apni party waalon se le le (but why should I vote for you then, is it a favour to me? Ask your partymen for votes) . Mere liye jab kuchch karega toh vote mangiye, main teri party ka thoda hoon (when you do something for me, come to me for my vote. I am not your party man),” says Sandip Singh Tokas, who doesn’t come from a particularly large land-owning family.
So after plus-two, he is not going to a college but to a polytechnic so he can start working. You want to see change, come and see the two-in-one campus of HSM institute at Pathri, in district Panipat, on the road to Gohana. Two-in-one because one half of it is an international school, for the children of the richer farmers. And the other half a polytechnic, for those like young Tokas.
No wonder the language Rahul speaks to them goes right over their heads.
The young see Rahul as representing too many traits they detest: a sense of entitlement, shyness to take responsibility (mantri ban ke kyon nahin dikhaya?), indifference to Parliament and, surprise of surprises, disrespect to elders. It is not as if all the young Haryanvis exactly follow the Arya Samajist diktats on obediently respecting their elders. But they do not want their leaders to tear ordinances in public and walk off haughtily while their prime minister is overseas. I know those who know Rahul will protest, that he is not like this. To the extent that I know him, I would agree. But in the market of votes and public opinion, perceptions matter, and as marketeers say, never argue with the customer, she is always right. At Modi’s rallies in Haryana too, the loudest cheer goes up when he talks about the tearing of the ordinance, laced with his own mirch-masala, of course, and reminds people of how “shehzada” grew up with a golden spoon in his pocket, while he grew up selling tea at a railway station. This cuts devastatingly with younger audiences. Rahul and his handlers, if they so wish, can watch YouTube videos of Modi’s speeches, notably in Jhajjar this week. It will still be too late to reset his message for this election, but there is also a future. In most parts of this aspirational, impatient country now, people do not vote for you because you feel for them, however deeply in your heart you may feel it.
UNLESS you feel sorry for the richest in Haryana, and with good reason. Yogendra Yadav of the AAP, contesting in Gurgaon, gets it right when he tells you this is a funny state where the richest are the most helpless. The upper crust in Gurgaon has nowhere to go, he says, as we hop on to his open jeep, the only people minus the white caps in that mobile throng on his road-show. They pay crores for their apartments, but have no idea where to go to redress what. Infrastructure is bloody awful and no civic governance. Nobody knows who does what, except that everybody knows where and how to get change of land use, he says.
But he’s got problems. He is probably the most soft-spoken candidate in this entire election, but his party’s agenda is furiously angry. Kejriwal’s hoardings across the state say, Ambani ki godi, ek taraf Rahul, doosri taraf Modi, and the faces that stare down from them are those of Chandrashekhar Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. The David of the 2014 campaign has chosen his own Goliath, and it is neither of the two major rivals but a corporate, an outsider of sorts in the contest. It impresses neither the prospering farmer, nor the resident of a Gurgaon highrise, who is more likely than not to have the Reliance scrip in his mutual funds, if not his demat account. Yadav complains about the media.
How the owner of a major Hindi paper (Ashwini Chopra of Punjab Kesari) is the BJP candidate from Karnal, how two others are black-balling them. It is tempting to remind him that the AAP may be feeling ignored by the media because many of the friends it had embedded there have joined the party now. But you can’t say any such thing to Yadav, by far the most liberal face of India’s angriest party since the rise of the Naxalites.
He does not appeal to caste loyalties. He is from hereabouts and Ahir, his caste, dominates the constituency. His main rival, Rao Inderjit Singh, is an Ahir too. He takes his secular, liberal face to conservative Muslim Mewat, which holds more than one-third of Gurgaon’s voters. He tells them his parents had nicknamed him Salim even though their parents had been killed by Muslims. Whether it works or not, is too early for a mere reporter to say, though Yadav says his own survey tells him he has a 3 per cent lead over his nearest rival. Who are we to argue with him on psephology?
But any which way, identity politics is slowly on its way out in heavily caste-ridden, allegedly khap panchayat-ruled but urbanising Haryana. Kids who are 15 or so now, says Ashok Arya, will be very different from all of us four years later, given the exposure they have had. They will also vote very differently from not just their parents, but even older siblings like me, he says. This year will have Haryana’s last elections (assembly in this October) where identity will play a role.
At Safidon, Rajkumar Mittal, who heads the mandi’s Vyapari Mandal, puts it more colourfully, as a real Haryanvi should. “Aaj ka naujawan, sir, kaam ka bhooka hai, chaam ka bhooka nahin.” I think, for a moment that he means jaam, as in a peg of whisky, tharra or rum, until he explains that he said “chaam”, literally the skin, and when you translate from Yogendra Yadav’s — and my — home state’s Hindi, it means identity in his world of academia and mine of journalism. It is a reckless prediction to make. But this is written on the walls of this election-year Haryana.