Balram Jakhar, 92, once the Jat face of the Congress, was an imposing personality. Former Union minister Natwar Singh described him Wednesday as a “towering figure”. He was indeed so, even literally speaking. His stout, 6.5-foot frame could dwarf most people standing next to him.
Tales around his height are part of political folklore. When he travelled, his hosts would feel called upon to arrange for a seven-foot bed. The Madhya Pradesh government had to arrange for a bed his size not only at Raj Bhawan but also at guesthouses where he stayed during his tours as governor between 2004 and 2009. Then chief minister Babulal Gaur found it a bit difficult to reach Jakhar’s forehead while applying a tilak on his arrival in Bhopal. And when Jakhar once went to Kargil as part of a Congress team and inspected bunkers shelled by the Pakistan Army, one of his colleagues noted they could all crawl into it, but Jakhar stood no chance for his face would keep sticking out.
Born at Panchkosi village of Ferozepur, Punjab, Jakhar was equally at ease with English, Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Punjabi. A progressive horticulturist who owned large tracts of farmland, he was given the Udyan Pandit award by the President in 1975.
His political career peaked as the Lok Sabha Speaker from 1980 to 1989. However, his reputation came under a cloud in 1989 after he landed in what came to be known as the fodder machine scandal, first reported by The Indian Express. It concerned the import of 50 fodder-making machines by Mumbai-based Sanjeevani Fodder Productions Pvt Ltd from Spain’s Fometa Overseas SA. Sanjeevani was awarded an extraordinary customs duty exemption in 1987, the reason cited being that the machines were to be donated to Bharat Krishak Samaj — sponsored by the Congress and headed by Jakhar all his life. The fact was that Sanjeevani had hypothecated the machines to various state finance bodies and taken loans totalling Rs 3.74 crore in foreign exchange; it remained the owner of the machines. The Indian Express had reported that Sanjeevani had smuggled in six extra machines and sold five of these to government institutions. Jakhar had written letters recommending the machines to various CMs and was instrumental in ensuring their customs duty exemption.
Jakhar lost in the Lok Sabha elections that followed in 1989. He came back in 1991 and became agriculture minister in P V Narasimha Rao’s cabinet.
He had been a member of the Punjab assembly from 1972 to 1980, among the survivors of the 1977 Janata wave. He entered the Lok Sabha from Ferozepur in 1980, then from Sikar in 1984, 1991 and 1998. He became a party general secretary in 1990 and a member of the CWC in 1992. He gradually got sidelined, though the party propped his sons Sajjan and Sunil in Punjab politics. He was made the MP governor in 2004. He lost another son, Surinder, chairman of IFFCO, in unclear circumstances — one version was that Surinder accidentally shot himself, another was that he committed suicide.
Jakhar had a huge standing among the Jat peasantry and won numerous elections, defeating even Devi Lal in the Sikar constituency. Even when the Congress had to phase him out, it was not able to find a suitable replacement.