Two hundred and sixty-six kilometres separate his two identities. In Delhi, his is a name seeped in controversy and taken in whispers, a man accused of abetting the suicide of an air-hostess who worked in his airline. In Sirsa, Gopal Goyal Kanda is a millionaire, philanthropist, religious head, leader of a political party, and the local MLA. Geetika Sharma finds no mention, except in rivals’ campaigns.
For most of the drive between Delhi and Sirsa that cuts through Haryana’s green fields, there is very little to suggest Kanda or his Haryana Lokhit Party is a significant presence in the elections. It is only in Hisar that the first signs appear. The scribble of a kite, the party’s symbol, his name next to it, begins to emerge with increasing regularity on the walls of homes. And in Sirsa, the massive billboards begin. “Baar baar diya sabko baari, ab dekhe Kanda ki yaari,” they say.
A lot in Sirsa city speaks of Kanda’s stature. On the outskirts, his home is called the kutiya, or hut, but it resembles a fort that forbids entry. The palace has 14 bedrooms, they say. He once owned a shoe shop in Sirsa marketplace. That now is the camp office of his party. “In this city, everything owned by Kanda sahib is a landmark. Rickshaw driver to crorepati, everyone knows who he is,” said Raghubir Dangar, an HLP worker.
At the camp office on a Thursday morning, there are close to 500 people. On the walls are huge posters. Kanda’s brother Govind, a party leader, smiles down from one side. The other has a garlanded photograph of their late father Murli Dhar, and another of Gopal Kanda’s son Lakh Ram waving at a crowd. The only non-family poster is of the late Tara Baba, the local religious guru, who named Kanda as his heir, giving him immense influence in the area.
In one corner are rows of computers, and queues of young men who have come to join the party. “I came in the morning to get medicines for my son. For the past five years, since he became an independent MLA, this office has given out free medicine, and also a chit you can take to a doctor for a free checkup. You get food and water any time of the day, and children get books to study. All of this is funded by Kandaji. Today, none of this is available because of the model code of conduct. But there is a queue for membership, and I have joined. Maybe if I don’t, they won’t give me medicines in future,” said farmer Ashawant Singh, pointing at a cluster of people.
There, amid a group of 50 men, is Gopal Kanda. This is his first day back in Sirsa after a week’s absence. On the table in front of him are three large smartphones. His right wrist has a shiny bracelet. The watch dangling from it is a Rolex. On the lapel of his orange jacket is a pin shaped like a kite, its rim encrusted with diamonds. Several in the surrounding group have come only to take a photograph, with Kanda flashing a smile.
Others have come with problems, whispering into his ear. They are directed to people waiting at the side. Every piece of paper brought before him is read and encouraging words are spoken. His audience, though, seems only of men. There is one woman, but she is carried to the table by her husband, in gratitude for a knee operation funded by Kanda last month.
“This is why he is so popular here. He flew from Gurgaon to Sirsa in his helicopter and since then he has been among the people. When the model code is not in place, he often gives out gifts just to make people happy. In one corner of this office, people can drop off cards for their weddings or even to say family members are unwell. If he is in Sirsa, he visits them all. Anyone can meet him. There is no filter for religion or caste,” said a party worker who takes charge of people’s petitions.
But he said nothing of gender. “Women too can come, but here the tradition is that the men come to speak for them. Women and children too come; look there,” he said, pointing at a queue with a banner over it that announces, “Mahilaein”. “They come to take membership. But yes, very few go to Kanda sahib. That is a job for men.”
In a place where women seem to be filtered out from those expected to communicate for themselves, Geetika Sharma means very little. Most people, possibly feigning ignorance, suggested they didn’t know who she was. Some referred to her as “Woh Dilli wali?” but added nothing. Shivam Singh, a college student who is a volunteer for the HLP, was the only one who seemed willing to talk. “I’ve read about Geetika Sharma and her suicide. But why blame Kanda? She must have led him on, and then something must have happened. You tell me, is he accused of murdering her? Yeh abetment to suicide bakwaas hai. When Tara Baba died, he anointed Kanda. He would only do that if he believed Kanda was a good man.”
Seeking a reelection, Kanda himself is enormously confident of victory. Sitting in a saree shop, Kanda said, “You have seen my popularity here. I have always tried to help people and constantly meet them. For one month, I will not move out of Sirsa and campaign from here. Idhar koi competition nahin hai.” Asked about rivals using Geetika’s suicide as a weapon, Kanda only smiled. An aide said, “Let them say. The people of Sirsa know the truth.”
The HLP is contesting all 90 seats but insiders admit it is realistically looking only at playing kingmaker in case there is no clear majority, a role Kanda played in the last assembly polls.
Kanda’s competition is Makhanlal Dhingra of the INLD, and five-time MLA Sunita Setia, no pushovers. Setia jumped ship from the Congress to the BJP in June,a and is banking on support for Narendra Modi. Both candidates have often used the Geetika suicide volubly in their campaigns.
But even Ram Pal Singh, sitting outside Setia’s BJP office with a lotus badge pinned on his chest, admits how little that counts for. “We use it in the campaign but everyone knows that is not what will defeat Kanda. He will lose only if people realise that he only gives away gifts, and does no work. Geetika Sharma does not matter here.”