The release from prison of Ajay Chautala, after serving his 10-year term in a teachers’ recruitment scam, is expected to come as a big boost for the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP).
While son Dushyant had led the party to 10 seats in the 2019 Assembly elections, putting it in the position of kingmaker and getting him a seat in the BJP-led government as Deputy Chief Minister, JJP leaders said it was Ajay who was the “guiding light” of the fledgling party.
Earlier, family patriarch Om Prakash Chautala, jailed on the same charges, came out of prison seven months ago.
A lot has changed in the 10 years that the two Chautalas were in jail. The INLD that Chautala inherited from father and former deputy prime minister Devi Lal is now a divided house. Ajay and his two sons are the JJP, while the INLD is now led by Chautala’s younger son Abhay.
In October 2018, Chautala had himself stepped in after there was open rebellion from supporters of Dushyant and brother Digvijay at a rally. However, his condemnation of “the gross act of indiscipline” had not stopped the split. Dushyant and Digvijay were expelled, followed by Ajay when he sided with his sons. Less than a month later, Ajay announced the JJP. On August 31, 2020, while out on parole, he was named its national president.
There have been other changes in Haryana’s political landscape, with the Congress no longer the formidable party it was and the BJP still strong despite the year-long farmer protests. Though they continue to be allies, the JJP had to walk the tightrope over the protests, and the ties between it and the BJP have been strained.
It is in this space that Ajay, who has been dabbling in politics since the 1980s, steps in. He has been a two-time MLA from Rajasthan (1989, 1993), a Lok Sabha MP (1999), a Rajya Sabha MP (2004), as well as an MLA from Dabwali in Sirsa in Haryana (2009). After he got arrested, his wife Naina won an MLA election on the INLD ticket.
Party leaders say that from behind bars, Ajay continued to pull the strings to ensure the JJP got a footing. It was his call primarily to tie up with the Aam Aadmi Party for the 10 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, in a 7:3 formula. After the party won 10 seats in the Assembly polls, sources said, Dushyant met Ajay in Tihar Jail, and it was again on Ajay’s nod that the deal with the BJP was signed.
Ajay has been out of jail several times since on grounds including studies, medical reasons and social obligations, and has met party workers.
Soon after his release, Digvijay tweeted, “Freedom is priceless”. He also talked about Ajay’s advice that had kept them going. “Your continuous presence will be a much needed blessing and support Pitaji. You are our hero,” tweeted Dushyant.
All eyes will now be on the JJP’s role in elections in neighbouring Punjab. So far, the JJP has refrained from campaigning for its ally BJP, though Chautala has already campaigned for his longtime friend Prakash Singh Badal and the Akali Dal at several places in Punjab.
While Ajay stands barred from contesting any polls for the next six years as per rules, sources said he is “very keen” on contesting the 2024 Assembly or Lok Sabha polls. Speaking to The Indian Express, he expressed his relief at the end of the “unnecessary hardships, mental as well as physical” caused to him. “As far as contesting the next polls is concerned, we shall abide by the law, explore possibilities as per the law.”