THE DAY WAS September 25, 1989. The venue, Boat Club, in the heart of Delhi. The occasion, Chaudhary Devi Lal’s 75th birthday celebrations. The guests, leaders from across the political spectrum in the country, who came together in a grand show of Opposition strength, seeking to overthrow the Rajiv Gandhi-led government that had come to power with a majority that remains the highest ever in India.
Thirty-three years later, it was no coincidence that Devi Lal’s eldest son Om Prakash Chautala hoped to invoke that same September feeling, by organising a joint Opposition rally, on Devi Lal’s birthday, at Fatehabad in Haryana on Sunday.
The battle this time is not just to fight the equally strong BJP led by Narendra Modi but to also save the INLD, as Devi Lal’s party is called now, which is under pressure from not just rivals and former partymen. Chautala even said as much, announcing that the Indian National Lok Dal would repeat history, and stitch together a conglomerate of Opposition parties to take on the BJP in the 2024 general elections.
At the 1989 rally, when V P Singh, the man the then Opposition was projecting as the future prime minister, presented Devi Lal with a green turban – the colour of Devi Lal’s party, connecting it to its support base, the farmers — the crowds that had erupted in a near frenzy.
Other leaders then approached the Jat chieftain one by one, presenting their “gifts”. The scion of another farmer dynasty, Ajit Singh, gifted him a bouquet, Janata Dal leader Ramakrishna Hegde and the BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee gave him shawls, TDP supremo N T Rama Rao had a garland, BJP stalwart Vijaya Raje Scindia brought a coconut, Congress rebel Chandra Shekhar a memento, and the Akali Dal’s S S Barnala and Jagjit Singh Aurora a sword.
For the audience, there was no doubt that they were witnessing a unity being forged, leading up to virtual “anointment” of Devi Lal as the new leader of the country. Nor did they doubt that anyone else deserved the crown more, given Devi Lal’s crowd-pulling abilities, popularity among the farmers, and the regard with which senior leaders across parties held him.
There were overt as well as simmering differences among the leaders on the stage that day, which also included other Congress dissidents such as Maneka Gandhi, Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammed Khan. Some even insisted that a birthday celebration should not be turned into a political event, but they all had one common aim — that Rajiv Gandhi must go.
After the ragtag mix of Janata Dal outfits and the BJP did manage to defeat Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 elections, though, there was a twist. V P Singh pipped Devi Lal to the post of prime ministership. An outsmarted Devi Lal had to be content with Deputy PM, a post he retained through the short lived V P Singh government of 1989-91 and the lameduck regime of Chandra Shekhar, who had his brief glory as PM supported – in a great irony — by the Congress.
At the Fatehabad rally held on Sunday, while many descendants of the political thoughts represented by the 1989 gathering were in attendance – including Nitish Kumar, Sharad Pawar, Sukhbir Badal, Tejashwi Yadav and Sitaram Yechury – Chautala’s son Abhay Chautala read out messages from those who could not come.
Almost everybody recalled the legacy and contribution of Devi Lal in their speeches, particularly in bringing together Opposition leaders. The Akali Dal’s Badal said he and the INLD were “inseparable”; the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav recalled Devi Lal’s strong association with his father Lalu Prasad; JD(U) supremo Nitish Kumar called Devi Lal “an inspiration”; CPM general secretary Yechury praised Devi Lal for conceding the PM post to V P Singh, urging everybody to learn from such “principles in politics”. Nitish said he had also “invited the Congress” to be part of this grand alliance.
However, while the BJP at top is almost as strong and omnipotent as the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress was then, Chautala is no Devi Lal. The INLD has been continuously sliding since 2005, with its vote share down to 2.45% in the 2019 Assembly elections from 24.11% five years earlier. In the 90-member Assembly, the INLD had 19 MLAs in 2014 but barely one in 2019. Similarly, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the INLD got 1.89% of the votes, an astounding decline from 22.51% in 2014.
The biggest gainer has been the BJP, which got as many as 58.02% of the votes in Haryana in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls (winning all 10 seats in the state), nearly doubling its tally of 23.32% in 2014.