On a whirlwind tour of his constituency, Garhi Sampla-Kiloi, former Haryana chief minister and Congress candidate Bhupinder Singh Hooda repeatedly asks voters to give him a victory margin bigger than that of Chief Minister M L Khattar in Karnal.
Asked about reason behind such an appeal, Hooda says with a smile, “Because the contest is between myself and him.”
Outside his Rohtak bastion, too, Hooda does not take the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi or talk about national issues.
Fighting perhaps the toughest battle of his life, the veteran Congressman, a two-time chief minister, has framed the election as one between his record against that of Khattar’s. He talks about schemes he had implemented and counts the “failures” of the Khattar government.
While the BJP is attempting to swing the elections in both Haryana and Maharashtra riding on issues of nationalism — Article 370, Balakot airstrikes, etc — Hooda, seeking election from Garhi Sampla-Kiloi for the fifth time, deftly avoids the minefield.
On way from his home at D-Park, Rohtak city, to Jassia village to address the day’s first election meeting at 9.15 am, the Congress leader tells The Indian Express, “Why should I talk of Modi or bring up issues such as Balakot or Article 370 (at rallies)? I will then fall in the BJP’s trap. My stand on Article 370 is widely known. It is no more an issue; it has become the law of the land. No one is opposing it. The only thing is that peace should be restored in Kashmir.”
There is, however, a tinge of disappointment in his voice when he says the Congress high command took inordinately long in announcing the leadership change in Haryana.
“There is no doubt that there was a delay in taking the decision (appointing Hooda CLP leader), but better late than never…. Once the decision cane, our workers are fighting hard. We have to look forward now,” Hooda says.
The veteran believes the tide is slowly turning against the ruling BJP in the state. Asked whether he is getting enough support from the party high command, with Sonia and Rahul addressing only one rally each, he says, “The message has to go to the people. Even if they address one rally or 10 rallies, the message will spread.”
In his speeches at Jassia, and later at Kiloi and Bohar villages, Hooda sticks to local issues, promising, among others, waiver of farm loan debt, halving electricity rates, increasing scholarship, free plots to the poor, unemployment allowance to the youth, and Rs 5,100 old-age pension for men and women. Debt waiver, he emphasises, will be the first order passed if the Congress is voted in.
“The issues in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections are different. The Khattar government has not fulfilled any of the 154 promises it had made. This is a failed and non-performing government,” he says, and argues that response from the people is beyond his expectation.
He looks at history to see the future: “Remember 2009. We got nine out of 10 seats (from Haryana) in Lok Sabha, and INLD was nowhere. In Assembly elections months later, it got 32 seats…looks like the Congress will form the government with absolute majority (after October 21 polling).”
From Jassia, he moves to Kiloi, about 14 km away. As Hooda is about to reach Kiloi, his PSO calls and says that former state Congress chief Ashok Tanwar has backed Dushyant Chautala and his JJP, an offshoot of the INLD. “A press conference is going on in New Delhi,” he is informed.
An unfazed Hooda says, “What impact will it make? Nothing. A person who has resigned from the party membership is free to go anywhere and support anyone.”
At Kiloi, Hooda is welcomed by a huge group of youths. As the convoy passes through the tiny paved lanes of the village, he says, “I got made all these roads. What has the BJP done for these villagers?”
A large number of women line up on both sides of the narrow lane to greet him. Asked their choice of candidate, they reply promptly: “yo khada saamne (there, he is standing in front of you).” And why not Modi or Khattar? Their reply — “why should we vote for a Punjabi? Apna toh apna hi hove hai (our own, after all, is ours)” — reveals how people in rural Haryana are still more connected with their leaders on caste equations.