October 24—the vote count for the Haryana assembly has just started. The strapping Dushyant Chautala, chief of the Jananayak Janata Party (JJP) he founded 10 months ago, told aides Amarjeet Dhanda and Dinesh Dagar the “key to form the new government” will be in his hands. Hours on, the 31-year-old great-grandson of former deputy prime minister Devi Lal was dot on. It’s a hung verdict and the JJP’s 10 seats in the 90-member assembly made him the kingmaker with two clear choices—a truck with the BJP he had acerbically attacked before the polls, or go with the Congress that had dismissed his overtures for a pre-poll alliance.
The numbers were with the BJP—40 seats, six shy of a simple majority. Plus, unconditional support of seven independent legislators, including Dushyant’s estranged grand-uncle Ranjit Chautala. The Congress—31 seats—would fall short even with the JJP’s support. With an assurance of being made deputy CM and a common minimum programme that would accommodate the JJP’s main promises on its manifesto, Dushyant sided with the BJP. Sources say his closeness to junior Union finance minister Anurag Thakur—the two are neighbours in Lutyen’s Delhi—helped in the talks with the BJP.
For Dushyant, the meteoric rise from a BSc student at California State University with an avid interest in sports (boxing and basketball) a decade ago to a debutante Lok Sabha member in 2014 and a deputy CM now hasn’t been one that dynasts from political families usually take for granted.
Dushyant and younger brother Digvijay were suspended on October 19 last year from the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the party Devi Lal founded in October 1996. The suspension letter came from uncle, Abhay Chautala, and with the approval of Dushyant’s grandfather and former Haryana CM Om Prakash Chautala. Rumours of a rift in the Chautala clan—Abhay leading a faction and elder brother Ajay’s family (Ajay and Om Prakash are currently serving a 10-year-jail term in a teacher recruitment scam) steering another—were rife for several months before Dushyant and Digvijay were suspended.
The tipping point came at a public meeting in Gohana town on October 7 to mark the 105th birth anniversary of Devi Lal. A large section of INLD’s youth cadre booed Abhay, shouted zindabad slogans for Dushyant and Digvijay. When Om Prakash Chautala—out on furlough from Tihar Jail—reached the venue, he publicly chastised his grandsons, making it clear that he wanted the party’s reins to stay with Abhay.
After the Gohana rally, Abhay dissolved the INLD’s youth and student wings that Dushyant and Digvijay led. On December 9, with mother Naina Chautala (also an MLA), wife Meghna and Digvijay by his side and a staggering five lakh supporters in attendance—a majority of them Jats, the core vote base of the Chautalas—and several INLD rebels, Dushyant announced the formation of JJP at a rally in Jind district.
The JJP’s first electoral challenge came soon after in the Jind assembly bypoll. Dushyant fielded Digvijay, who lost but finished a close second to the BJP nominee and way ahead of Congress stalwart Randeep Singh Surjewala and the INLD candidate. During the Lok Sabha polls this summer, Dushyant had an alliance with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for Haryana’s 10 seats. But he drew a blank—Dushyant lost Hisar, Digvijay crashed in Sonipat. “Dushyant immediately began strategising for the assembly polls. He toured the state extensively and identified constituencies, where the JJP had a real chance of winning. A majority of our candidates were political greenhorns. But Dushyant’s outreach helped the JJP bag a 25 per cent vote share in its first assembly election. The INLD was reduced to just two per cent and a single MLA (Abhay),” says Ram Kumar Gautam, the JJP’s Narnaund MLA.
Dushyant spent long sessions identifying issues that resonated with the masses. Young JJP workers, sporting white T-shirts with an image of the party chief and captioned Team Dushyant, canvassed for votes. Teams of women went on door-to-door, urging housewives and college girls to vote the JJP. Promises of 75 per cent reservation in state government jobs for Haryanvi youths, substantial hike in old-age pension and a war on crime against women were repeated endlessly.
He chose the rough road—contesting from Uchana Kalan; fielding mother Naina from Badhra, a tough constituency. Dushyant defeated BJP legislator Prem Lata Singh, wife of BJP heavyweight and old Chautala-rival Birender Singh. Naina trounced Congress stalwart and former BCCI president Ranbir Singh Mahendra. The electoral risks he took, say JJP leaders, is characteristic of the 6-feet-4-inch tall Jat leader.
A confidante says Dushyant has consciously tried to “build an image that was the very antithesis of most INLD leaders”. While INLD leaders of the past, including members of the Chautala clan, “were seen as arrogant and uninterested in carrying out their duties as elected representatives, Dushyant focused on performance,” he claims. And how? Well, Dushyant the MP asked over 650 questions—subjects as varied as agrarian crisis and cyber crime—and participated in every debate during the 16th Lok Sabha’s term.
Another JJP leader says: “Personally he is a reserved person, but Dushyant’s doors are always open to supporters. He greets everyone with folded hands and bows before elders. He is fluent in English, Hindi and Haryanvi and is well educated (bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in law).”
Dushyant’s decision to ally with the BJP has, expectedly, triggered discordant notes, particularly from the state’s Jat voters who had largely shunned CM Manohar Lal Khattar’s party in the assembly polls. Also, Congress leaders Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Kumari Selja called the JJP’s move a “betrayal of the Haryanvi people”.
But a top JJP leader says the choice was borne out of compulsion, rather than greed for power. “The JJP is a new party. Dushyant has to build on the impressive gains he has made within 10 months of forming his party. If he chose to sit in the Opposition, he ran the risk of having his MLAs poached by the BJP much like Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Haryana Janhit Congress suffered at the hands of the Congress in 2009. As part of the government, Dushyant can keep the pressure up for the BJP to have the JJP’s manifesto promises fulfilled,” he explains.
Will Dushyant tide over the discontent? Will he be booed for the betrayal? The answer is awaited. For now, his stars are in alignment. Uncle Abhay, who had dismissed the JJP as “bachcha party”, must be ruing his own comeuppance. Is he wondering if he should merge the INLD with the JJP?