The Jat patriarch

Print edition : April 28, 2001
Devi Lal, 1914-2001.

CHAUDHARY DEVI LAL, who died on April 6 at the age of 86, was a player of substance on the national political scene. His biggest accomplishments were compressed within the relatively short span of four years. He scaled the peak of political eminence in 1989 when he became Deputy Prime Minister in only the third non-Congress government at the Centre. A period of prickly contention ensued, mostly involving the political fortunes of his son Om Prakash Chautala.

In a dynastic anointment that has since become almost routine practice, Devi Lal had ensured that his son was sworn in Chief Minister of Haryana even as he himself vacated the office to assume his new post at the Centre. This was perceived as a minor irritant in the otherwise buoyant atmosphere that greeted the assumption of office by the V.P. Singh Ministry. But Chautala's effort to seal his dynastic inheritance through a byelection was tarnished by large-scale violence and allegations of serious improprieties. Devi Lal's chosen political heir was forced to step down as Chief Minister on the implicit understanding that once the air was cleared he would be honourably restored to the job.


However, Devi Lal was too impatient to allow the course of prudence to prevail. In recognition of his political importance, V.P. Singh in July 1990 tacitly agreed that there could be no objection in principle to giving Chautala an important position within the ruling Janata Dal. Devi Lal interpreted this compact rather broadly, and with little further ceremony or consultation induced the incumbent Chief Minister to make way for his son.

That was to prove one of the shortest of chief ministerial tenures - all of five days. V.P. Singh was pilloried by the press and his party colleagues for succumbing to Devi Lal's pressure tactics. The Prime Minister in turn denied that he had ever assented to Chautala's reappointment and, in deep moral turmoil, handed in his resignation to the Janata Dal president. Not quite eight months old, the Janata Dal Ministry was plunged into disarray. It was only restored to some semblance of order by Chautala's second resignation.

Devi Lal was piqued and responded with a broadside against the Cabinet colleagues who had stridently opposed Chautala. By now a more confident and assertive Prime Minister thanks to the unequivocal support he had received from his party, V.P. Singh quickly had his recalcitrant deputy evicted from office.

Devi Lal then remained sullenly in the background as the nation was buffeted by the twin political storms of the Mandal Commission and the Ayodhya mobilisation. When the Janata Dal, the party he was instrumental in founding, faced its deepest political crisis after being voted out of power by an unlikely combine of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), he chose to walk out in association with his newly discovered ally Chandra Shekhar. He was again appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture. But his fortunes were distinctly waning as the Chandra Shekhar government, abjectly dependent on the Congress(I), meandered without goal or purpose towards the mid-term elections of 1991.

Contesting from Rohtak constituency of Haryana in 1991, which he had won by close to 200,000 votes less than two years earlier, Devi Lal suffered the first of three consecutive defeats. The Jat patriarch had suffered a precipitate descent in public esteem. The brief years of glory were decidedly at an end.

Devi Lal had swept to power in the Haryana Assembly elections of 1987, recapturing the chief ministerial chair that had been taken away from him by the internal manoeuvres of the Janata Party in 1979 and then by gubernatorial manipulation in 1982. Equally, he had capitalised on the growing restiveness of the peasantry at the direction of economic policy, and the insecurities engendered by the militancy in neighbouring Punjab. His breathtaking triumph, at a time when the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi commanded a brute majority in the Lok Sabha and looked invincible, propelled him to the front ranks of national politics, making him a natural focus of the efforts then under way to fashion an alternative to the Congress(I).

In the 1989 Lok Sabha elections Devi Lal contested not merely his home seat of Rohtak but also Sikar in Rajasthan in a frontal challenge to Congress(I) heavyweight Balram Jakhar for the putative leadership of the Jat community. He won both, seemingly securing his position as the authentic voice of the rising peasantry.

Assessments of Devi Lal's early career have gone by the established master narrative of Indian political biography, in speaking of how he responded to the call of Mahatma Gandhi and "plunged into the freedom struggle" at a young age. These versions may have an element of truth in them, but Devi Lal himself left little room for doubt that the template of political authenticity for him lay elsewhere - in the agrarian, cross-communal politics of Chotu Ram and Sikantar Hayat Khan. This was a political idiom to which Devi Lal retained a remarkable fidelity all through his life, though it always put him at odds with the urban interest groups which tended quite naturally to coalesce under the umbrella of the Arya Samaj and later the Jan Sangh.

Devi Lal's first innings as Chief Minister, following the Janata Party's sweep of the northern region in 1977, was cut short in 1979. In the faction fights that erupted within the Janata Party, he had to make way for somebody more acceptable to the Jan Sangh. This was one among many chief ministerial switches effected in the major States - notably in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar - that fuelled apprehensions within the Janata Party that the Jan Sangh group was gaining disproportionately in influence.

Devi Lal joined Chaudhary Charan Singh, then the acknowledged leader and spokesman of the Jat peasantry, in challenging this insidious growth of the Jan Sangh's clout. But he was for long unable to turn his undoubted grassroots appeal to electoral advantage. Despite emerging the leader of the largest single party in the 1982 Assembly elections, he was done out of the Chief Minister's post by intrigues hatched by the Indira Gandhi government and the Haryana Governor. The image of Devi Lal belabouring Governor G.D. Tapase for his treachery is perhaps an enduring memory of his political personality - blunt, aggressive and plain-spoken.

At the same time, he possessed a disarming charm and honesty. In his last electoral contest in 1998 he fell short by just over 300 votes. But the people of Haryana were beginning to warm to the patriarch who had been affectionately bestowed the title of tau. In 1999 Chautala gained the chief ministerial office after ironically enough overwhelmingly winning an election in alliance with the BJP. Devi Lal spent the last years of his life as an elder and respected member of the Rajya Sabha.

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