Gurugram: Raj Babbar’s ticket to political resurrection

Published : May 21, 2024 18:18 IST - 13 MINS READ

Congress candidate from the Gurugram constituency, Raj Babbar, at a rally in Gurugram.

Congress candidate from the Gurugram constituency, Raj Babbar, at a rally in Gurugram. | Photo Credit: PTI

After years of political isolation, Gurugram offers the veteran actor-politician a chance to regain relevance; but he faces formidable opponents.

It’s 10 am and Raj Babbar, the Congress’ last-minute surprise candidate for the Gurugram Lok Sabha constituency, is running late. Having returned the previous night at 2.30 am after addressing 28 small meetings and rallies in schools, village panchayats and residential colonies, his mornings, he says, take a bit of time to pick up pace.

Since 9 am, several men and a few women have been trickling in and filling up the two large rooms on the ground floor of the spanking new, multi-storied bungalow in a quiet Gurugram neighbourhood that Babbar has made his temporary home and office. Some of these people are party workers, others are Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers who want to switch. As tea is served to the visitors in tiny paper cups, conversations begin about which way the election is going to go.

Almost all of them predict victory for Babbar and the Congress except for one middle-aged man. With the latest satta bazar figures on his phone, the odds, 18/30, he says, are in favour of the BJP.

Also Read | Is BJP losing its grip on Haryana?

A total of 23 candidates are in the fray in Gurugram, including Kusheshwar Bhagat, a pav-bhaji seller, and the Jannayak Janta Party’s (JJP) Rahul Yadav Fazilpuria, a Haryanvi rapper who sang the hit Bollywood song, “Ladki beautiful, kar gayi chul” in the 2016 film, Kapoor and Sons. But the two main contenders are Babbar, 71, and three-time Gurugram MP and Union Minister of State, Rao Inderjit Singh, 74.

Babbar, a Bollywood actor who began his political career with V.P. Singh’s Jan Morcha, then switched to the Samajwadi Party (SP) and, later, the Congress, has been an MP in both Houses of Parliament and has taken on daunting tasks and opponents before. The first election he fought and lost was on the SP ticket in 1996 against the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lucknow.

About 13 years later, after falling out with Amar Singh whom he reportedly called a dalal (broker), Babbar joined the Congress and took on SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s bahu (daughter-in-law), Dimple Yadav, in Firozabad in 2009. In his campaign, Babbar addressed her warmly as “meri choti behen (my little sister)“ and defeated her.

This time around, however, Babbar is not just up against a formidable foe in a constituency that is alien to him but is also pressed for time. The Congress, which was reportedly considering fielding him for Ludhiana, Punjab, took its time to bow to the wishes of Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Haryana’s two-term Chief Minister till 2014 and Babbar’s G-23 compadre, to give the Gurugram ticket to Babbar.

Former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda addresses a press conference.

Former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda addresses a press conference. | Photo Credit: Manvender Vashist Lav/PTI

Babbar filed his nomination papers on May 3 and, with the clock ticking for voting that will take place on May 25, hit the ground running the very next day.

To make the most of the small window of 20 days of campaigning available to him, Babbar is running on adrenaline, very little sleep, and about two hours late for his first campaign meeting that was to begin at 8.30 am.

The moment he arrives on the ground floor of the bungalow, cell phones come out and young men sidle up to him to pose and smile. Babbar, dressed in white pants and a white linen shirt, keeps working the two rooms, where he hugs some people, shakes hands and jokes with others, and reminds everyone to vote for the Congress before heading out to his car.

Also Read | Haryana: Scripting a new chapter

With his long-time driver, Thomas, at the wheel, he slips into the passenger seat in front. But just as his convoy is to set off, a tray with Babbar’s breakfast arrives. There’s curd in one air-tight, click-lid container and, I suspect, sprouts and chapati in the others. He frowns at the cumbersome arrangement and sends it back, saying, “Roll bana ke do (make me a roll).”

But before the roll can arrive, he is off.

“Gurugram is a big constituency and my effort is to reach as many people as I can. People should see me, they should see me as the man who is fighting,” he told Frontline en route to a small school in Islampur, a congested urban village off the national highway.

Babbar’s car goes up and down flyovers and as it reaches the narrow lane that leads to Islampur, his security personnel in grey safari suits and uniformed policemen start flitting about, planning how to take his convoy and entourage in. Babbar, keen not to waste even a minute, announces that only his car will go in.

At the gate of the school, Babbar is greeted by loud, celebratory drum beats and a shower of marigold petals.

In the school’s small courtyard, festooned with bunting, mic and some refreshments—tall glasses of an orange drink, some kaju burfi, and savouries in glass containers—have been arranged. Babbar is garlanded and then, as per tradition in Haryana, a pagri is tied around his head. Babbar’s speech is short and to the point. “Main chota aadmi hoon, mujhe azmaa kar dekhiye (I am a small man, but try me, give me a chance),” he says and is back in his car in less than five minutes.

As Thomas manoeuvres to pull out of the lane, two women rush to Babbar. One asks for a selfie and the other for money. He obliges one but telles the other, “Mere paas paise nahin hain. Main toh khud mangne aaya hoon (I don’t have any money. I, myself, have come here to beg).”

Farmers and sushi bars

A large constituency with about 25 lakh voters spread over nine Assembly segments, Gurugram is part of the National Capital Region and is like a testy, capricious, schizophrenic offspring of Haryana and Delhi. It pulsates to the conflicting beats of a city where over 55 per cent of the voters live in rural areas and are engaged in farming, and to the beats of multinational and top tech companies that dwell in cyber parks with expensive sushi and wine bars.

In between these two worlds is a labyrinthe of posh skyscraper apartment complexes and shanties, garbage dumps and a golf course, fancy, multistoried foreign liquor stores, and the city’s 10 lakh migrant workers who live on meagre earnings from Gurgaon’s few industries, contract farming and the gig economy.

“Gurugram is a very tough seat,” Sanjay Jha, author and former Congress spokesperson, tells Frontline. “This (BJP) government is not popular and there are a lot of civic amenities issues.”

Residents of at least two sectors in Gurugram and a housing colony, fed up with petitioning, requesting, posting complaints on social media, have called for an election boycott because of lack of basic amenities. Posters declaring, “No work, no vote”, are on display at their main gates and their RWAs have been turning down requests for campaign meetings.

“There is anti-incumbency against the government. And Babbar is one of the guys who is looking at political resurrection. This could be an opportunity for him to be gung ho,” says Jha.

A Congress loyalist who has been in political isolation since 2019 when he lost the Fatehpur Sikri seat to the BJP candidate by a margin of 4,95,065 votes, and then followed it up by challenging the Gandhi family’s dominance as part of G-23 dissidents, Gurugram is Babbar’s ticket to political relevance and he is playing it safe.

BJP candidate from Gurugram constituency Rao Inderjit Singh.

BJP candidate from Gurugram constituency Rao Inderjit Singh. | Photo Credit: Yogendra Kumar/PTI

For a man who brought flamboyant villainy to Bollywood with his two-piece suits and a neckerchief, and made his bulging, blood-shot eyes a signature look of evil rage in the 80s, Babbar is warm, smiles a lot, sticks diligently to the script and his attacks on his rival are like gentle knuckle taps.“ He is really like Babbar Sher [lion]: aggressive and firm without being loud. He campaigns without being indecent,” says Jha.

While talking to party workers he is familiar with, Babbar’s banter is Punjabi-style, laced with laughter and abuses that are terms of endearment. But his speeches are brief, humble and the messaging a bit wishy-washy.

More marigolds

“I never make election campaigns personal. Maybe we are opponents, but we are not enemies. So I can never say ulti-seedhi baat (off-kilter remarks),” Babbar says en route to the next stop on his campaign.

It is another school, in another congested neighbourhood. Again there are marigold garlands, a pagri is tied and Babbar takes the mic to talk of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Congress’ five guarantees, and refers to Rao Inderjit Singh, who traces his lineage to Rao Tula Ram Singh, the Ahir king of Rewari, as “Raja Saab“ who doesn’t have any time for his constituents.

“He (Singh) has allocated just one hour a week for his constituents to meet him. If elected, I will live in Gurugram and travel to Delhi to attend Parliament. Morning and evening I will be in my constituency, with my people,” Babbar says. “I might be born in Agra but many of my relatives are in Faridabad and my sister lives in Gurugram. When my ancestors came to India, they came to Haryana,” he says at campaign stops repeatedly.

It is a flimsy connection to Gurugram but it is cute storytelling from a man who is being targeted as an “outsider” by Singh and his daughter, Arti Singh Rao, who has been campaigning in villages and hammering one message: Vote for Haryanavi blood.

Babbar’s team of two campaigners—his daughter Juhi and son-in-law Anup Soni, star of TV shows such as CID: Special Bureau and Crime Patrol, who are making the rounds of upscale housing communities and some villages—are leading with messages about “Raja Saab’s absence”, arrogance, and lack of basic amenities in the Millennium City.

The ellipses in Gurugram’s development, they say, will be filled by Babbar.

An eye on Nuh

But Babbar’s real shot at victory lies with Meo Muslims of Mewat or Nuh district, who, at 20 per cent of Gurugram’s electorate, are the largest voting block.

A staunch secularist with socialist credentials since his student activist days, Babbar, says Jha, “epitomises the more liberal face of India and, well, Bollywood”. He has been campaigning in Muslim-dominated Nuh regularly, delivering the message of peace, development, and harking back to the past when Meo Muslims fought emperor Babur, the British in 1857 and stayed in India after Partition at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi.

Yahan dange-fasad nahin hote the (There have never been any riots in this area),” says Babbar of Nuh, the most backward district in India where communal violence erupted in July 2023 during a Brajmandal Yatra organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). Seven people died and 200 were injured in the violence that spread to other districts as well.

Last week, when Babbar first visited Nuh, he was greeted with showers of flowers and petals from earthmovers that have become a symbol of the BJP’s wanton hubris against the Muslim community.

“Some of them, especially the second-rung leaders in Nuh, were supporting the BJP. But they have now moved to the Congress. They are not happy with the BJP because the BJP has deliberately turned them into nonentities. These things were not there in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time. He was a stalwart and a statesman,” Babbar says but refuses to be drawn into any real conversation about what happened in Nuh, or even the systematic attacks by fringe rightwing organisations on Friday namaz in Gurugram which, till 2021, was offered in several open spaces.

Hindu versus Muslim narrative

When pressed if he will restore the namaz spaces that have been taken away if elected, he waffles and then switches to benign generalities and bothsideing.

“I have read about this. I am not sure about where these namaz spaces were, but I know that these issues can be resolved. People adjust. Puja karne ki jagah kahin bhi mil jati hai (a place of worship can be found anywhere). I don’t think these are questions to be answered.”

It is not that Babbar has no clue about Gurugram, but he is acutely aware that any Hindu versus Muslim narrative benefits the BJP, and like most in the Congress, he has learnt to skirt these issues. So, like an actor on a short outdoor shoot, he sticks to his lines and is hoping that his starry appeal, combined with the Congress’ social justice promises and growing disenchantment with the BJP will consolidate the anti-BJP vote in his favour and deliver a blockbuster.

Logon ka pyaar (people’s love),” he says, “will convert into votes.”

The data collectors do not think so because the BJP, they say, has been working hard to consolidate the non-Jat vote by winning over most of the “36 biradiri”, a common phrase in Haryana that refers to its 36 clans, castes, and communities.

According to Sandeep Koak, an election strategist with PRAC Research and Consulting, most Meo Muslims are likely to vote for the Congress. But the SC-ST constituents, who make up 12-13 per cent of Gurugram’s voters, are split almost equally between the BJP and the Congress.

The Ahirs, or the Yadav community, to which Rao Inderjit Singh belongs, are about 18 per cent of the voters, and will vote for their own. The Punjabis, Baniyas, Brahmins, and Gujjars, who together add up to about 20 per cent of Gurugram voters, are also likely to vote for the BJP.

In this equation, the Jats, who make up about 7-8 per cent of Gurugram’s voters and are mostly farmers, faujis, or wrestlers, hold the key. Miffed with the BJP because of the Agniveer scheme and its response to the farmers’ and wrestlers’ agitations, in areas where they dominate, Jats have been driving away BJP leaders and at least “65 per cent of them are likely to vote for the Congress”, says Koak.

“The Congress’ vote share will go up to above 40 per cent from 2019’s 34 per cent, but it will still lose,” he says.

Abhimanyu Bharti, a political analyst who runs the online School of Politics, says with confidence that the BJP candidate will win with a margin of two lakh votes.

Babbar, who during his days as the chief of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee famously referred to political consultant Prashant Kishor as a “sound recordist”, has little faith in data collectors. He believes that popular actors’ appeal cuts across caste and religious lines. And then there is discontent.

“People are fed up with being ignored. Arrogance nahin chalti,” he says and breaks into a Bollywood-esque dialogue that, loosely translated, goes: “The ink in the pen with which MPs sign while taking oath is given to them by voters. They must remember that after five years, that ink dries up and the pen needs refilling.” The oratory is charming and brings back those two things that have gone missing from election campaigns: decency and wit. But as a jab at his rival, it is oblique and obtuse.

On the way to his next campaign point, Babbar makes an impromptu stop at a gurdwara and when he returns to his car, he calls up Hooda to discuss holding a big rally.

Hooda thinks it is a waste of time, Babbar says after the call. “I will do one big rally, with Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi, but my focus will remain on personal outreach. I will go to people, and not call them to come and see me,” he says as he arrives at his next stop where, again, “Congress zindabad” slogans and marigold garlands greet him, and a pagri is ready to be tied.

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