Since the creation of Haryana as a state in 1966, its politics has been plagued by instances of political opportunism and greed by elected representatives even as the state continued to grapple with problems related to gender violence, police atrocities and caste conflict.
Epitomising much that is wrong about politics in Haryana is the way the members of the Bishnoi family, especially the two sons of former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, have been operating. Since they are prominent Congress politicians, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state, led by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, is trying its best to embarrass them in the run-up to the upcoming Assembly elections.
Opportunistic politics in Haryana has deep roots. The infamous, albeit comical phrase, “Aya Ram Gaya Ram” became well known across the country in 1967 after Gaya Lal, initially an independent legislator in the Haryana Vidhan Sabha, shifted political parties thrice in the course of a fortnight.
Shifting political allegiances has been accompanied by aggrandisement. According to a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms, 39% of the candidates who contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 from Haryana were crorepatis.
The candidates belonging to the Congress owned average assets worth Rs 25 crore; BJP candidates’ assets averaged just above Rs 17 crore while assets of candidates of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) were similar.
One family which has been at the forefront of Haryana’s politics over the last four decades is that of former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, his sons Chander Mohan and Kuldeep Bishnoi and his grandson Bhavya Bishnoi – all three are Congress politicians.
While various members of the family over generations have tasted electoral and political success, some have been embroiled in controversies. With less than a month to go for the Assembly elections on October 21, Kuldeep Bishnoi and Chander Mohan are both under the radar of the central government’s investigative agencies. They have been accused of financial irregularities running into several hundred crore rupees.
Income Tax Investigations
It was reported on September 20, that the Income Tax (IT) Department had seized paintings valued at Rs 30 crore from Adampur MLA, Kuldeep Bishnoi. The department is reportedly probing alleged benami ownership of properties and tax evasion.
A Press Trust of India report stated: “Apart from the paintings, the probe against the Adampur MLA had so far led to seizure of assets worth more than Rs 32 crore. The sources said undisclosed foreign assets worth over Rs 200 crore had been detected till now.”
News broke in late August that the Delhi Benami Prohibition Unit (BPU) of the IT Department had attached Hotel Bristol worth Rs 150 crore in Gurugram. The hotel is allegedly a “benami asset” of Kuldeep and his elder brother, Chander Mohan, a former Deputy Chief Minister in the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government.
In an official statement, the IT Department said the property had been attached under Section 24(3) of the Prohibition of Benami Property Transactions Act, 1988. It further said: “The said asset is owned in the name of a company, Bright Star Hotel Private Limited in which 34% shares are held in the name of a front company registered in British Virgin Islands (BVI) and operated inter alia from (the) UAE (United Arab Emirates).”
It was claimed that the company’s shareholders were close confidantes of the Bishnoi family.
Death of Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Personal Assistant
At around this time, the Delhi Police alleged that Sukumar Powriya, personal assistant of Kuldeep Bishnoi for the past 12 years, passed away in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences after allegedly having swallowed poison.
Powriya had also come under the radar of investigation agencies. The News18 media organisation had put out a ground report claiming that Powriya’s neighbours in South-east Delhi had seen officials of investigation agencies visit his residence around a month before his death.
According to a report in the Times of India, published on August 30, the Delhi Police claimed its officers had found a note at his residence that pointed towards marital discord.
Not everyone is convinced that Powriya’s death had nothing to do with the cases of financial irregularities against Kuldeep Bishnoi.
Haryana Cabinet Minister Anil Vij alleged: “In such circumstances, his death happened. So, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) should investigate this because so many properties (of Kuldeep Bishnoi) are being investigated and he (Powriya) was a close aide. The possibility cannot be ruled out that someone killed him or got him killed.”
Value of Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Assets Increases Manifold
Besides the attachment of Hotel Bristol and the seizure of paintings by the IT Department after conducting raids in different locations in Haryana, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh in July, the tax authorities have alleged that Kuldeep Bishnoi illegally owns foreign assets.
Predictably, Kuldeep claimed he was being targeted because of his political affiliation. He had tweeted in Hindi: “The way the BJP tried to harass me and my family with political hatred for four days, reflects its close mind. Even my aged and sick mother was not spared. I have always lived a life of honesty and principles. Neither have I feared the BJP in the past nor will I now.”
Despite his protestations, the fact is that the value of Kuldeep’s assets declared to the Election Commission has multiplied over the years. During the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, he had declared assets worth more than Rs 14 crore, which increased to more than Rs 17 crore during the Haryana Assembly elections held in 2009. The amount then jumped to over Rs 48 crore during the 2011 bypolls to the Hisar Lok Sabha constituency and further to more than Rs 80 crore during the 2014 Assembly elections in the state.
The declared assets of Kuldeep’s elder brother, Chander Mohan, who contested the 2014 Haryana elections from Nalwa constituency, were valued at over Rs 60 crore. Twenty-six year old Bhavya Bishnoi, Kuldeep’s son, who contested the Lok Sabha elections for the first time in 2019, had declared assets worth Rs. 3.7 crore. He lost his deposit.
Political Legacy of Bhajan Lal
An article in India Today by Sumit Mitra, published in 1982, described the then Chief Minister of Haryana: “Bhajan Lal is a name that is already heading for an epochal permanence. Though in an entirely negative way. He is credited with superhuman powers of persuasion, extraordinary talent to spot purchasable legislators in the enemy camps, and a demonic flair for wrecking all opposition alliances. Leaders opposed to him hate him as they would a snake.”
It was during Bhajan’s Lal tenure with the Janata Party that he first became the chief minister of Haryana in 1979 when he managed to persuade disgruntled MLAs in the Devi Lal government to shift to his side. Then, when Indira Gandhi won a landslide majority in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, he moved with more than 35 MLAs from the Janata Party to the Congress and continued as Chief Minister of the state. He was chief minister of Haryana first between 1979 and 1982, then from 1982 to 1986 and one last time from 1991 to 1996.
In 2005, Bhupinder Singh Hooda was chosen in favour of Bhajan Lal by the Congress high command to become the Chief Minister of Haryana. His son Kuldeep was suspended from the party in 2007 after he attacked the top leadership of the Congress.
Soon afterward, Bhajan Lal and Kuldeep floated a party called the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC). During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Bhajan Lal contested from the Hisar constituency on a HJC ticket and won. Following Bhajan Lal’s death in 2011, the seat was won by Kuldeep by defeating the INLD’s Ajay Singh Chautala by over 6,000 votes.
The HJC joined the National Democratic Alliance before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However, Kuldeep lost his seat to INLD’s Dushyant Singh Chautala by over 30,000 votes.
Just before the Assembly elections in 2014, Kuldeep snapped ties with the BJP. The relationship had been under strain since the BJP was not willing to declare him as a chief ministerial candidate and was unwilling to allot HJC an equal number of seats in the elections. Kuldeep had at that time complained: “Betrayal is in the nature of BJP.”
He won the seat to the Adampur Assembly constituency and is an incumbent MLA.
In April 2016, reminiscent of the manner in which father shifted his political allegiances, Kuldeep Bishnoi’s HJC merged with the Congress in the presence of both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. He said: “I had never separated from the Congress. Differences occur in a family. Congress is in our blood. The differences are now over.”
Kuldeep’s elder brother Chander Mohan has had a much lower profile of late. He had not gone along with his brother and his father when they floated the HJC in 2007. He had stuck with the Congress.
Chander Mohan made national news in December 2008 when he converted to Islam to marry 35-year-old lawyer Anuradha Bali. He was then Deputy Chief Minister. He was already married at that time. He told journalists at that time: “My new name is Chand Mohammad and my wife's name is Fiza.”
It was reported then that his father Bhajan Lal had disowned him after the marriage. However, in January 2009, he returned to live with his first wife and children. He divorced Fiza in March 2009, by uttering talaq three times over the phone.
The relationship took a toll on Chander Mohan’s political career. He was relieved of his duties as Deputy Chief Minister and despite being a four- time MLA, he was not given a ticket to fight the 2009 Assembly elections. Fiza allegedly committed suicide in 2012.
Chander Mohan was brought into the fold of HJC in 2012 after the death of his father a year earlier.
As Haryana goes to the polls, the stories surrounding the late Bhajan Lal and his sons Chander Mohan and Kuldeep Bishnoi remind us why politics in the state is in the news for all the wrong reasons, overshadowing more substantive issues of public interest.
On September 24, a questionnaire was sent over to Kuldeep Bishnoi. The same set of questions were sent over to Bhavya Bishnoi the following day. Questions were related to the alleged financial irregularities, increase in the value of declared assets of Kuldeep Bishnoi and the suicide of Sukumar Powriya. No response was received until the time of publication. The story will be updated if and when they respond.
The writer is an independent journalist.