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Hooda's crown of thorns

November 14, 2009 16:58 IST
The class most sensitive to the political barometer - who's up and who's down in politics - is the bureaucracy. So it was with pity, and just a little bit of satisfaction too, that the Haryana bureaucracy watched as Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda did something he had never done before. After his council of ministers had been formed, the man who led the Congress party to an unprecedented second term in office personally escorted each minister to his room, opening the door for them and offering them their chair, going from the sixth floor to the fourth floor to the second floor in the secretariat building in Chandigarh. This illustrated how much a prisoner of his team the chief minister has become after the 2009 Assembly elections.

In 2005, when Hooda first became CM, he had a charmed life. With 67 seats in the 90-member assembly, every third MLA was a Congressman. If a minister stepped out of line, he could be told he would be sacked if he didn't behave. Hooda, in fact, had a range of options he could exercise against errant MLAs - this included telling Sonia Gandhi to suspend or
sack legislators. He was Gandhi's blue-eyed boy and was showcased as a CM who was getting it right.

Today, Hooda wears a hangdog look. With 40 MLAs, he's barely been able to form a government. He is at the mercy of independents - and has had to part with portfolios as important as transport and tourism - so that they don't cross over to Om Prakash Chautala whose Indian National Lok Dal, with 32 MLAs, is snapping at his heels. Worse, the Congress family itself is not united behind him and the state has all manner of financial difficulties.

The Hooda favourites are no longer a part of the government, so the critical ballast he needs as the leader of the team is missing. Venod Sharma, the controversial Congress leader from Chandigarh whose son Manu Sharma is serving a life sentence for the muder of model Jessica Lall, is out of the government again. Hooda would have dearly loved to have him in.
As one of the most influential and prosperous liquor barons of India whose business spans Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, Sharma has stood by the chief minister through thick and thin. But Hooda has been unable to include him in the team.

Instead, there are nondescript ministers like Paramvir Singh (whose only claim to fame is that he's the son of a senior Congress leader in Haryana). He could not have excluded Randeep Singh Surjewala who's been given the PWD portfolio but influential leaders like Kiran Chowdhary and Savitri Jindal don't find a place in the government. Ajay Yadav has been given the finance portfolio and he is the only friend Hooda will have in government. Industrialist Gopal Kanda has been given the home and the industries portfolio.

The net result is, it is a matter of time before those who have been overlooked begin plotting against Hooda. One of the potential troublemakers is Kuldeep Bishnoi, the Haryana Janahit Congess leader with six MLAs of whom four have had a 'change of heart' and have opted to join the Congress. Bishnoi overplayed his hand. He could have named his price
for the support and would have got it - the deputy chief ministership and a governorship for his father, Bhajan Lal - if only he had agreed to merge his party with the Congress. Instead, he insisted on the home portfolio, demanded that someone other than Hooda be made chief minister, and sought six months before merging his party with the Congress. He was left with
nothing. This has made him vow vengeance.

In his own party, Hooda is ringed with adversaries. There's Surjewala, a brilliant orator and a suave young man with a Youth Congress background (which means Rahul Gandhi knows him well); Kiran Choudhary, four-time MLA whose connections to 10 Jan Path are well known and Selja. What's worse is that the Congress party has set up a coordination committee on top of the chief minister, which will oversee every move he makes.

The moves he has to make are going to have to be politically unpalatable. Haryana is looking at serious financial default if it doesn't find a way to make money. It has to increase electricity rates, take serious austerity measures and impose a freeze on government jobs to recover from a projected deficit of Rs 3,300 crore in 2009-10. Add the recession in the realty sector and Haryana is heading for financial disaster.

So have it in your heart to feel sorry for Bhupinder Singh Hooda: He's a chief minister wearing a crown of thorns.
Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi