Over 70 percent of people in 81 constituencies exercised their rights in the first state Assembly elections of Haryana held on 17 February, 1967. The Congress won a clear majority with 48 seats and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh stood at 12 seats. The first CM of the state, Bhagwat Dayal Sharma, was back at the helm on 10 March, 1967.
Another contender that Indira Gandhi was keen on, Rao Birender Singh was an influential leader from the Ahirwal belt of south Haryana and belonged to the princely family of Rao Tula Ram. Indira even hinted to Sharma about her intention. However, Sharma was not interested in budging and insisted that Rao was not even a member of the assembly.
Making any non-MLA a CM would set a wrong precedent. He also suggested that majority legislators lent him support and thus it won't be wise. Indira, an astute politician, could read the winds and did not talk about it again. But she didn’t forget!
In 1967, as in '52, '57 and '62, the elections to the state assembly happened along with the Parliamentary elections. Devi Lal also didn’t contest the first elections of the state. The reason was Desai. Desai was inclined in favour of BD Sharma and believed that giving Devi Lal a ticket or any Congress position would be wrong. Devi Lal and Prof Sher Singh had, for long, taken many anti-Congress positions to win Haryana its statehood. Devi Lal’s son Pratap Singh, however, was given a Congress ticket to fight the election from the Ellenabad seat.
While Devi Lal was pitching for the Assembly, the erudite leader of the Haryana statehood movement, Prof Sher Singh fought for the Jhajjar Lok Sabha seat. Prof Sher Singh won and became the Union Minister of the state for education, making him the first minister in the central government from Haryana.
It’s interesting how Bhagwat Dayal Sharma was propped up a few years ago by Kairon to counteract Prof Sher Singh. Yet, as fate would have it, he went down in the annals of history as the first CM of Haryana, albeit for a short-lived tenure. In fact, in the contest for the leadership of the Haryana Congress, he defeated MLA Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan from Ambala by just one vote.
In this run-up to the top post, Sharma had turned many tables, taking full advantage of the opportunity that destiny had offered him. While there were many who opposed him, he had also incurred the enmity of Indira Gandhi. On the question of Chandigarh and the capital for the new state Haryana, he even asked for Old Delhi as an alternative. At the juncture where Indian politics was, Indira Gandhi would not have taken that lightly.
In Haryana as well, Sharma kept all challengers at bay. The only minister from the opposing faction was Rijak Ram, a Congress politician from Sonepat. Rijak Ram, however, later quit owing to differences with CM Sharma and went to the Rajya Sabha.
As historic as it was, the MLAs purposefully gathered in the Vidhan Sabha house in Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex. But before any other proceedings could take place, the legislature had to elect a speaker for its constitutional role. However, these elections did something unprecedented. The CM proposed the name of Jind MLA, Lala Dayakishan, for the Speaker’s post. To the CM’s surprise, a senior Congress legislator, Sri Chand, the nephew of Chhotu Ram, rose and proposed the name of Rao Birender Singh for the Speaker’s post. The CM was bemused. A quick poll and Rao Birender Singh got three more votes than the official nominee Lala Dayakishan’s 37.
This was a big jolt to the CM. He left the assembly and the house was adjourned. Unsurprisingly, the next agenda on his list, the election of the deputy speaker, didn’t take place.
On 17 March, Sharma had no idea of the plan being hatched by Rao in cahoots with Devi Lal. Rao Birender Singh, now the Speaker of the Assembly, took swift steps forward.
Soon, 12 dissident MLAs of the Rao faction in the Congress defected and formed a group: Haryana Congress. The independent MLAs banded together and formed the Naveen Haryana Congress. With these independents, the Haryana Congress, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the Swatantra Party and the Republican Party of India, another twist was underway. The group formed a coordination committee with Devi Lal as chair. Education Minister Hardwari Lal also resigned from the cabinet and, with three others, joined Rao’s camp.
Soon enough, Sharma was toppled and on 25 March 1967, Rao Birender was sworn in as the chief minister by Governor BN Chakravarty.
Rao Saheb and SVD
Rao Birender Singh had reached the Assembly from Pataudi and now led the government under the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) banner. Sri Chand, who had earlier proposed Rao’s name for speaker, was elevated to the same post. It was a disappointing loss for the Congress party. However, Indira Gandhi, who was herself embroiled in a faction fight within the Congress organisation, must have been satisfied with this development.
The Ahirwal belt has two dominant houses divided into three prominent political families. Rao Tula Ram’s descendant, Rao Balbir Singh, was the founder of the Rampura House. Rao Balbir had joined Punjab politics prior to Independence and was prominent as a legislator. His son, Rao Birender Singh, took on the family mantle in politics.
The other is the Budhpur House founded by Rao Mohar Singh. Rao Mohar Singh was a contemporary of Rao Balbir and is known for starting the first cooperative bank in Gurgaon, FL Brayne Cooperative Bank.
In Indian political history, this phase is remembered by the SVD governments, which were formed by non-Congress parties and other Congress defectors in different states. However, these governments could not stabilise their hold and fell to internal rifts and factionalism.
A Congress legislator from Bhiwani, Bansi Lal’s role during those months is part of controversies and folklore. More so because the man in question became the CM of the state later. It is said that when the plan to elect Rao Birender Singh was hatched, not many were convinced of Bansi Lal’s inclinations. Bansi Lal, after all, was a Sharma loyalist. Accordingly, a plan was devised to keep Bansi Lal away from the Assembly house.
Dharam Pal Singh Rathi, the chief conservator of forests at the time, took on the responsibility to prevent Bansi Lal from making it to the house that day. Rathi invited Bansi Lal to his place. When Rathi’s guest went to ease himself, he bolted the door from outside. Bansi Lal was let out only when the plotters had achieved their objective. No wonder that when Bansi Lal became the CM, he ensured that Rathi was suspended and ultimately pushed out of government service.
Another story from those days that the reader might be interested to know relates to Devi Lal, who played a critical role in bringing down Sharma’s government. In order to go ahead with his plan, Devi Lal had to work in tandem with Rao Birender Singh. A builder in Delhi, they say he acted as a liaison to these efforts and invited Rao to dinner at his Maharani Bagh home in Delhi. Rao was surprised to find Devi Lal there and made no effort in hiding his disaffection. However, with some coaxing from the liaison things turned around. Devi Lal asked Rao to forget issues of the past and assured Rao of his support. About this, columnist Satish Tyagi says, ‘The guest brought Gangaajal in a jar and namak (salt) in a plate. Devi Lal poured some salt in the water and committed that if he deceived, may he vanish like salt dissolves in this water.’ And as history suggests, Devi Lal lived up to his side of the bargain!
This phase in Haryana politics is also marked by defections and counter defections. Those were the days of turncoats, when legislators were just pawns on the political chessboard. Laws preventing or restricting it only came two decades later.
Most berths in Rao’s 15-member Cabinet had gone to independents and fellow defectors of the Congress. Camp Devi Lal’s follower Chand Ram was also made a minister although not the minister of industries, which the former had hoped for. The government was a result of numerous defections. Many of these legislators, who had contributed equally in bringing down Sharma, made competing stakes for ministerial berths or were at least expecting some reward in return.
Soon after the new government was formed, Rao started to veer away from Devi Lal, who had a key role in ‘Mission Topple Bd Sharma’. Rifts increased and a few months into the government, Devi Lal started making his dissatisfaction public. In fact, on 5 June, he wrote a long letter expressing his discontent, duly signed by 13 MLAs and ministers.
Many exchanges happened and numerous things were said. On 13 July 1967, Devi Lal made this tussle public and openly said that he would ‘bring down this corrupt and anti-ruralite Jana Sangh dominated government.’ Rao denied all accusations and in a meeting of the SVD, Devi Lal was expelled. Soon, ministers from Devi Lal’s camp, Deputy CM Chand Ram, Irrigation and Power minister Mani Ram Godara, Pratap Singh Daulata and Jagannath sent in their resignations.
Rao did not forward these resignations to the Governor, rather, he tendered the resignation of his ministry. He read through Devi Lal’s plans and simultaneously laid claim to the formation of a new government, duly submitting a signed list of 42 members. This was countered by a list of 51 MLAs by Devi Lal, however, this list was unsigned. Governor BN Chakravarty rejected Devi Lal’s list and Rao Birender Singh was asked to swear in with his new council. ‘Rao Birender Singh was more than a match for Devi Lal in the art of feint and ambush.’
In opposition to these developments, Jagannath, another bold Dalit leader from the Bhiwani belt, submitted his resignation. The Council of Ministers now had seven ministers from the Haryana Congress and two independents as Cabinet ministers, one deputy minister from Haryana Congress and four independents. Rao Birender Singh renamed his new group, Vishal Haryana Party (VHP). The VHP had 29 MLAs to begin with.
Bhagwat Dayal Sharma was observing these developments closely. Rao’s rivals now, Devi Lal and Bhagwat Dayal, started all over again. Their sole objective—bring down Rao’s government!
What happened in the next few months is one of the most humiliating episodes of the political history of Haryana. Defections and counter defections rose to an all-time high. MLAs were bought in return for money, positions and favours. It was a no-holds-barred game and everyone was a mute spectator. Three blocs had developed—ruling Rao Birender Singh, Devi Lal and Bhagwat Dayal Sharma.
It might seem surprising today that MLAs were on sale but, that is how it was then. There were open allegations, of course with some credibility, of MLAs being purchased for Rs 20,000. When questioned in public, one would point to the other and the other pointed further. Governor BN Chakravarty could only feel disgusted, much like the people of the state, on what mockery was underway in Haryana. October–November 1967, hence, goes down as one of the darkest phases of democratic politics in Haryana.
It was also this phase that earned Haryana the tag of a state of ‘Aaya Rams’ and ‘Gaya Rams’. Gaya Lal, an MLA from Hodal who had earlier quit the Congress to join the SVD, came back on 30 October. However, nine hours later he went back to Congress. Hence, within nine hours, the MLA changed sides twice—in and out of the Congress—and within a fortnight, moved to the SVD. Presenting him before the press in the CM House in Chandigarh, Rao Birender Singh said, ‘Gaya Lal is Aaya Ram now’.
Later in Parliament, Union Minister YB Chavan gave a speech on the Haryana governor's report. By the time he made the speech on 21 November, Gaya Lal had switched sides again and Chavan intoned: 'Ab toh Gaya Lal bhi gaya (Now even Gaya Lal is gone)'. This exercise eventually led to the famous words 'Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram' used for the defectors.
Continuing his spirited moves, Gaya Lal later jumped to the Arya Sabha in 1972 and then to the Bharatiya Lok Dal, led by Charan Singh. He later went to the Janata Party and fought his last election as an independent in 1982.
Another turn in this dangal came around on 17 November. Devi Lal estimated that he could topple Rao soon and dissolved his party. He joined the Congress with his supporter MLAs. One of the MLAs to join the Congress again was Hira Nand Arya, who had now defected five times within a span of nine months. In this defection story, ‘one MLA (Hira Nand Arya) defected five times, two four times, three thrice and 34 once’.
These were not fanciful stories from a land of lawlessness. There were many who switched sides for vested interests. The worst part, however, is that because of these defections, Haryana as a state suffered. When everyone should have come together to work for the development of the infant state, legislators were involved in politics of power-grabbing right at the altar of our constitutional institutions.
Arjun Singh Kadian is an academic and policy professional based out of offices in Haryana and Delhi. The following in an edited extract from 'Land of the Gods: The Story of Haryana'