A day after former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala and his son Ajay Chautala were convicted by a Delhi court last week, posters with their faces blackened appeared at two places in Sirsa – the family’s traditional stronghold in Haryana. It raised eyebrows because so complete is this family’s hold over that area, that even Congressmen from Sirsa shied away from reacting to the conviction when the local media sought them out.
But on Tuesday, when the special CBI court sentenced the father son duo to ten years imprisonment under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the news was greeted with incredulity across Haryana, because it dented the Chautala clan’s aura of invincibility. “Ten years is a sledgehammer blow and even though they will definitely appeal before the high court, getting out of this conviction or even getting bail will not be easy,” said a senior lawyer requesting anonymity.
The prevailing view is that since the sentence is more than three years, the general judicial norm has been not to grant bail when the quantum of sentence is high. They have three months to appeal in the high court and according to Section 8 clause 4 of the Representation of People’s Act 1951, they have protection from disqualification from the state assembly, (where both father and son are legislators) till the pendency of the appeal. They also face the prospect of being barred from contesting elections for a period of six years if they fail to get the conviction stayed.
For the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), that Mr. Chautala headed ever since his father Devi Lal died in 2001, this is bad news because after being in the political wilderness since 2005, when it lost the election, of late the party was upbeat on the strength of an anti Congress sentiment. A series of successful rallies across the state had convinced the former Chief Minister that he could win back the BJP into striking an alliance with him for the 2014 polls.
It was towards this end that he attended Narender Modi’s swearing in ceremony in Gujarat last month. The BJP which has shared power with Chautala earlier, broke away and joined hands with the Haryana Janhit Party led by Kuldeep Bishnoi in 2009.
With no second rung of leadership, the task of holding the party cadre together falls on the younger son Abhay Chautala, legislator from Ellenabad, who does not inspire much confidence because of his brash ways. Party insiders say that the conviction came like ‘a bolt from the blue’ because the Chautala’s never gave anyone an inclination that the case was going against them. They expect some support to erode, but have pinned their hopes on a polarisation of their core Jat vote bank, as result of the conviction. “There will be an uprising across Haryana and the party will emerge stronger,” says party spokesperson RS Chaudhary.
However, given the many corruption cases dogging the Chautala clan and Chief Minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda’s policy of not sending the Haryana police after them, may just deprive the party from cashing in on a sympathy element. “They might have got some sympathy if the state police had arrested them. But in this case, the ruling dispensation has had nothing to do with this case. The matter was also taken to the SC by Sanjeev Kumar the bureaucrat, who has also been convicted,” said Sampat Singh a former home minister in the Chautala government, who is now with the Congress.
More trouble awaits Mr Chautala and his sons in the disproportionate assets case against them, also being probed by the CBI, in which his total assets have been put at Rs 1,467 crores, which includes 80 properties across the country.
Meanwhile, Abhay Chautala in a statement issued here said, that it is the first time that someone has been sentenced for 10 years under Section 467. He said that the main accused have been given four year sentences whereas Mr Chautala has been charged with conspiracy under Section 120 B and given 10 years. Describing the CBI as a B team of the Congress, Mr. Abhay Chautala said that his party will appeal before the high court to expose “this conspiracy” by CBI and the Congress.