Saturday, April 14, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Truly, a Tau

Devi Lal’s greatest political asset was the way he felt for and related to the masses — straight from his heart. It was this sincerity, which helped him cement lifelong bonds with the people of any age, sex or background, says Raman Mohan.

WAY back in 1981, Devi Lal, then out of office of the chief minister for a good two years, was presented with a shiny new grey Ambassador car by his admirers. He lost no time in putting it to good use in the only way he knew. The very next morning, he set out on a tour of the countryside. His first stop of the day was in a small, dusty hamlet near Hisar.

Cartoon by Sandeep Joshi

As he lowered his considerable frame out of the car, village urchins began to perch themselves all over the car – on the bonnet, on the boot and even on the roof. After all it was their Tau’s new chariot. A beaming Devi Lal proceeded towards the chaupal but his domineering but trusted aide Bhim Singh, who was his constant companion for as long as I remember, was not amused. He rudely began shooing the boys off.


The Chaudhri noticed the commotion and summoned Bhim Singh. "Who owns this rath, Bhim?" he queried. Bhim Singh was caught unawares. "You, Chaudhri Sahib", he replied. "No. It belongs to these boys. It is theirs", the Chaudhri corrected him and asked the driver to take the boys for a ride. Before leaving the village, he approached the semi-clad urchins and promised them another ride the next time he came calling. Bhim Singh’s ordeal was not yet over. I happened to accompany Devi Lal on the tour to Hisar and was therefore sharing the backseat with him. Once out of the village, he could not control his feelings. "Bhim, he said, " don’t you ever rebuke the kids again. These village boys may never ride a car in their lifetime. If their Tau doesn’t let them enjoy a ride, who else will? Understand?" he said with an air of finality.

This was Devi Lal in his true mettle. A tall leader with the heart of a commoner beating inside him. His greatest political asset was the way he felt for and related to the masses - straight from his heart. It was this sincerity, which helped him cement lifelong bonds with the people of any age, sex or background. One of the children who had the honour of riding his car on that hot, sultry day is now a strapping young man of 29 years. I do not recollect his name, but I have noticed him hanging around the stage at every single rally Devi Lal addressed and I covered for The Tribune. A few years ago, I happened to take him over to the Press box and asked him what made him find time for the Tau’s rally. He went on to narrate how the Chaudhri had him driven around the village in his car. " He proved to be the real Tau, now it is my duty to prove myself a worthy nephew," he explained. It is this childlike innocence that endeared him to his supporters.

If it was the car in 1981, it was the Indian Air Force plane in 1989 when he rose to be the Deputy Prime Minister of India. Every time he landed at an airport, he would look for known faces among the numerous supporters who thronged there to receive him. As soon as it was time to board the plane, he would invite a few to accompany him to wherever he was headed.

They would be sent back from the next halt after they had enjoyed a plane ride. During one of his aerial visits to Hisar, he posed for photographs with a newly-married couple that had come there to seek his blessings. The gesture emboldened the crew members to drop their guard and the usually very officious and stern-faced IAF officers defied protocol to request the then Deputy Prime Minister to pose for a photograph with them. The Chaudhri not only readily obliged but also invited them over to dinner at his farmhouse that night in Sirsa district. I still remember his words to the crew: Arre kaptaan sahib, main to darta tha kahin tumhara discipline naa toote. Aisa nahin, to raat ko mere saath dal roti khao. Mere ghar pe. Charpoy pe baith ke. Since I stayed put at Hisar. I don’t know if the rustic dinner did take place or not, but the DPM had made the crew’s day.

The Chaudhri had very simple food habits. He loved Gohana’s jumbo-sized jalebis. He always carried a generous supply with him in a tin container. And he was very possessive of his jalebis. Perhaps, Mattoo Ram’s jalebis were the only thing he hated to share with anybody. When the doctors banned his jalebis, he still carried some with him on one pretext or the other. I can recall an instance when he munched one on the sly in the Rohtak Canal Rest House while he was the Chief Minister. I had arranged for an interview with him late that night. As soon as I entered his bedroom, he summoned Bhim Singh and asked him to get the jalebis from the car for me. Bhim Singh, aware of his sweet tooth, remained unmoved till the Chaudhri said he would not eat any but he wanted one to be given to me. The jalebis were duly brought and when Bhim Singh refused to leave, he handed them over to me and waited for his aide to leave. As soon as the door closed behind Bhim Singh, the Chaudhri quipped: "If you want good copy, share the jalebis with me". I was inclined to refuse because of medical reasons, but the childlike shine in his eyes prevented me from doing so.

Tau was also very fond of coining slogans. Once he had an idea, he would keep muttering words to himself till he was satisfied with the rhyming. And that done, he would end his every speech with that slogan. During the 1985 Lok Sabha poll, he spent several days perfecting a slogan till he finally came up with one – Congress (I) dhokha hai, de do dhakka mauka hai. But having ended his speeches with that slogan still left him dissatisfied. The next morning, he changed it suitably to his own liking however odd it sounded. This is what he finally approved: (I) Congress dhokha hai, de do dhakka mauka hai. I asked him why he preferred the (I) before the Congress rather than the other way round. He said this was more like his constituency – the countryside. "Congress (I) sounded like it does in newspapers. (I) Congress is more colloquial", he reasoned.

He never shied away from seeking help in coining slogans or finding a suitable name for his numerous political campaigns.

In 1985, he embarked on his padyatra against the Rajiv-Longowal Accord from Hisar. Till the march entered Rohtak, it remained a plain padyatra as the Chaudhri could not find a suitable name. From there on, while resting in a village on the outskirts of Rohtak, the marchers were met by a Press party which included my colleague the late Satya Pal Saini of Dainik Tribune. Satya Pal stayed back to discuss plans for the march’s coverage with me. We decided to find out the Chaudhri’s plans for the next couple of days. Together, we went to him and Saini asked him about his programme for the next week. Arre Satya Pal yeh to yudh hai, kya maloom. Magar jab tak nyaya nahin milta, chalta rahoonga, the Chaudhri said. In the same breath he blurted: Mil gaya. Yeh Nyaya Yudh Hai. Kyon theek hai na? he said looking in my eyes. At that moment Satya Pal corrected him: Nahin Chaudhri sahib yeh Nyaya Yatra hai. Aap yatra kar rahe ho. The Chaudhri thanked Saini for his suggestion and that night his life’s most gruelling political campaign was officially christened as Nyaya Yatra.

Very few people are aware that their Tau never carried even a penny in his pocket. There were very embarrassing moments when he would look sideways hoping to catch the attention of his aides to ask for money for shagun in the marriages he attended.

Over the years, his close associates made it a habit to stay near enough to shove the shagun in his hands as inconspicuously as possible, whenever he landed in a marriage pandal. But he never learnt the art of carrying a wallet on his huge persona. Yet, it is not that he did not know the importance of money. I trailed him on his numerous election campaigns over two decades and noticed that he usually gave the purses presented to him in a constituency to his party’s candidate. But occasionally, he would carry it with him only to entrust it to the candidate in the next constituency because he thought that particular candidate needed it more than the other.

This generosity was evident also when he became Chief Minister in 1987 and within days of assuming office chaired the first meeting of the high-powered purchase committee, which was to finalise purchase of cement and khaki cloth for uniforms worth several crores. Just as the meeting began, he asked the chief secretary: Mera commission kya hoga? A hushed silence followed, as senior officers and ministers looked towards each other too shocked to react. The Chaudhri repeated his query . It was then that one of the senior officers tried to retrieve the situation saying the Chief Minister could get whatever he wanted. The Tau then said two PSUs – the Cement Corporation of India and the National Textile Corporation would get the order if they donated 10 per cent of the amount to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. The story was narrated to me over the telephone later that night by the chief minister himself. As soon he came on the line he said: Aaj Haryana ne rishwat ka record tod diya and went on to narrate the goings-on at the meeting with obvious delight. Weeks later, when he was in one of his rare pensive moods he explained he did it on purpose. May be the babus would pick the hint and show some consideration for the people rather than own pockets, he explained.

He enjoyed a very warm relationship with his wife Harki Devi. Her death left him very lonely and he became more and more reserved over the years. He often used to tease her that while the entire country knew him well, she could never tell the name of his party. She too lost no opportunity to retort: Ek ho to boojhoon. Tu to har roj naya dal banave hai. This was followed by a loud roar of laughter. When he was the Deputy Prime Minister, Devi Lal once told his wife that she was the luckiest woman on earth. Pati DPM, ek beta CM, ek mantri, ek chairman, he would tell her proudly referring to his three sons Om Parkash, Ranjit Singh and Partap Singh.

But he was perhaps even luckier. He died without much suffering. And at a time when one of his sons is a Chief Minister, a grandson an MP and the other an MLA. It is up to them now to carry forward the Tau’s legacy.