The expulsion of Indian National Lok Dal secretary general Ajay Chautala from primary membership of the party on Wednesday appears to have irreversibly intensified the war of succession in Haryana’s most prominent political dynasty, which was established by his grandfather and former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal. Two weeks ago, Ajay Chautala’s two sons, Dushyant Chautala and Digvijay Chautala, were also nudged out of the party.

Arrayed against Ajay Chautala is his younger brother Abhay Chautala and his two sons, Karan Chautala and Arjun Chautala. Ajay Chautala and Abhay Chautala are the sons of former Haryana chief minister and Indian National Lok Dal national president Om Prakash Chautala, who acquired the dynastic crown from Devi Lal in 1989. The action against Ajay Chautala is the result of Om Prakash Chautala’s decision to back Abhay Chautala, who is the leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly.

The next round in the succession war will see Ajay Chautala and Abhay Chautala and their children slug it out before the people. Contrary to expectations, Ajay Chautala announced in Jind on November 17 that he will soon form a separate party. Abhay Chautala may have edged out his elder brother in the dynastic sweepstake, but his triumph will have little meaning until he wins popular approval, particularly of his community of Jats. This will be judged from his Indian National Lok Dal’s performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

Right of the first-born

The root of the raging feud in the Devi Lal-Chautala dynasty lies in the sheer indivisibility of power, which, unlike land or a company, cannot be divided and shared when family and party structures overlap. It is a truism that the dynastic patriarch must also be the boss of the party run by his family. It fuels tension and conflicts, as seen in the families of former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.

At the nub of these conflicts is the struggle to establish the principle of succession, whether the firstborn male child should inherit the crown or any of his siblings, or whether the children should be overlooked in favour of the patriarch’s brother. Increasingly, though, there is an attempt to modernise and widen the principle of succession to include factors such as gender, education, conduct and talent.

One reason for the tussle in the Devi Lal dynasty is that its reigning patriarch, Om Prakash Chautala, is seen to be reversing the principle of primogeniture, on the basis of which he inherited the crown. In 1988, when Devi Lal was chief minister of Haryana, a war of succession erupted between Om Prakash Chautala and one of his three siblings, Ranjit Singh, nine years younger than him. The trigger was an allegation of corruption levelled against the state’s home minister, Sampat Singh, by a senior bureaucrat in connection with the recruitment of police constables.

Om Prakash Chautala saw in these allegations a move to weaken him in the competition to succeed his father. This was because Sampat Singh owed allegiance to him while the bureaucrat-whistleblower was considered close to Ranjit Singh. In the wake of the media coverage of the police recruitment scam, Devi Lal asked for Sampat Singh’s resignation.

A feisty Om Prakash Chautala warned his father that a minister and an MLA would resign every day in protest against Sampat Singh’s ouster. To stop the battle between his sons from escalating, Devi Lal resigned as chief minister, much to Ranjit Singh’s alarm. Despite commanding the support of a higher number of MLAs, Ranjit Singh feared his elder brother could force his way into the chief minister’s chair. Om Prakash Chautala would not have been seen as having usurped the seat because the principle of primogeniture, which has deep roots in India’s traditions, favoured him as Devi Lal’s eldest son.

To buy time, Ranjit Singh is said to have roped in Opposition stalwarts – from VP Singh to Biju Patnaik – to persuade Devi Lal to withdraw his resignation, which he did. Nevertheless, when Devi Lal shifted to Delhi to take the post of deputy prime minister in December 1989, he anointed Om Prakash Chautala as his successor, accepting the traditional rights of the eldest son. It can be argued that Chautala’s succession might not have been smooth had he refrained, in 1988, from defying his father for power.

Both Om Prakash Chautala and Ajay Chautala are serving 10-year jail sentences after their conviction in 2013 in a teachers recruitment scam. (Credit: PTI)

Political compulsions

Ajay Chautala seems to have learnt this lesson from family history well.

Yet, the principle of primogeniture cannot be followed to determine succession in the Devi Lal dynasty in 2018. This is because both Om Prakash Chautala and Ajay Chautala are serving 10-year jail sentences following their convictions in 2013 in a teachers recruitment scam. As a result, both cannot contest the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections next year. But for the furloughs they get periodically, they spend most of their time in prison.

This is ostensibly a compelling reason for the patriarch to hand over the party’s reins to his younger son Abhay Chautala, who is two years younger than the 57-year-old Ajay Chautala. It is almost certain that Abhay Chautala will be projected as the Indian National Lok Dal’s chief ministerial candidate.

Ajay Chautala and his sons have rightly concluded that this is as good as handing over the dynastic crown to Abhay Chautala and altering the line of succession. After all, it is Abhay Chautala’s sons who would inherit the dynastic crown from their father. This is against the interests of Ajay Chautala’s sons. The crown would have been theirs in the fourth generation had their father, who is the eldest son, not been disqualified from contesting elections.

It was for this reason that the Ajay Chautala camp wanted Dushyant Chautala to be projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. Dushyant Chautala was 26 when he was elected MP from Hisar in 2014, the youngest in the Lok Sabha’s history. He studied at the exclusive Lawrence School, Sanawar, and is a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from California State University. His persona, it was claimed, would appeal to the younger, aspirational, globalised and educated Haryanvis, and help expand the Indian National Lok Dal’s base beyond Jats.

However, Dushyant Chautala’s possible projection as chief ministerial candidate ran into yet another Indian tradition that considers elders to be the repositories of wisdom and, therefore, possessing qualities of leadership. Since Abhay Chautala is 25 years older than Dushyant Chautala, it is hard for many to see him work under his nephew.

Abhay Chautala will in all likelihood be the Indian National Lok Dal's chief ministerial candidate for the 2019 Assembly elections. (Credit: HT)

Brother versus brother

Principles of succession are evolved to check the patriarch’s biases seeping into his choices. Om Prakash Chautala rates Abhay Chautala highly because under his stewardship, the party grew from nine MLAs in 2005 to 31 in 2010. It plunged to 19 seats in 2014, but this is perhaps not a black mark on Abhay Chautala, given the Modi wave that was sweeping the country that year.

Abhay Chautala is seen as brash and authoritarian. These are the traits of his father, who, during the 1988 war of succession, told India Today:

“What’s the fun of living if Chautala’s name does not cause a stir. Only that person will be criticised who can benefit people or harm them. If I help someone, another’s interests are bound to be hurt, maybe my brother’s. That cannot be helped.”

With Indian politics increasingly becoming a zero-sum game, Abhay Chautala did not inspire confidence in Ajay Chautala that his sons would not be decisively cut out of the dynasty’s legacy. Abhay Chautala’s eldest son Karan Chautala is 26 years old and expected to plunge into electoral politics next year. It is assumed that Abhay Chautala will nurture his son’s interests, not that of his nephews.

Rather than give the benefit of the doubt to Abhay Chautala and belatedly discover that he has cut the ground beneath his sons’ feet, Ajay Chautala has chosen to take the succession battle to the people. After all, the dynastic crown in democracy belongs to one who enjoys popular support.

Ajay Chautala plans to turn the war of succession into a morality play. Out of Delhi’s Tihar Jail on furlough and addressing party workers in Jhajjar on November 6, he said: “The current situation in INLD is like Mahabharat… whether you would like to choose the Pandavas or Duryodhan.” He and his children are the Pandavas whose legitimate right to the dynastic crown has been snatched by Duryodhan or Abhay Chautala the usurper.

It is hard to tell if his tactics will succeed. But the succession battle will certainly trigger a realignment of political forces in Haryana. Ranjit Singh, who joined the Congress soon after losing out to Om Prakash Chautala in 1989, had some gratuitous advice for Dushyant Chautala and Digvijay Chautala. “It will be better for them if they join the Congress,” he said. “The political base of the BJP is eroding fast in the state. If they join the Congress, the party [Indian National Lok Dal] will be strengthened.”

Quite obviously, Ranjit Singh has not forgiven Om Prakash Chautala. Bitterness arising from family feuds rarely disappears, perhaps because what is supposed to be a cradle of love is found to be a hotbed of animosity and betrayal.

This is the first in a two-part series on dynastic politics.