Om Prakash Chautala passing 12th standard examination at the ripe age of 82 is a fantastic advertisement for adult education. The fact that he wrote the examination as a convict in Delhi's Tihar jail, where he attended classes, makes it rather more interesting.
The message he has conveyed is that it is never too late to study. But the irony lies in the fact that Chautala and his son Ajay Singh Chautala, along with others, were convicted for taking bribes to recruit teachers for government schools, when the former was the chief minister of Haryana.
While his admirers in Indian National Lok Dal, which is the second biggest party in Haryana assembly, are applauding Chautala’s return to education, his critics allege that he may have cheated, as he has been regularly accused of bending the parole rules to get out of the jail for silly medical reasons.
But Tihar jail authorities insist that Chautala voluntarily wrote the examination when he was on parole for his grandson's wedding and that strict vigilance was maintained to ensure the octogenarian did not cheat.
This will be a pleasant record for a man who otherwise has left behind several unpleasant incidents in national politics. Though he will be a footnote when the history of post independence Indian politics is written, for 11 months in 1990, Chautala could first rattle and then bring down the government.
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Part of the blame goes to his doting father Devi Lal, who was deputy prime minister for eight of those 11 months in the national front government of V.P. Singh. Lal had stitched an anti-Rajiv Gandhi front in 1989 by his famous caste combination called Ajgar (python), which swallowed the Congress party in north India. The acronym Ajgar stood for a combination of Ahirs (also called Yadavs), Jats, Gujjars and Rajputs, who matter a lot in north west India. But Lal wanted his uneducated son who was accused of being a law unto himself to become chief minister.
This led to frictions with the prime minister, who thought Chautala would besmirch Singh’s Mr. Clean image. Soon, during a by-election at Meham, an assembly constituency in Haryana, Chautala scripted a new political thriller by staging booth-capturing in broad daylight in front of the media. The election got countermanded, and Chautala was forced to step down.
But an angry Lal got him reinstalled two months later - for just five days. Chautala refused to give up and again become chief minister eight months later - for 17 days, before he was toppled. In three attempts, he had ruled for eight and half months.
By then, his father had been dismissed as deputy chief minister; Singh announced backward class reservation; the strange political combination of national front supported from the outside by the BJP and the Left parties had collapsed, and another minority government of Chandra Shekhar Singh had come and gone.
But there are also positive memories of how Chautala traveled by bus, despite handicapped from a polio withered leg to a prosthetic center to get a pair of special shoes and waited patiently in the queue to meet the specialist doctor at a village hospital near Chandigarh airport. Then there are memories of his limping into village after village as an opposition leader taking up the cause of farmers and fighting the Bhajan Lal government.
His rustic hospitality was also legendary as no one returned from his home without a hearty meal. Yet, he was also accused of encouraging his supporters’ misdemeanors. They would storm into petrol pumps, fill up the tanks of their vehicles and leave without payment.
After his earlier disastrous attempts, Chautala ruled for a full five-year term as chief minister, bringing two more generations into politics. His earthy politics had a disdain for the law and he was mired in corruption charges, one of which caused conviction for 10 years.
After completing four and a half years of the term, now Chautala is setting his aim higher. He has seen the convict next-door Mannu Sharma, son of a former Haryana minister who is serving life term for the murder of model Jessica Lal, completing his masters degree. Now, Chautala wants a bachelor’s degree. By then, he would be 85 and may get the last two years of his sentence waived off for good behavior. Apparently, the degree holder would then strive to make his son Abhay Singh Chautala the chief minister of Haryana.