“Panje ko panj lakh (500,000 votes to Congress),” say a group of middle-aged women, minutes before sitting MP Deepender Hooda is about to enter the arena and start a road show, along with Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Holding placards of Priyanka, Rohtak waits as she runs late by two hours. Most of them wait for “Deepender bhaiya” but the excitement to see Priyanka is unmissable.
She appears finally, in a green cotton saree, standing atop a truck, waving, smiling, folding hands, and Rohtak bursts in excitement. Even a mini-BJP office that the convoy crosses, has people peeking out, as Hooda smiles proudly standing next to her, as if she’s a gift to his city.
Hooda’s team is confident that people won’t let the development he has done go in vain. The threat is not the competitor — Arvind Sharma, a former Congressman who switched over to the BJP — but that one man without whose mention no election rally is complete: Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Younger people especially the first-time voters have grown up in a prosperous Rohtak. They didn’t witness the turnaround that the Hooda government did — both father and son. So, if someone is selling dreams, they could fall for it,” says a person close to Congress functionary in Rohtak.
An octogenarian simply says, “Bluff khelta hai Modi. Deepender sharif hai.”
It is this honest image that the Congress is building the campaign around Hooda. Posters across the city say, “Apne Deepender ki pehchaan — saadgi, sharafat, shaandar kaam”.
In 2005, when his father vacated the seat, Hooda junior won by a thumping 585,000 votes. When Modi wave swept the country in 2014, Hooda was one of the few MPs who held their ground. His winning margin was 490,000.
After 2.5 hours of travelling around Rohtak, Hooda thanks Priyanka 'didi' for her gracious presence. “I never mention any caste. I only talk development and today also I promise you, we will not stoop to caste-based fight,” Deepender tells the ever-swelling crowd.
“Itna pyar, Rohtak, sharminda kar diya,” Priyanka says and then gets to business. “This government killed your business with a hasty GST, then called standing in queue for exchanging currency as nationalism," she roars. “Farmers travelled thousands of kilometres to meet the PM and he didn't give them 5 minutes, but went to eat biryani in Pakistan. He talks about nationalism.”
Modi will visit Rohtak on May 10, two days before the elections, and Hooda can’t help mentioning him. “When the PM comes what would you say?” “Chowkidar chor hai,” the thunder from the crowd almost sounds scripted.
Hooda continues to have his sway, but many are disenchanted, especially for supporting the Jats during the 2016 agitation.
After the 2014 elections, Hooda’s friends used to joke about him being the only Congress MP from Punjab to Bombay. Five years on, the fight has only got tougher, with the challenger being the PM himself.