Widespread ire

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda during a road show in Sonepat on April 23. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Digvijay Chautala, the JPP candidate from Sonepat constituency, during an election campaign at village Kamach Kera on May 2. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Women farmers demonstrate seeking Haryana’s share of water from the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal, during a rally organised by the INLD in New Delhi on March 7. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Ranbir Singh, a farmer, at the Kalanaur Mandi, a market in Rohtak. Mustard lies packed in sacks ready for sale, but there are no buyers. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Simmering discontent over dull trade, low farm prices and a lack of jobs will be the determining factor at the hustings.

The outcome of any election in Haryana is seldom on predictable lines. On May 12, the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the State will go to the polls in a single-phase election. On the face of it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is at an advantage as it controls the reins of government in the State. On the other hand, it faces the prospect of double anti-incumbency as it is in power both in the State and at the Centre. Additionally, in recent months, major political developments took place that could potentially impact the electoral fortunes of all the leading players in the State.

The first major development was the split of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in November last year. Ajay Chautala, the elder son of INLD chief Om Prakash Chautala, who along with his father is serving a 10-year prison sentence in a teachers’ recruitment scam case, floated a new outfit called the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), officially severing ties with the parent INLD and his younger brother, Abhay Chautala. Ajay Chautala’s son, Dushyant, is the MP from Hisar and now the JJP’s candidate.

The split in the INLD is bound to split the Jat vote and the INLD base, signs of which were visible in the Jind byelection in January this year that the BJP won, trouncing the JJP, Congress and INLD candidates.

Congress factions

The faction-ridden Congress has its own share of challenges. Contrary to expectations, its high-profile and visible national spokesperson Randeep Surjewala stood a poor third in the byelection, while the INLD was pushed to the fourth position.

Surjewala’s defeat was directly attributed, by insiders, to sabotage from within the party. “The purpose of his nomination was to show that the party was unified and strong enough to take on the BJP. But he lost in spite of that. There are as many as five factions in the Congress. If they win seats despite this, it will be a miracle,” a party insider said.

Another major development was the series of violent protests by Jats seeking reservation in parts of northern India in 2016. In the course of the protests in Haryana, several properties of non-Jats were targeted and vandalised. Inflammatory statements made by non-Jat leaders of the BJP against the call for reservation created a deep wedge between the communities.

The INLD and the Congress governed the State alternately for years until 2014, when the BJP’s entry in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections emerged as a challenge.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP for the first time won seven seats and secured 34.8 per cent of the vote; the INLD came second with two seats; and the Congress came third, winning only Rohtak.

In the Assembly elections the same year in October, the party formed a government on its own after winning 47 of the 90 Assembly seats and securing almost the same vote share. Despite together cornering nearly 60 per cent of the votes, the INLD, the Congress and nine independents could not muster the majority of seats.

A split opposition

Given the new equation and the split in the INLD, the Congress ought to have been the main gainer. However, it is a deeply divided party, each faction representing some interest or the other. Former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda still leads the party from the front and will be contesting from Sonepat. His son, Deepender Hooda, the sitting MP from Rohtak, has been renominated to the seat, where he faces Arvind Sharma of the BJP.

Sharma has an interesting political background. A three-time MP, he won as an independent from Sonepat in 1996, later joined the Congress, and contested successfully in both 2004 and 2009.

The INLD and the JJP too are fielding candidates from Rohtak, taking the total number of prominent Jat candidates there to three. Rohtak was among the main hotspots of large-scale vandalism in 2016. By fielding Sharma, a non-Jat, the BJP hopes to cash in on the support of all non-Jat communities.

While the INLD and the Congress are contesting all 10 seats, the JJP and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have struck an electoral alliance to contest seven and three seats respectively. (It was learnt from reliable sources that the INLD was keen on an alliance with the BJP but the latter was not willing. The BJP had, in the past, allied with the INLD.) Announcing the tie-up on April 13, JJP chief Dushyant Chautala said that the “jhadoo” (broom) symbol of the AAP and the “chappal” (slipper) symbol of the JJP had come together to overthrow their opponents. The alliance happened after the AAP and the Congress failed to come to an understanding over seat-sharing in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab.

While most constituencies will see triangular contests, the electoral battle for Hisar will be the most keenly watched one as it features Dushyant Chautala of the JJP, former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal’s grandson Bhavya Bishnoi of the Congress, Brajendra Singh, son of BJP MP Birendra Singh, and the construction workers’ union leader, Sukhbir Singh, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Observers said that the Jind byelection, where the BJP candidate won by more than 12,000 votes, was indicative of the stagnation of the JJP, which was initially seen as an emerging opposition to the BJP. “Saving the Hisar seat itself will be a big challenge,” said Inderjit Singh, vice-president of the State unit of the Kisan Sabha.

The only place where the INLD might hope to win is the Sirsa (Scheduled Caste) seat. The sitting MP, Charanjit Singh Rori of the INLD, will face a tough four-cornered contest with Pradesh Congress Committee president Ashok Tanwar and contestants of the JJP and the BJP.

In Ambala, the other reserved seat, Kumari Selja of the Congress faces her old opponent and sitting MP Rattan Lal Kataria of the BJP. Kataria won this seat in 1999 by around 1.24 lakh votes. In 2004 and 2009, he was defeated by Kumari Selja.

Seats of interest

Two other constituencies that will be of interest are Gurgaon and Bhiwani-Mahendragarh. In the first, the sitting MP, Rao Inderjit Singh, will take on Congress MLA Ajay Yadav, while in Bhiwani-Mahendragarh, former MP Shruti Chaudhary, granddaughter of former Chief Minister Bansi Lal, will face the sitting MP, Dharambir Singh of the BJP. Informed sources said that Dharambir Singh, who is facing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, was not prepared to contest but changed his mind a day after the Pulwama attack happened. “Now he says Modi is the only issue,” quipped a political observer.

Farmers’ anger

In the last week of April, Rohtak residents were in for a rude surprise when they found piles of harvested wheat dumped on the roads. When this correspondent visited the Kalanaur Mandi grain market in Rohtak, the place was overflowing with wheat and mustard. Farmers told Frontline that they had not been paid even 10 days after delivering the grain to the market. As they had not been paid, they were unable to pay the labourers, who were waiting for the final settlement of dues.

“There is no purchase of grain. Where it has been purchased, payment has not been made. The farmer is at loggerheads with the commission agent for his payment,” lamented Ranbir Singh from Meham district.

He said more than 10 days had passed since he had deposited the wheat crop. “I weighed the wheat and brought it here. We have to first grow the crop and then stand in line for the fertilizer and again to get our payment. A farmer’s life is the worst,” he added.

As per the norm, the payment for wheat has to be done within 72 hours of delivery to the grain market. Ranbir Singh said: “If it rains, all of this [grain] lying unprotected outside the sheds will be destroyed. The rotten wheat will be then supplied to the public distribution system at Rs.2 a kilogram. And this is only the beginning of the season. The entire mandi will be covered with wheat from top to bottom in a few days.”

Amaresh, a daily wager hailing from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, was going through a similar set of payment troubles. “I worked in the harvesting of sugar cane and then wheat. I have been here for the last one and a half months. I am waiting for my payment and only then can I go home. I am putting up at the Kalanaur mandi itself,” he said.

Satender, a farmer who had taken land on lease, said that in the eventuality of crop failure, the owner received the compensation, not the actual cultivator. “The Rs.6,000 that Modiji has promised to give farmers annually is for the owners and not for lease cultivators like me,” he said.

Procurement blues

Every year, mustard and bajra farmers face problems as the crop is always sold at rates much below the minimum support price (MSP). The ceiling on procurement by the government makes things worse. Payment for sugar cane, again, is usually always delayed.

Farmers’ representatives said that since mustard was purchased at prices below the MSP, cultivators had resorted to distress sales at rates much below their production and input costs per quintal. Inderjit Singh, a Kisan Sabha office-bearer, said that cultivators were now supposed to register online and it was agreed that the government would purchase only a certain proportion of the produce. He also said that milk procurement prices had gone down drastically as cattle owners found it very difficult to sell and buy animals in the current atmosphere of cow vigilantism.

“People are hugely dependent on animal husbandry and a large number of women are engaged in it. The trade of cattle has all but collapsed, and even distress sales of cattle are taking place,” he said. “The price of the highly valued Murrah breed of buffaloes, which is bred here and sold down south as well, has also gone down. Neither the BJP government nor its candidates are focussing on these issues. They are banking heavily on Modi and caste polarisation to win these elections,” he added.

Public sector

Educational and health institutions in the public sector are also in bad shape. Government schools do not have enough teachers while private education thrives. Inderjit Singh, former State secretary of the CPI(M), said the government was not implementing the rule of admitting children from economically weaker sections in private schools.

There was widespread discontent among government employees too. In October last year, roadways employees went on strike for two weeks demanding that vacancies in the department be filled and that the privatisation of roadway services be called off.

One of the many things claimed by the BJP government led by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is that it has generated around 18,000 jobs without any “parcha or kharcha [recommendation or corruption]”. For four and a half years, the government sat on the unemployment problem. No appointments were made. In the penultimate year of its rule, it advertised for jobs in the Group D category where the minimum qualification required was a middle school or matriculation pass. Some 20 lakh people applied, of whom many were graduates and postgraduates. About 4,000 of the 18,000 who were finally recruited turned out to be highly qualified people who were unaware of the nature of the work expected of them. Soon, many of them refused to do such work and quit.

The flip side of this was as many as 15,000 contract employees who were already working in Group D category of services were thrown out. Even if the job generation claims were true, the number of jobs per village is negligible. There are about 7,000 villages in the State and a total of 18,000 jobs.

Om Prakash, a former bank officer in Bhiwani, said that Dharambir Singh, the incumbent MP, and BJP candidates seeking re-election from Bhiwani-Mahendargarh had nothing to say about the problems in the constituency except to ask for votes in the name of the country and Modi. The slogan in Bhiwani, BJP insiders said, was “Modi zaroori hai, Dharambir majboori hai [Modi is a necessity, Dharambir is a compulsion]”, indicating that the BJP was relying heavily on the “Modi factor” to deliver seats.

Notwithstanding all these factors and the problems within parties, no section felt that the BJP deserved a second chance either at the Centre or in the State. “The BJP is not going to win as many seats this time,” said a trader. The general economic slowdown has hit sections of the trading community hard.

Jewellers in Bhiwani said that sales were “down” mostly after the introduction of goods and services tax and, before that, demonetisation. “People are holding on to their money, afraid that if they make big transactions they will be hauled up by the tax authorities. They are spending only as much as they need. No one will say frankly that business is bad. You have been sitting for 20 minutes. Did you see any customer come in? Real estate is down, including sale and purchase of land. The registration fee has gone up. What has happened is that black money has become white,” said Balwan Singh, a jeweller.

The outcome of the elections to the 10 seats will equally be a referendum on the performance of the BJP government in the State. Assembly elections are due in October this year. The only comfort that the Khattar government can draw is that the opposition appears to be in disarray; yet, every party knows that for the voter, issues matter, and the simmering discontent will be the determining factor in this election.

T.K. Rajalakshmi has travelled in Rohtak, Bhiwani and Hisar for this story.

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