Haryana Assembly election

In Haryana, strange bedfellows

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar and Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Singh Chautala at the swearing-in ceremony at the Haryana Raj Bhavan in Chandigarh on October 27. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Bhupinder Singh Hooda after the Congress Legislature Party meeting in Chandigarh on November 1. The State legislative unit authorised the party high command to appoint the new leader. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

The Bharatiya Janata Party manages to form the government in Haryana on the back of a post-election alliance with the Jannayak Janta Party, which fought the election on an anti-BJP plank.

At a low-key ceremony on October 27, Manohar Lal Khattar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took the oath as Chief Minister of Haryana for the second consecutive term. Dushyant Chautala, president of the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister.

The verdict of a hung Assembly catapulted the JJP, which had fought the election on an anti-BJP agenda, to a place in the ruling coalition with its 10 seats in the new Assembly. The BJP, which had won 47 seats in the previous Assembly election, was, with just 40 seats this time, short of a simple majority by six seats, though it did emerge as the single largest party. The Congress doubled its 2014 tally with 31 seats but was still 15 short of the required 46 in the 90-member Assembly.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which had severed tied with the BJP at the State level, fought this election as an ally of the Indian National Lok Dal. The INLD won one seat. The SAD, which won one seat in 2014, does not have a single seat in the new Assembly.

The biggest surprise was sprung by the JJP, formed as recently as December 2018 when Dushyant Chautala broke away from his grandfather Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD. The party secured a vote share of 27 per cent along with independents. Soon after the election results were out, Dushyant Chautala declared that the “key” (his party symbol) would be the key to government formation. A desperate BJP began approaching the independents as it was felt that it would be easier to manage them. (Incidentally, five of the seven winning independent candidates were BJP rebels.) Union Home Minister Amit Shah was learnt to have cancelled scheduled appointments and summoned Manohar Lal Khattar to Delhi. Reaching out to the independents had to be put on hold after reports of the controversial Sirsa legislator Gopal Kanda’s involvement in the double suicide of a mother and daughter began doing the rounds. Kanda is at present out on bail.

Opportunistic alliance

The JJP made its intention clear by calling a press conference where Dushyant Chautala indicated that he was not averse to supporting the BJP and said he had nothing against any party. “We campaigned against the BJP, but we did not support the Congress, did we?” he said in reply to a question. The JJP said it would support the BJP provided there was a common minimum programme.

A good section of JJP supporters are angry that the party is now supporting the BJP. But there is also a view that the JJP will be able to “control” the BJP and protect Jat interests by being part of the government. One JJP supporter told Frontline: “If we do not join the government, [Congress leader Bhupinder Singh] Hooda will finish us off, politically. We do not like the BJP, but staying out of the government is not an option. We contest elections for winning and coming to power, don’t we?”

The Congress’ chances of forming the government fell apart as neither the JJP nor the independents were keen to ally with it. As appeals for an alliance from party president Kumari Selja and Hooda went ignored, Hooda declared he was not going to pursue the JJP for support any more.

High-decibel campaign

The BJP’s high-decibel campaign, with huge advertisements run in dailies at the cost of the public exchequer and focussing on hypernationalism, the National Register of Citizens and the abrogation of Article 370, clearly fell somewhat flat. Not only did the party fall way short of the 75-seat mark that it had claimed that it would cross, its vote share plummeted by 22 percentage points in less than six months. It was not much helped, either, by its reliance on caste polarisation and the support of non-Jats. Inderjit Singh, former State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “It was wishful thinking on the BJP’s part to believe that its sweeping wins in last year’s corporation elections and the Jind byelection would be replicated in the Assembly election.”

The issues of unemployment, economic slowdown and agrarian distress proved more decisive than sentiments of nationalism or the whipped-up euphoria around the abrogation of Article 370. Even Khattar’s victory margin came down by nearly 20,000 votes, an indication of the declining popularity of his regime and of the Central government. Of the five Assembly segments in Karnal, one of which is Khattar’s constituency, the BJP won only three. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a galaxy of Ministers had campaigned hard in Haryana on the nationalism plank. They also held out the promise of “double engine” growth, a slogan that emerged in 2014 and implied that growth would be faster with the same party in power at the Centre and in the State. It did not seem to work this time.

Notwithstanding Modi’s congratulatory message for the State BJP on having won the State for the second time, the party’s performance was not exactly brilliant. As many as eight Ministers lost their seats, some of them prominent “Jat faces” of the party. Among them was State BJP president Subhash Barala, who lost from Tohana, and former Kisan Morcha president O.P. Dhankar. All the stars and celebrities fielded by the BJP, barring one, lost. As many as 50 legislators won defeating BJP candidates. Of the 17 reserved constituencies, the BJP won five, the Congress seven, and the JJP and others five. The majority of the reserved constituency seats were won by non-BJP parties and candidates, signalling an erosion of the BJP’s non-Jat support base and a shift of the rural vote in favour of the Congress and the JJP.

In the Lok Sabha election earlier this year, the BJP swept all the 10 parliamentary seats from Haryana and secured a 58.02 per cent vote share, with nationalist sentiments around the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot strike swelling the wind in its sails. It had the lead in 78 of the 90 Assembly segments, a performance that fuelled the “Ab ki baar, pacchattar” (this time 55) campaign slogan.

Indeed, the Modi-Khattar juggernaut seemed invincible and unstoppable in April-May, whereas the Congress was in bad shape with infighting at its worst. The INLD had split and was almost rudderless with its leader in jail. The breakaway JJP was a fledgling party that not many were willing to bet on.

Yet, sentiments on the ground were to prove all political pundits wrong. An opinion poll, conducted in gross violation of Election Commission guidelines and the Representation of the People Act, predicted a sweeping victory for the BJP. All exit polls, barring one, predicted the same.

Decline in vote share

But the electorate had something else in mind. The BJP found its vote share declining to 36.5 per cent, while the Congress more or less retained the vote share it secured in the Lok Sabha election and actually increased it by 8 per cent against the votes polled in the 2014 Assembly election. The Congress’ performance also signalled former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s decisive return in State politics. His personal victory margin of 58,132 votes was the highest in the State.

A month and a half before the election, the Congress effected a number of organisational changes. Hooda, who had been sidelined by the party high command, had threatened to form his own outfit in August this year. In September, he was appointed Congress Legislature Party leader in the Assembly, replacing Kiran Chaudhary (daughter-in-law of the late Bansi Lal), and was also made election-in-charge. Ashok Tanwar was removed as State party president, and Kumari Selja was appointed in his place. The Congress hoped to win back its Jat and Dalit (the Jatavs in particular) vote base with the Hooda-Selja combination. The replacement of Ashok Tanwar, considered a Rahul Gandhi appointee, also signalled the return of the “old” guard in the Congress.

Had the Congress revamped its organisational structure six months ago and refrained from ruffling the feathers of the State satraps, the outcome might have gone more decisively in its favour. The results showed that the electorate was not enamoured of the BJP any more.

Anti-BJP vote

The inroads the Congress has made into BJP strongholds signified a vote against the BJP rather than a positive mandate for the Congress, as was underscored by the win of five BJP rebels as independents. Quite a few of the successful JJP candidates were also rebels from the BJP and the Congress.

Inderjit Singh pointed out that the Congress and the JJP gained from the anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP. “They did not organise a single agitation on issues of farmers, workers or employees. They extended token support to movements led by the Left and other non-political outfits. There was a chance for a secular alternative in Haryana had there been a far-sighted and mature approach in these parties. The BJP could have been defeated,” he said.

It may not be a cakewalk for the JJP

Although the JJP now seems to be on a strong wicket, this may not be the case for very long as eight of its 10 MLAs have no organic relationship with the party. Political observers recall how the Congress, when it fell short of a majority in 2009, took the support of seven independents and accepted into its fold five legislators of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), a party formed by Kuldeep Bishnoi, son of former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, who had broken away from the Congress. Bishnoi was left high and dry after his elected MLAs switched sides. He rejoined the Congress after the HJC merged with it in 2016. The JJP could in the future find itself in a similar situation. Its MLAs were elected solely on an anti-BJP plank, and some of them were BJP rebels. “Those who are denied a ministerial berth may switch sides, especially if the BJP’s second innings turns out to be even more unpopular,” said a political commentator.

The election outcome in Haryana is significant in the sense that it can have a bearing on the elections in Delhi next year and perhaps also on the elections in Jharkhand later this year. The low turnout reflected disenchantment with the BJP government. People seemed to vote for candidates most likely to defeat BJP nominees. The BJP-JJP alliance is an unnatural one born out of convenience. No one can predict how long it will survive given the differences in the voter bases of the two parties.

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