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Chautala rides on

Print edition : Mar 04, 2000

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The Indian National Lok Dal returns to power in Haryana with a majority on its own and finds itself free of any possible pressure from its alliance partner, the BJP.

BY securing a clear majority in the February 22 elections to the 90-member Haryana Assembly, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) led by Om Prakash Chautala has consolidated its position vis-a-vis the Congress(I), the principal Opposition party, and simultaneously proved a point to its electoral ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The INLD and the BJP contested under the banner of the National Democratic Alliance but on different symbols; they also released separate manifestoes. Disagreements cropped up over the seat-sharing formula, and although an agreement was finally reached - under which the INLD contested 61 seats and the BJP 29 - the problems were not fully resolved.

The INLD won 47 seats, and the BJP only six, about half the number of seats it won in the 1996 Assembly elections, in which it contested as an ally of the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) led by Bansi Lal. The Congress(I) won 21 seats, independents 11, the HVP two and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Republican Party of India one seat each.

A close aide of Chautala said that the BJP, which had an "expansionist'' vision, made "unrealistic" claims in respect of the number of seats it wished to contest. The BJP's calculations were evidently based on the fact that the INLD-BJP combine had secur ed leads in 85 Assembly segments in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections and won all 10 seats in the State. But given the political undercurrents, it was evident to observers that the BJP would not win more than 10 of the 29 seats. Perhaps the only consolation f or the party was that its candidate in Kalanaur defeated acting Congress(I) Legislature Party leader Kartar Devi.

The BJP suffered several humiliating losses. One of its senior leaders, Ram Vilas Sharma, lost in two constituencies - Ballabhgarh and Mahendragarh. Sharma, who represented Mahendragarh in the previous Assembly, felt unsure of his prospects there since t he BJP candidate in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections had trailed in the Mahendragarh segment. So he chose Ballabhgarh as his second constituency. It has a substantial strength of upper-caste voters, yet he lost.

Another senior BJP leader to bite the dust was Kamla Verma, in Yamunanagar, which she represented in the previous Assembly.

The Congress(I), which was wracked by faction feuds, was not expected to fare well, but it improved its tally from 12 in 1996 to 21. However, it too had some high-profile casualties: besides Kartar Devi, two former State Congress(I) presidents lost - Bir ender Singh (in Uchana Kalan) and Harpal Singh (in Tohana). Birender Singh, who contested (and lost) the 1999 parliamentary election from Hissar constituency, had at that time too trailed in the Uchana Kalan Assembly segment.

Two other promiment Congress(I) losers were Chattarpal Singh (in Ghirai) and Randeep Surjewala (in Narwana). Surjewala lost to Chautala, who contested two seats - Rori and Narwana - and won both. Chautala's opponent in Rori was his brother Ranjit Chautal a, who contested on the Congress(I) ticket.

Among the prominent Congress(I) winners was former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal, who defeated Ganeshi Lal of the BJP in Adampur by a margin of over 46,000 votes - the highest in the State. State Congress(I) president Bhupinder Singh Hooda retained the Kiloi seat comfortably; his son Chander Mohan retained the Kalka seat.

Ironically, the defeat of some of the Congress(I) heavyweights may have the effect of ensuring greater intra-party cohesion. A senior leader said that the contest for the CLP leadership may not be stiff in the absence of the defeated heavyweights. There are known to be four factions in the State party unit - headed by Hooda, Bhajan Lal, Shamsher Singh Surjewala and Birender Singh. With Birender Singh defeated and Surjewala humbled by his son's defeat, they may be unable to wield much influence.

The political fortunes of the HVP, which formed the government along with the BJP in 1996, appear to have plummeted. Ever since the Bansi Lal Government was reduced to a minority in 1999 consequent on the BJP withdrawing its support, the HVP has suffered a string of setbacks. The Congress(I) offered to prop up the HVP government but went back when Bansi Lal reportedly did not accede to some of its conditions. The HVP had 33 legislators at that time, but its strength was reduced to less than half when a section of the legislators broke away and helped the INLD form a government. In the February 22 elections, the HVP won only two seats: one of them was Bhiwani, which Bansi Lal retained. His son Surinder Singh, who lost the Bhiwani Lok Sabha seat in 1999, lost the Tosham Assembly seat this time to a Congress(I) candidate by a huge margin.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, which had a support base in a few reserved constituencies won only one seat. Even the party's State president Aman Kumar Nagra lost. Given the low victory margins in many constituencies, political observers feel that the presence of BSP candidates might have affected the Congress(I)'s prospects in a number of constituencies because they took away the votes of Dalits.

The Nationalist Congress Party and the Republican Party of India opened their accounts in the Dadri and Palwal Assembly seats respectively. However, the winner in Dadri, a Congress(I) rebel who contested on the NCP ticket, is likely to return to the pare nt party. The winner in Palwal is a former HVP Minister who allied briefly with the INLD and eventually contested on the RPI ticket.

Of the 11 independents, some are Congress(I) rebels. A few others are believed to have been backed by Chautala in order to damage the BJP's prospects. Chautala may seek their support since he will find it easier to deal with them than with the BJP. The B JP has thus far not responded positively to Chautala's overtures to join the government. Observers believe that the party is not disinclined to join the government but is wary of a long-term association with Chautala.

Relations between the BJP and the INLD are characterised by mutual distrust. Chautala is worried that the BJP may dump him the way it did Bansi Lal. Besides, the Central government's decision to hike diesel prices and the loud-thinking by Central Ministe rs on the desirability of taxing agricultural income have not gone down well with the INLD, which has its principal support base among a rural-agrarian constituency. By distancing himself from the BJP, Chautala appears to have escaped the ill-effects of the unpopular moves.

Addressing a press conference even as the counting was on, Chautala profferred an explanation for the BJP's poor performance. He said that the people of the State had not forgiven those who had allied with Bansi Lal. Voters had considered the candidates' personal profiles and the parties' political performance, he said.

For now, it seems clear that the INLD and the Congress(I) will remain the principal political contenders in the State. There is speculation that Bansi Lal may eventually join the Congress(I). Although it may appear that the Congress(I) has not fared well , its vote share has increased steadily. Its vote share in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections too was substantially higher than that in 1998. On the other hand, the BJP's vote share, which was only between 8 and 10 per cent, declined substantially this time.

The voter turnout was quite high at 69.20 per cent despite the fact that the campaign was largely a lacklustre one. The Congress(I) hardly raised any issues, although it could have forced the government on the defensive on a number of counts - such as th e deteriorating law and order situation, the falling water table, unemployment, the steep reduction in paddy prices and poor fiscal management. The INLD enticed voters with pre-election largesse. The government promised to implement an old-age pension sc heme and a scheme under which it would give wedding gifts to young Dalit women. The promise to give free power and water was downplayed, but the Congress(I) failed to capitalise on this.

The INLD went into the election with another distinct advantage over the Congress(I): Chautala was its undisputed leader and the only candidate for chief ministership. The faction-ridden Congress(I) could not project any one leader as its candidate.

Following the INLD's victory, Chautala was re-elected leader of its legislature party and will be Chief Minister for the fourth time. As compared to his earlier, brief stints, he has greater strength of numbers this time. Even so, he will have to strive to keep his flock together, given the State's political culture of rapidly changing loyalties.

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