Haryana Assembly elections

Haryana: Congress in disarray

Print edition : October 11, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar at the Vijay Sankalp Rally in Rohtak on September 8. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

State Congress president Kumari Selja and campaign committee chairman Bhupinder Singh Hooda (right) with senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad at the party headquarters in Chandigarh on September 7. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

With practically no other opposition party worth its name in the State, the Congress has a chance to consolidate the anti-BJP vote behind it in Haryana. But can it, with its least proactive responses, buck the trend?

On September 8, marking 100 days of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sounded the campaign bugle for the Haryana Assembly elections at a rally in Rohtak. While the abrogation of the provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution was one of the highlights of the rally, he also made it clear that Manohar Lal Khattar was indisputably the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) choice for Chief Minister once again. In a play of words with the first names of Khattar and himself, he said that “Manohar” and “NamoHar” were one and the same, indicating that voting for the BJP under Khattar’s leadership was akin to voting for him. He also announced development projects worth Rs.2,000 crore for the State.

A long-time Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, Khattar had little electoral experience when he was named Chief Minister in 2014 following the BJP’s victory in the Assembly elections, winning 47 seats and dislodging the Congress. It was the first time since the formation of the State that the BJP was coming to power on its own. However, he had been in charge of the party’s election campaign committee in Haryana in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which preceded the Assembly elections and which saw the installation of an NDA government led by Modi at the Centre.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, with Khattar at the helm, the BJP bettered its performance by winning all the 10 seats from Haryana with huge margins. Apparently, the terrorist attack against paramilitary personnel in Pulwama and the air strike conducted by India in Balakot in February had a significant impact on the electorate, given the fact that the State has a large number of serving and retired army personnel.

It was also clear from the results that a good number of Jat farmers and peasants had voted for the BJP. The shift of Jat support to a party that was primarily considered a non-Jat party for decades was a surprising development. It is with this confidence that the BJP hopes to form the government once again in the elections to the 13th Haryana Assembly, which are to be held in a single phase on October 21.

The electoral battle for the 90-member House will be a keenly watched one because of its proximity to the national capital. At present there is little doubt that the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A will be used in the BJP’s campaign to project its war on “terror”, notwithstanding the growing alienation in the Kashmir Valley. Interestingly, the BJP has also declared it will prepare a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the State on the lines of that in Assam.

Congress in disarray

Such histrionics have become an integral affair of the BJP’s campaign strategy, but what is significant is that the opposition continues to be in a state of disarray. Recently, the State unit of the Congress saw some major changes at its helm after former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda almost threatened to split the party because of his antipathy to Ashok Tanwar, the State Congress president who led the party in the 2014 and 2019 elections. Tanwar, who has a doctorate in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University, cut his teeth in university politics and successfully led the student wing of his party, the National Students Union of India, for some years. Regarded as the face of the youth, he also had the support of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi although he lacked support from within the party.

In mid August, Hooda organised a rally in Rohtak to which none of the State leaders was invited. Apparently, the images of neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi were visible in the hoardings at the rally. It was then rumoured that he would float a separate outfit, splitting the Congress. In fact, Hooda went out on a limb to declare that he was not averse to the abrogation of Article 370 even as the Congress’ central leadership opposed it and party veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad was denied entry into Srinagar.

Later, when the BJP declared it would conduct the NRC process in Haryana, a section of the Congress leadership rose to support it. For all its posturing of countering the BJP ideologically, the Congress was seen capitulating to the politics of majoritarianism and jingoistic paranoia.

Given the opposition of Hooda to the leadership of Tanwar and faced with the possibility of a rout if Hooda were to split the party, the Congress replaced Tanwar with Kumari Selja, who, like Tanwar, is a Dalit. To placate Hooda further, he was given the charge of the election campaign and appointed Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader in the Assembly, replacing Kiran Chaudhary, daughter-in-law of the late Bansi Lal. This was to send out a message that Hooda would be the face of the party in the State.

In December 2018, when the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) split, the party lost its status of principal opposition and its leader Abhay Chautala was removed as Leader of the Opposition. Although the Congress became the second largest party in the Assembly, its MLAs, owing their allegiance to Hooda, were reluctant to nominate Kiran Chaudhary, who was CLP leader, as Leader of the Opposition. Now, with less than a month for the elections, Hooda has been granted the status of the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.

A party insider said all these measures were “too little, too late”. “The Congress made headlines only when there were factional rifts in the party. If not for factionalism, it would not have got even that coverage in the press. In one place it has replaced a man with a woman and in another place a woman with a man. This is not going to help them,” quipped a party member.

The electoral scene

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress, for the first time in the history of the State, drew a blank. In the 2014 parliamentary election, it won just the Rohtak seat with two seats going to the INLD and seven seats to the BJP. The BJP, which contested eight of the 10 seats, secured 34.7 per cent of the votes compared with 17.21 per cent in 2009 when it failed to win a single seat. In 2014, it had a short-lived alliance with the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) led by Kuldeep Bishnoi, son of former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal. The alliance fell apart before the Assembly elections the same year.

The Congress, on the other hand, secured 22.9 per cent of the votes in 2014 compared with 41.77 per cent in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. The HJC, which bagged one seat in 2009, saw its vote share plummet by almost 50 per cent. In that sense, 2014 was a watershed for the BJP, which had piggybacked on the INLD. It was learnt that the INLD was keen to forge an alliance with the BJP for both the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but its overtures were turned down.

The apparent reason was that the BJP had broken the “Jat jinx” and managed to split the Jat vote in its favour. This was a vote bank which used to tilt towards the INLD or the Congress alternately. Thanks to the nationalistic drumbeat and a weak opposition, the BJP’s vote share rose from 34.7 per cent in 2014 to 58.02 per cent in 2019. Although the Congress improved its vote share by about six percentage points, it failed to win a single seat. The INLD, which secured a vote share of 24.4 per cent in 2014, was virtually decimated, with it getting a vote share of 1.89 per cent.

The sentiments around Pulwama and Balakot apart, the INLD’s split in December 2018, with party president Om Parkash Chautala’s grandson Dushyant Chautala forming his own outfit Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), was a factor in ensuring the BJP’s victory.

Effectively, there were now three contenders vying for the 25 per cent Jat electorate—Hooda, Abhay Chautala and Dushyant Chatuala. The JJP entered into an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But neither party won any seat or secured a vote share that was significant. The share of the AAP in fact declined (it had contested fewer seats). It was clear that the massive gain in the BJP’s vote share clearly came at the expense of the INLD.

The opposition continues to be fragmented although in the aftermath of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, there have been attempts to form new alliances. On August 11, the JJP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) announced a pre-election alliance at a press conference in Delhi for a win-win combination of both Jats and non-Jats. Dalits comprise nearly 20 per cent of the electorate, the second highest after Jats. But barely a month after announcing the alliance, on September 7, BSP chief Mayawati declared the dissolution of the tie-up, citing differences over seat-sharing arrangements. The main parties in the fray continue to be the BJP, the Congress and the JJP to an extent.

The Congress, which has emerged as the undisputed opposition to the BJP, has still a long way to go. “The BJP is confident. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it was Pulwama that pulled the votes. This time it is going to be the abrogation of Article 370,” said a political observer.

A feeling that prevails is that the Congress, with its factional politics, has seen the worst and as the principal opposition party in the State, it has a chance of consolidating the anti-BJP vote behind it. Recently, an independent MLA Jai Prakash, a three-time MP and former Union Minister, joined the Congress along with four INLD leaders, including its former president Ashok Arora.

Farcical opposition

However, in the last five years of BJP rule, neither the Congress nor the INLD has conducted any major movements or agitations against the Khattar government. “People might just vote the BJP again for want of a credible alternative. If you ask me, there isn’t any great support for the BJP on the ground with the economy being the way it is,” an industry association member said, requesting anonymity. The 22-day-long road show titled Jan Ashirwaad Yatra flagged off on August 18 by Union Minister Rajnath Singh and led by Khattar, in which the entire government machinery was deployed to facilitate the campaign, drew a lukewarm response. The yatra had its share of controversies as well. On the day the Chief Minister’s cavalcade and yatra passed through Sonipat district, a man attempted self-immolation in Rathdahana village protesting against his son’s unemployment.

In fact, progressive outfits and mass organisations of the Left parties, despite their weak electoral presence in the State, have been more proactive in raising people’s issues in comparison to the Congress, the INLD or the JJP. In Jind recently, Jan Samwad, a broad platform of progressive and democratic-minded people, organised a public meeting to highlight people’s issues and released a people’s manifesto.

Inderjit Singh, former State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and one of the main conveners of the Jan Samwad, said the “public manifesto” pointed out how easily the State could provide education and health and public transport for all instead of pushing all these sectors into private hands. Despite its high per capita income, Haryana was ranked 12th, below Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal, in terms of health services. Haryana Roadways, which had the capacity to provide around one lakh jobs, has been cut down in size over the years, and routes have been handed over to private transporters. The Electricity Board, which was a huge employer, has likewise been downsized.

“The real issues confronting people are on the back burner. Crime rates and drug addiction are on the rise. The various agricultural grants announced by the Central government do not benefit the sharecropper and the contract farmer. A significant proportion of the peasantry comes under this category,” he said.

It is not clear as yet whether the slowdown in the economy that has caused widespread joblessness or rising costs of living will be electoral issues. But one thing is sure to be there: the rhetoric of muscular nationalism.