IN an unusual show of defiance on October 2, former Haryana Pradesh Congress president Ashok Tanwar’s supporters protested angrily outside 10 Janpath, the residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Tanwar himself made an appearance and addressed the protesters, making known his own grievance against the party’s ticket distribution for the Assembly election in Haryana, and on October 5 left the Congress. This open demonstration of fissures within the party is bound to impact its prospects in the election in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled State. Haryana and Maharashtra will go to the polls on October 21 in single-phase election, the results of which will be declared on October 24.
In a letter to Sonia Gandhi a few days ago, Tanwar, a former Member of Parliament and Youth Congress president, had announced his resignation from all committees of the State Congress and said it was “excruciating to see the same individuals taking all the decisions and instead of allowing just, fair, free selection of candidates, individuals are selling tickets and subverting the great political legacy of the Congress”. His grouse was mainly directed at former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, under whose influence the Congress in the State had allegedly turned into “Hooda Congress”. He said that those who had worked against the party had been given the party ticket. .Only two of Tanwar's supporters had been accommodated.
The Congress got fewer seats than the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in the 2014 Assembly election, which put the BJP in power. Last year, however, it found itself fortuitously catapulted to the position of principal opposition in the 90-member Haryana Assembly when Dushyant Chautala, a grandson of INLD supremo Om Parkash Chautala, broke ranks with the parent party to launch his Janta Jannayak Party (JJP).
Not too long ago, the INLD and the Congress were the chief claimants for the Jat vote, while the BJP was considered largely a party representing non-Jat communities and incapable of forming the government on its own. This changed in 2014.
The ruling BJP will contest the upcoming election on its own, having fallen out with its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), following the induction of the lone SAD MLA from Kalanwali Assembly segment into the BJP. The SAD, which is a BJP ally at the Centre as well as in Punjab, did not take kindly to the move and is now in an alliance with the INLD.
The BJP’s nomination exercise was a grandiose affair with several senior leaders, including Ministers, accompanying the candidates as they filed their nominations. The party has renominated around three dozen of its sitting MLAs, including two Cabinet Ministers, Ram Bilas Sharma and Captain Abhimanyu from Mahendargarh and Narnaul respectively. Eight sitting MLAs have not been renominated. The BJP has given the party ticket to two INLD MLAs, both Muslims, in Meo-dominated Mewat. Among the other new faces who got the BJP ticket were the wrestlers Babita Phogat and Yogeshwar Dutt and a former captain of the Indian hockey team, Sandeep Singh.
Dushyant Chautala’s JJP is contesting all 90 seats, with its leader facing sitting BJP legislator from Uchana Kalan, Prem Lata, who trounced him in 2014 by 7,000 votes. Prem Lata is the wife of former Union Minister Birender Singh, who was once a Congress member. Dushyant Chautala’s mother, Naina Chautala, who is the sitting MLA from Dabwali, will contest from Badhra, where she will take on the Congress’ Ranbir Mahendra, son of former Chief Minister Bansi Lal.
Meanwhile, Abhay Singh Chautala of the INLD, who was the Leader of the Opposition before the 2018 split, will contest from Ellenabad, which he currently represents. Abhay Singh is Om Parkash Chautala’s son and Chaudhary Devi Lal’s grandson.
At present, the INLD is fighting a battle for survival and relevance. In the January 2019 byelection to the Jind Assembly seat, following the death of the sitting INLD MLA Harichand Middha, the deceased legislator’s son, Krishan Middha, secured the seat, but he won it for the BJP, which had never before won from Jind. Krishan Middha had crossed over to the BJP from the INLD a couple of months before the byelection. It was a bitter defeat for the INLD, made worse by its candidate finishing fourth, after the JJP’s Digvijay Chautala, who finished second, and the Congress’ Randeep Surjewala, a sitting MLA from Kaithal.
Ram Kumar, an agricultural scientist, said the BJP seemed to have succeeded to an extent in distracting people from livelihood issues. In 80 of the seats, he said, the contest was mainly between the Congress and the BJP, while in the remaining 10, other parties were in the reckoning: the INLD, the JJP, former BJP MP Raj Kumar Saini’s newly floated Loktantra Suraksha Party (LSP), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Swaraj India. Saini, who defeated the INLD candidate in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, left the BJP before the 2019 election. Saini, who is strongly opposed to reservation for Jats, was at the forefront of the 2016 agitation against reservation, which caused a deep social cleavage between Jats and non-Jats. The BJP has successfully exploited this rift. Saini did not contest but entered into an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Neither the BSP nor the LSP won any seat in the 2019 election, and the BSP’s vote share saw a dip.
“The only way the BJP could polarise in Haryana was on caste lines as the religious card could not be used here,” said a political scientist. It was felt that Scheduled Caste and Backward Class segments, regarded as traditional vote banks of the Congress, had shifted their loyalty to the BJP, a shift made possible by the absence of a credible opposition and the BJP’s nationalist rhetoric. Among the Scheduled Castes, only the Jatav community’s vote was believed to be still with the Congress. Scheduled Caste voters constitute 20 per cent of the voter population, and Jatavs account for around 50 per cent of this segment, with the Dhanaks, Valmikis, Sansis, Sikligars, and others making up the remaining 50 per cent. The Valmikis were supposedly “with” the BJP. Of course, no political party had the total backing of any single community.
The Jat-non Jat rift dates back to the reign of three-time Chief Minister Bhajan Lal Bishnoi, who was the only non-Jat Chief Minister to have ruled the State until the BJP’s Manohar Lal Khattar came to power in 2014. Bhajan Lal began as a Congressman but later joined the Janata Party and Devi Lal, only to rejoin the Congress. In 2007, he finally broke ranks with the Congress and formed the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) along with his sons. Today, the HJC does not exist and Bhajan Lal’s son and son-in-law are contesting on the Congress ticket. Neither carries the heft of Bhajan Lal, and their ability to influence the non-Jat vote in favour of the Congress is limited to their constituencies.
Congress vs Congress?
Jats, who constitute around 23 per cent of the electorate, traditionally voted for either the Congress or the INLD. But the community has been ambivalent about its support to the Congress since the 2014 general election. With the INLD in disarray, the Congress might have emerged as the only credible claimant to the community’s votes but for the factionalism that plagues the party. Ram Kumar said the Congress might have gained in a situation where the effects of demonetisation were also making themselves felt. “If there wasn’t infighting within the Congress, it would have given a tough contest to the BJP,” he said. The Jat-Sikh vote, which comprises 5 per cent of the electorate, is expected to be divided equally between the Congress, the INLD and the BJP. The AAP, the Swaraj India, the BSP and the LSP are not considered significant players and their collective vote share is not expected to cross 10 per cent. The INLD and the JJP are expected to corner 10 per cent of the votes. The Congress and the BJP will be battling it out for the remaining 80 per cent.
The BJP has an edge in this battle. Ram Kumar pointed out that the Congress lacked a proper organisation. Apart from appointing a new State president belatedly, no other office-bearer had been appointed, not even district presidents. “The organisational structure of the Congress is not in place while the BJP and the Sangh have been at it for quite some time. The Congress party is not fighting elections anywhere; individuals affiliated to it are. The question of any party having an alliance with the Congress arises only after there is an intra-party alliance within the Congress and between the various factions,” he said.
Factionalism in the Congress is nothing new, but it has been worse after 2014, with one section representing the old guard in the party’s central leadership and the other supporting the new guard. More importantly, State leaders have been vying for control, with some of them defying the party line on various issues. For example, the position of some State-level leaders on the abrogation of Article 370 has been at variance with that of the central leadership. It is not without reason that the BJP has been asking that leaders like Hooda clarify their position on Article 370.
In contrast to the Congress, the BJP appears to have the support of a section of well-off Jats and non-Jat communities, especially the trading classes and the Other Backward Classes. It had consolidated itself as a party representing non-Jats, a mantle once worn by the late Bhajan Lal. No particularly pro-incumbency sentiment is evident, but the propaganda around the various Central schemes seems to have had some influence among the electorate. “They [the government] are constantly seen as doing something or the other. It is not that the public benefits from it, but the perception is that they are doing something,” said a farmer on condition of anonymity. He added that people did not understand the economic slowdown but are definitely impacted by it. Illegal mining and the depletion of soil and groundwater are serious issues that none of the opposition parties are raising.
Article 370, Pakistan and “double engine” development appear to constitute the main electoral planks for the BJP. While campaigning for the State elections in Haryana, Maharashtra and later Jharkhand in 2014, Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders advocated the concept of “double engine development” and governments. This line was adopted to convince the electorate that it was beneficial for them to elect a party that was in power at the Centre. The formula worked in some States but not in States like Odisha, West Bengal or Andhra Pradesh. The double engine formula is being repeated once again but in the backdrop of the abrogation of Article 370, which the BJP has been touting as a big achievement in arresting the growth of terrorism.
No dearth of issues
While there are no dearth of issues to take up, opposition parties in Haryana are preoccupied in setting their own houses in order. Inderjit Singh, former secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that a large number of government employees were on contract and had not been made regular. “The Central government emphasises Direct Benefit Transfer and digital payments. Workers are being paid through contractors and there is no one to check that,” he said. When the State government advertised for 18,000 Group D posts, there were close to 23 lakh applicants. Similarly when the Haryana Staff Selection Commission advertised for some 4,858 clerk recruitment posts in June, there were close to 15 lakh applicants. Going by the Centre for the Monitoring of the Indian Economy data for August, the unemployment rate in Haryana is three times higher than the national average. It is the highest in the country at 28.7 per cent, followed by Tripura and Himachal Pradesh.
Inderjit Singh, who is also an office-bearer of the All India Kisan Sabha, said that the October yield for both paddy and cotton was expected to be adversely affected by the bad weather conditions. Many families depend on these two crops, with the harvest coming just before Diwali. The State government had made no efforts towards procurement of these crops.A popular catchphrase of the BJP in this election is “Ab Ki Baar, Pachhattar Paar”: the party expects to cross the 75-seat mark. People jokingly draw parallels with the sky-rocketing price of onions, which has crossed the Rs.70 mark in some States. Yet, notwithstanding a steep rise in the price of almost all essential commodities, especially food items, and the presence of myriad electoral stakeholders, there seems to be a feeling that the BJP will come back to power a second time in the State, riding on the wave of nationalism, terrorism and sectarian rhetoric.