As Haryana goes into campaign mode, Chief Minister Om Parkash Chautala announces sops for the electorate. But the scales seem to be tipped in favour of the Congress.
WHEN the Chief Election Commissioner observed on December 15 that it was "morally incorrect" for the Haryana Chief Minister to announce sops for the electorate after the date for elections to the State Assembly had been announced, the reaction of Om Prakash Chautala was predictable. The very next day, he declared a further slew of sops for various sections, such as ex-servicemen and disabled ex-servicemen and their families.
The model code of conduct came into force on December 17. Following complaints by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Election Commission also ordered the removal of hundreds of hoardings and advertisements that projected the achievements of the Chief Minister. The E.C. also pulled up the government for announcing the creation of a new district, "Satyamevpuram", soon after the poll date of February 3 was announced.
Vacancies in government offices have been filled and promises to absorb retrenched staff have been made. There are allegations that activists and sympathisers of Chautala's party, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), have cornered a large share of the bounty.
However, in spite of all the sops, it is doubtful whether Chautala's party will come back to power, going by the severe reverses it suffered in last year's Lok Sabha elections. The INLD drew a blank. Its estranged political ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, secured 17 per cent of the vote and won one seat. The remaining nine seats went to the Congress.
The Assembly elections are not likely to be very different for Chautala except that they will witness a sharply focussed contest between the Congress and the INLD. The INLD cannot be written off, but on the face of it, the political conditions on the ground favour the Congress. Soon after the Lok Sabha polls, former Congress Chief Minister Bansi Lal's Haryana Vikas Party, after a miserable electoral performance, merged with the Congress. It has undoubtedly given a psychological boost to the Congress.
The Congress has the advantage in every respect - its government at the Centre; nine Lok Sabha seats and an electorate determined to defeat the incumbent government. But the question is whether this will be enough to repeat the performance in the Lok Sabha elections.
The deep factionalism in the State Congress unit is well known. Member of Parliament from Rohtak Bhoopinder Singh Hooda leads one faction, former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal another, the newly appointed working president of the party Randeep Surjewala a third, and Birender Singh, another Congress veteran, a fourth. The obvious fight is for the Chief Minister's post. Attempts of each factional leader to project himself as being close to party president Sonia Gandhi have been rather transparent. The factionalism has made senior Congress leaders to exhort publicly at almost every election rally that the State unit face the elections unitedly.
When Frontline asked Hooda about factionalism, he said that his was a democratic party and that factions were not uncommon in such parties. He added that "unity" had been an issue in the Lok Sabha polls as well. "We are winning in Haryana and with a more than comfortable majority," he said confidently. Asked whether he was in the race for the Chief Minister's post, he said that it all depended on the high command.
The party's rallies have been impressive and have concentrated on issues such as unemployment. But on the whole it is perceived that the party has no agenda of its own; the Common Minimum Programme adopted by the alliance it leads at the national level is not projected in its campaign.
In contrast, the fortunes of the INLD started plummeting one and a half years ago when its candidate could win only by a very narrow margin in the keenly contested Fatehabad byelection. The INLD candidate was the spouse of the deceased MLA, whose death had caused the seat to fall vacant. Fatehabad falls in the Sirsa Lok Sabha constituency, the home constituency of the INLD chief.
The Lok Sabha elections came next. The INLD-BJP ties had soured and each contested separately. The BJP had sensed the growing wave of discontent among the people towards the Chautala government. Its president L.K. Advani also made the party's disaffection with the INLD clear by exhorting the people, at an election rally, to vote for national parties.
Political observers feel that with the formation of a non-BJP government at the Centre, cashing in on the Vajpayee factor would be difficult for the BJP and it will find it hard to retain the 17 per cent vote share it managed in the May 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
The Bahujan Samaj Party's (BSP) influence, like that of the BJP, is confined to some areas. The party wrested 6 per cent of the vote in the Lok Sabha elections but is unrepresented in the Haryana Assembly. Most of its State-level leaders either joined the BJP or the INLD in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. Organisationally, it has not expanded much but if the INLD or the BJP arrives at an understanding with it, it can affect the Congress' chances to an extent. The INLD has indicated that it is open to alliances.
The contest is likely to be decided on issues of governance and development. In February 2000, the INLD government had gone in for early elections to consolidate the victory it scored in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, with the BJP as an electoral partner. The INLD won with a comfortable majority and formed the government, with the BJP supporting it from outside. This time round, the emotive chord of Kargil is missing and no slogans like "India Shining" are rife in the air. Notwithstanding the sops announced by Chautala, it is unlikely that the people of Haryana will forget the firing on farmers in Jind, the mass retrenchment of government employees, the closure of government departments, and the rising crime rate in the State.