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A negative vote

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005

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In Haryana, the anti-incumbency factor will affect the outcome. And the ultimate winner has been chosen for the lack of a better alternative.

in Bhiwani

IT was amid a lot of drama that the people of Haryana voted on February 3. Chief Minister Om Parkash Chautala's announcement that he would not cast his vote on the grounds that the Election Commission had denied him the right in 1999 and Pradesh Congress Committee president Bhajan Lal's reportedly videographed voting generated enough excitement in an election that seems to have swung in the Congress' favour. The good turnout is interpreted as an indication of the strong anti-incumbency wave against the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) government.

There were as many as 36 rebels in the fray, mainly those of the Congress, though it is uncertain how much damage they will cause to the official nominees. In what appears to be a highly polarised situation, it is quite possible that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) or the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) may open its account in the Assembly. In the Lok Sabha elections held last year, the INLD, a former ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the National Democratic Alliance, could not win even one of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the State. The BJP won one seat, more on account of the factionalism within the Congress than on its own strength.

Political observers say that the factionalism in the Congress has only worsened after the party formed the government at the Centre. "Chandigarh is ours for the asking" appears to be the prevailing sentiment, with almost every leader asserting his claim to the Chief Minister's post. In fact, one of the campaign issues of the INLD was the lack of a single leader within the Congress, perhaps not realising the fact that its own centralisation of authority - veering around Chautala and his immediate family - would be a reason for its growing unpopularity.

The turnouts were the highest in the constituencies of political heavyweights. Adampur - Bhajan Lal's pocketborough, where Bishnoi and non-Jat votes play a crucial role - recorded the highest turnout of 82.31 per cent. At Narwana, where State Congress working president Randeep Singh Surjewala is pitted against Chautala, it was 82.15 per cent. Almost everywhere the turnout was over 50 per cent, belying fears of election fatigue or voter apathy - the Lok Sabha elections last year recorded a turnout of over 65 per cent.

The polls had their share of violence too. At Barwala, the driver of the Congress nominee, Congress Member of Parliament Jai Prakash's brother, was shot dead. Barwala, in Hissar district, is one of the seats where Congress rebels were active - they put up a "panchayati (consensus) candidate" there - and is regarded as a sensitive constituency.

One distinguishing feature of these elections, as compared with the Lok Sabha polls, was that the electorate openly expressed its resentment against the Chautala regime. People complained that the majority had not benefited from the government's "development". This was in stark contrast to the Lok Sabha elections, where the electorate chose not to reveal about its options, unsure as it was of the outcome.

The reasons for the voters' resentment are not difficult to understand. Among them are the centralisation of power, the laying-off of government employees, the mass pardon to convicted persons and the general decline in law and order. In Fatehabad, people openly expressed their annoyance with INLD legislator Swatantra Bala. "Whenever we asked her to help us, she would say she would raise the matter with Billu (as Ajay Chautala, Rajya Sabha member and the Chief Minister's son, is popularly known)," said a shopkeeper. "So what if Duhra (Bhajan Lal's nephew Duhra Ram, who is the Congress nominee from Fatehabad) does not have a good image. Neither does Chautala," said another person.

"Today if we are voting Congress, it does not mean that it is a positive vote. What other option do we have?" asked a sacked employee of the Minor Irrigation and Tubewells Corporation (MITC), which has since been closed. Having worked for more than 27 years as a clerk, this former government employee now runs a petty shop in Bhiwani and is steeped in debt. He adds that Bhajan Lal has made a commitment that he would reinstate all sacked government employees. "There is no way out. We have to believe them when they say they'll give us back our jobs," say Narender and Premnath, both former MITC employees.

The employees of the MITC were laid off all of a sudden; on June 30, 2002, they found their offices shut and notices pasted announcing closure. "With one stroke of the pen, 3,916 employees were sacked, affecting the lives of 20,000 persons. What is the logic of announcing five lakh jobs in five years when all that this government has done is to shut down existing venues of employment," said S.P. Gupta, president of the All Employees Association of MITC.

He said it was the populist measures of various governments that led to the MITC incurring heavy losses. The workers have now gone to court. While other departments of the government, such as the Small Scale Industries and Export Corporation, were also shut down, rendering some 450 employees jobless, the MITC closure affected many more. "Chautala denies that even one government employee was sacked as he does not acknowledge that our corporation was hundred per cent owned by the government," said Gupta.

The Sarva Karmachari Sangh (SKS) has taken up the cause of the employees and organised them to raise their voice for reinstatement. But the clincher came from Kartar Singh Grewal, president of the Bhiwani unit of the SKS. He said: "When Chautala could not create one lakh jobs in five years, how is he going to create five lakh jobs in five years."

This election, it would seem, centred around issues despite the reluctance of most of the political parties, including the Congress, to raise them successfully. It was therefore not surprising that when Frontline asked for election manifestoes at party offices, the reaction was: "What is that?"

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