A thumping victory

Print edition : March 25, 2005

Intra-party squabbles over the Chief Minister's post take the sheen off the Congress' landslide victory over the INLD in Haryana.

in Chandigarh

Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda.-V. SUDERSHAN

AMONG the three States that went to the polls in February, Haryana alone came up with a clear verdict. The electorate voted overwhelmingly in favour of one party and gave it a two-thirds majority in the Assembly. In what turned out to be a largely bipolar contest between the ruling Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the Congress, the latter reaped unprecedented gains. Even the presence of several party rebels made little impact on the Congress' performance.

But, despite the mandate, intra-party factionalism delayed the announcement of the Congress' choice for the Chief Minister's post. On March 4, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Member of Parliament from Rohtak, was elected leader of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) in New Delhi. He was sworn in Chief Minister the next day. Twenty of the 67 members of the CLP, who owe allegiance to former Chief Minister and Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president Bhajan Lal, boycotted the meeting. Bhajan Lal, who did not attend the meeting, resigned from the PCC president's post. Meanwhile, supporters of Bhajan Lal took to the streets in Hissar district, attacked buses and stopped trains. Reports of violence were received from Panchkula district too.

Earlier, despite a four-and-a-half-hour-long CLP meeting on March 1 in Chandigarh, the party could not elect a leader. A central team of observers comprising Ashok Gehlot, P.M. Sayeed and Janardan Dwivedi returned to New Delhi saying that Congress President Sonia Gandhi would take a final decision. There were several names in the reckoning, including those of Member of Parliament Kumari Selja, Bhajan Lal, Virender Singh and PCC working president Randeep Surjewala.

While the Congress won 67 of the 90 Assembly seats, the INLD got an all-time low of nine. The Congress' vote share increased from 31.22 per cent in the 2000 Assembly elections to 37.83 per cent. The INLD's vote share came down from 29.61 per cent in 2000 to 23.55 per cent. In 2000, the INLD contested 61 seats, leaving 29 seats to its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party. This time round, the BJP and the INLD had no alliance and contested 90 and 89 seats respectively. The BJP won only two seats this time as compared to six in 2000. Its vote share went up marginally this time as it contested more seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) won a seat each. The rest went to independents, mostly Congress rebels.

Bhajan Lal.-V. SUDERSHAN

Six of the victorious INLD candidates won from reserved seats. (Of the remaining 11 reserved constituencies, the Congress won 10 and an independent one.) Two INLD winners belonged to the Rajput and Muslim communities. Rekha Rana, the INLD candidate from Gharaunda, won by the lowest margin in the State - 21 votes.

Outgoing Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala, who contested from Rori and Narwana, had to concede defeat in the latter to Randeep Surjewala. Although the margin of victory was not high, 1,859, the defeat of Chautala from a constituency he nurtured over several years reflected the discontent among the people. Narwana had benefited a lot - a large number of people in the constituency got jobs - under Chautala's tenure.

Among the prominent winners are Bhajan Lal, who won the Adampur seat for the tenth time with a margin of 71,081 votes, former PCC president Sir Chotu Ram's grandson Virender Singh Doomarkha from Ucchana Kalan, and Captain Ajay Yadav from Rewari. The important losers include outgoing Finance Minister Sampat Singh, BJP leader Ram Vilas Sharma, INLD leaders Kartar Bhadana and Bahadur Singh, and Congress leader Gurdeep Gill, son of the Sirsa Member of Parliament Atma Singh Gill. Gurdeep Gill's defeat in Ratia is blamed on the presence of a strong rebel.

The Congress has the distinction of being the only party to have single-handedly won so many seats in the State's electoral history. Its last best performance was in 1972 when it won 52 seats. However, the credit of having won the highest number of seats goes to the Janata Party, part of a wider coalition under the leadership of the late Devi Lal. It won 75 seats in the post-Emergency 1977 elections. For the INLD, the performance in 2005 is the worst since its formation in the mid-1990s.

THE INLD's decline began with the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, and resentment against the party increased as the Assembly elections drew near. The BJP sensed it and stayed away from the INLD despite the latter's overtures for a pre-election alliance. Chautala tried every tactic over the last few months to reduce the electorate's "naraazgi" (anger). Campaign advertisements the INLD placed in leading dailies mocked the Congress for having several leaders and the absence of a central leader in the State. Chautala, being the undisputed leader of his party, promised he would provide a stable government for the next five years. These, like his effort to raise the issue of the rise in the prices of urea and sugar, did not affect the prospects of the Congress.

Om Prakash Chautala.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Chautala's opponents admitted that some "development" work had been undertaken by his government, but alleged that only INLD workers and supporters had benefited. There was too much concentration of power in the hands of Chautala and his two sons, which distanced him from party legislators and ordinary people. His much-touted programme of "Sarkar Aapke Dwaar" (the government at your doorstep) obviously failed to win the people's hearts. The INLD leader tried to cash in on the past glory of Jat community leaders such as Sir Chotu Ram and his father Devi Lal, but did not succeed.

The consistency in the voting behaviour of the electorate since the 2004 Lok Sabha elections has been noteworthy. In 2004, the INLD failed to win even one of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the State. The victory of its former ally, the BJP, in one seat was attributed to factionalism in the Congress. Interestingly, these elections have demolished the myth that the Jats - who constitute 22 to 25 per cent of the State's population - are anti-Congress. Among the nine INLD candidates who won, there is only one Jat - Chautala. It had been long believed that the entire Jat community in Haryana was loyal to the family of Devi Lal.

The Jats, who have emerged as an economically and politically powerful community over the last few decades in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, are not traditionally known to favour the Congress in Haryana. And the Congress has been considered a party of communities other than Jat. But the 2005 verdict seems to have helped the Congress to shed this image. This is evident from the election of Bhupinder Singh Hooda, a Jat leader, as Chief Minister. In the process, the party refused to consider the influential non-Jat leader Bhajan Lal's claim to the post. The Congress' declaration of affinity to the Jats is likely to help the BJP project itself as the party of non-Jat castes.

It is apparent that despite the politics of caste, the electorate as a whole - more than 70 per cent voted in the elections - voted against the undisputed leader of the Jats, Om Prakash Chautala, and his party. The voters seem to have cast their ballots in favour of only those candidates who they were certain would be in a position to defeat the INLD.

Said a voter: "It did not matter who was contesting. Anyone who was capable of defeating Chautala's candidate was preferred." For instance, in Ambala City, the candidature of an "outsider", Venod Sharma, created some resentment against the Congress. But, ultimately, Sharma won by a margin of 35,000 votes. The BJP candidate and sitting MLA lost her security deposit.

Chautala has gone on record as saying that his party would play the role of a constructive Opposition. He hoped to see an early resolution to the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal issue since the Congress was running both the State governments involved - Punjab and Haryana. He said that he would go to the people to understand the reasons for their anger and declined to say anything further until the leadership issue in the Congress was resolved.

Political observers in the State have often hinted at a tacit understanding between Bhajan Lal and Chautala. Informed sources in the Congress said the party leadership felt that if Bhajan Lal had become Chief Minister he would have been "soft" on Chautala. In the absence of any other prominent Jat leader, the Jat-non Jat divide will continue and Bhajan Lal would be the undisputed leader of the castes other than the Jats and Chautala that of the Jats.

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