Politics of caste

Published : Apr 16, 2014 12:30 IST

Om Prakesh Chautala, INLD chief.

Om Prakesh Chautala, INLD chief.

IN a State known to have its fortunes determined by one “Lal” or the other, the present Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda of the Congress, is an exception. The three prominent Lals—the late Chaudhary Devi Lal, who was twice Deputy Prime Minster and twice Chief Minister; the late Bansi Lal, who was Defence Minister once and Chief Minister four times; and the late Bhajan Lal, who was Chief Minister twice and Union Minister once—have left indelible political imprints on Haryana. They broke new ground in terms of either floating new political entities or entering into alliances. All the three had at some stage been deeply involved with the Congress but broke away from the parent party. While Bansi Lal returned to the Congress, the parties floated by the others represent the voice of the opposition today, and their political heirs continue to hold sway. In some sense, the dominant regional parties in Haryana have not been free from their own brand of dynastic politics, a legacy of the Congress.

Indian National Lok Dal Devi Lal, after being in the Congress for 39 years and having played a role in the formation of Haryana in 1966, broke away from the party in 1971. He was jailed for 19 months during the Emergency. In 1977, he was elected to the State Assembly on the Janata Party ticket and became the Chief Minister. Ten years later, in 1987, he set a record of sorts when his party, the Lok Dal, won 87 of the 90 seats in the Assembly elections. In 1989, he spread his political influence to Rajasthan. He got elected to the Lok Sabha from Sikar in Rajasthan and Sirsa in Haryana. He finally met his match in Hooda, who defeated him thrice times in a row.

Devi Lal was the Deputy Prime Minister in the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar-led governments at the Centre. His political legacy was carried on by his son, Om Prakash Chautala, and his two grandsons, Abhay Singh and Ajay Singh Chautala, as leaders of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). The INLD entered the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1999 and, in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won five of the 10 Lok Sabha seats. In 2009, however, the INLD did not win a single seat. The INLD’s ties with the NDA, tenuous at best, snapped in the run-up to the present Lok Sabha elections. In the Assembly elections, however, the INLD has managed to hold its own, and it is the BJP, with limited influence in the State, which needed its support.

The INLD, despite its public posturing, was keen to remain in the NDA. It declared its support for Narendra Modi as its preferred prime ministerial choice even though talks with the BJP for a seat-sharing arrangement failed. The BJP was not keen on the alliance apparently because of the indictment of INLD chief Chautala and his son, Ajay, in a junior teacher recruitment scam. Interestingly, the INLD has tied up with its old ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), where one of the sitting legislators of the SAD in the Haryana Assembly is the INLD’s Lok Sabha nominee from Sirsa. Leaders of the SAD, a BJP ally, even campaigned for INLD nominees, raising the hackles of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), which is the official alliance partner of the BJP in Haryana.

Haryana Vikas Party

A seven-time winner in the State Assembly elections, Bansi Lal, once a confidant of the Nehru-Gandhi family, broke away from the parent party to set up the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) in 1996. The HVP had a relatively short life. It formed the government in alliance with the BJP under the leadership of Bansi Lal. The ties were to sour soon as the BJP pulled the rug out within three years and the Congress unexpectedly propped up the government. In the subsequent Assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections in 2004, the HVP fared poorly. In October 2004, the party officially merged with the Congress. After Bansi Lal died in 2006, his political legacy was limited mainly to his home district of Bhiwani. Among his legatees, daughter-in-law Kiran Chaudhary was a Minister in the Delhi and Haryana governments and granddaughter Shruti Chaudhary was elected to the 15th Lok Sabha from Bhiwani-Mahendargarh and is seeking re-election from the same constituency.

Haryana Janhit Congress While the INLD continues to be the prime opposition party vis-a-vis the Congress and rallies round it most anti-Congress formations, the Haryana Janhit Congress has emerged as a fledgling opposition. The BJP, interestingly, has never been able to claim the anti-Congress space in Haryana and has had to ride piggy-back on some regional party or the other.

The HJC was formed in 2007 by Bhajan Lal, who broke off from the Congress after being denied the Chief Minister’s post. His immediate reason for doing so was the suspension of his son and political heir, Kuldeep Bishnoi, from the Congress for having criticised sections of the central leadership. Bishnoi is the lone HJC member in the Lok Sabha, representing Hisar. He is seeking re-election there. The HJC has a major stake in the elections for its own survival and has entered into an alliance with the BJP even as the SAD, another NDA constituent, campaigns for the INLD. “If Bishnoi loses in Hisar, he is finished,” said a political observer. In fact, in Hisar, there are seven “Kuldeeps”, all namesakes of the outgoing MP, in the fray. Bishnoi, it is learnt, filed a complaint with the Election Commission alleging a conspiracy by the opposition to defeat him.

Owing to the extreme caste polarisation in the State today, Bishnoi, although he does not have the same status as his father, is seen as a leader of the non-Jats. Non-Jat politics seldom thrives on its own and the Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly elections later this year will decide the fate of the HJC. The HJC and the BJP have six seats each in the Assembly.

Identity politics There is no gainsaying that whoever holds the key to the Jat votes in the State manages to swing the results in their favour. The Congress was never considered a party of the Jats. It represented the non-Jats—Brahmins, Banias and the Scheduled Castes—more. And interestingly, it was Bhajan Lal who symbolised this constituency, hailing as he does from the Bishnoi community, which is numerically strong in Hisar and parts of Rajasthan. He always wins elections with the support of other non-Jat communities.

Devi Lal was the undisputed leader of the Jats until Hooda arrived. “Hooda should be grateful to Devi Lal all his life. Had Devi Lal not fought from Rohtak thinking this was the Jat hinterland, Hooda would never have been in the position he is now,” observed a Congressman. Hooda’s stature grew after trouncing Devi Lal in three consecutive elections. The tussle now for the Jat constituency is primarily between Hooda and Om Prakash Chautala, who is the more visible face of the anti-Congress forces in the State.

The granting of Backward Class status and then reservation in Central government jobs to the Jat community has undoubtedly given a fillip to the Congress government in the State. That it has been challenged in court is a separate issue; for the moment, Hooda and the Congress can take full credit for this. Observers point out that much of the agitation for reservation was “sponsored”, where even the khaps, or the caste councils, were roped in to mobilise support. For the last 10 years, caste consolidation as an electoral strategy has been honed to perfection in Haryana. The ambivalent attitude of the government to the khaps or the lukewarm responses to unreasonable demands to amend the Hindu Marriage Act have all been overtures to influential sections within the Jat community. The Congress has been making inroads into the INLD bastions, including in the home turf of Chautala at Sirsa, where the outgoing MP and the present nominee of the Congress is the State Pradesh Congress Committee chief, Ashok Tanwar.

Identity politics has never been seen on this scale before. Not only are caste groups consolidating themselves in the most regressive fashion, sub-castes, or gotras , too have begun asserting themselves for recognition. Barring the Left parties, which do not have an electoral presence in the Assembly as yet, all other parties have had no qualms in appealing for votes on caste and community lines. At the level of policy, the Congress has been more neoliberal than any other political dispensation in the State.

T.K. Rajalakshmi

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