Surprises in store

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing an election rally in Rohtak on October 8. Photo: Subhav Shukla/PTI

INLD supremo Om Prakash Chautala addressing an election rally in Kurukshetra. State party president Ashok Arora is to his right. Photo: PTI

Deepender Hooda, Congress MP, campaigning in Kharkodha. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

In Haryana, the electorate is reluctant to re-elect the Congress, and the Modi wave of the Lok Sabha elections has disappeared. This situation may throw up interesting results.

WHEN the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the Lok Sabha elections in Haryana in April by winning seven of the eight seats it contested, the general refrain for quite some time was that the party would again walk all over the other parties in the State Assembly elections on October 15. With the Congress badly battered, the sentiment of anti-incumbency against the Congress government headed by Bhupinder Singh Hooda growing, and much of the Indian National Lok Dal’s (INLD) leadership and organisation in a shambles, the BJP, with its newfound confidence, was perceived as having the best chance to win the Assembly elections. It had, after all, more than doubled its vote share in the Lok Sabha elections.

However, the pitch seems to have got slightly altered since the Lok Sabha elections. The euphoria that had set in before and slightly after the elections in favour of a Narendra Modi-led BJP has dissipated since. The reverses in the recent Assembly byelections held in three States, including some in BJP-ruled States such as Rajasthan, have made it eminently clear that the Indian electorate cannot be taken for granted.

It is not for no reason that Prime Minister Modi himself led the campaign in Haryana. Organisationally, the BJP is not in a very good shape. Secondly, the induction of several Congress leaders, including somewhat weighty ones, has not gone down particularly well with the electorate and the rank and file of the deeply divided State party unit. “Incoming was free, but outgoing is proving to be costly as most of these defectors from the Congress are proving to be a challenge to the aspirants within the BJP itself,” commented a political observer.

The Jat community calls the shots in the State in every sense of the term. It has been an open secret that both Hooda and his principal political rival, Om Parkash Chautala, the 79-year-old INLD chief, have competed for this influential constituency, each projecting himself as the true representative of this segment, which numerically, too, has a sizable presence. The BJP, on the other hand, has always been perceived as a party of non-Jats and has not been able to rope in any significant leader from this community despite the defections from the Congress. But this has not deterred the BJP from wooing Jats with several measures, some of which can been construed as problematic. The issue of cow protection, for instance, has been raised in somewhat distasteful terms by some BJP ticket aspirants.

While communal polarisation of the kind witnessed in parts of Uttar Pradesh, which drove a wedge between Jats and Muslims, will be difficult to replicate in Haryana as the Muslim population of the State is concentrated in the Ahirwal belt, the issue of cow protection and the bogey of cow slaughter have been gaining currency. At whom this rhetoric is targeted is clear.

The BJP’s desperation is understandable, more so from the point of view of retaining the popularity of Modi. But the support the electorate gave the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections has not been rewarded with adequate empathy, in either words or action, for a State hit severely by drought conditions. In fact, more attention was given to corruption, nepotism, dynastic politics and charges of violation of the model code of conduct by the Hooda government in certain land deals involving Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The Election Commission, to which the BJP petitioned, found nothing wrong as far as the violation of the model code of conduct was concerned. This issue will undoubtedly give a fillip to the Congress campaign.

Despite a seeming reluctance on the part of the electorate to vote the Congress to power a third time, the BJP is facing a problem: it has nothing to show by way of concrete achievements in the three months it has been in power at the Centre. Much of the campaign, therefore, is negative in nature, with the manifestos of almost all political parties promising freebies such as laptops and computers, and increases in social security benefits.

In fact, the Hooda government, despite all its failings, seems to have scored a little on the social security front as far as old-age pension is concerned though the coverage in terms of numbers leaves much to be desired. The same is the case with the widow pension. The frustration among the electorate is palpable, but the choice has to be made in a four-cornered contest.

Apart from the three main parties, there is the Haryana Janhit Party (HJP) of Kuldeep Bishnoi, which has the potential to make a dent in some minuscule parts. It is the division of the non-Jat vote that is going to hit the BJP the hardest. Observers feel that had it entered into a tie-up with either the INLD or the HJC, the Congress would have found it difficult even to retain its hold in the Rohtak-Jhajjar-Sonepat belt. The BJP also faces a lack of credibility, having inducted several people from the Congress, which, as some observers have pointed out, exceeded the number of original ticket seekers from within the party. The BJP could make electoral gains in much of urban Haryana and the Ahirwal belt comprising Gurgaon, Rewari, Mahendargarh and parts of Mewat.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has taken a leaf out of the BJP’s book by projecting Arvind Sharma, a former Congress Member of Parliament, as its State president. For this reason the BSP has found it difficult to appeal convincingly to its traditional constituency, Dalits. Arvind Sharma is contesting from Yamunanagar. Interestingly, it is the BJP and its star campaigner, Modi, who have raised the issue of atrocities against Dalits and crimes against women in the State. Radio jingles in the local dialect, targeted at women, are aired regularly on prominent channels. “But the problem is [former Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh never spoke; this one doesn’t stop,” quipped a farmer in Rohtak, referring to Modi.

The Congress has also designed radio jingles projecting Haryana as the numero uno State. The party has launched a media blitzkrieg exhorting the public to elect the party a third time. Hooda abolished the system of contractors in job recruitment in the municipal corporations and revised the wages of rural safai karamcharis, factors which observers say may work in favour of the Congress. Almost 2,300 such workers in the Faridabad municipal corporation, which is the largest municipal corporation in the State, were regularised after sustained campaigns by the Sarva Karamchari Sangh.

But a slew of controversial land deals that were struck down by the court, massive privatisation of education, and lack of infrastructure such as regular power supply in the villages are issues plaguing the Hooda government. One other area of sparring between the Congress and the BJP has been the minimum support prices (MSP) for paddy and cotton, which plummeted sharply this year compared with last year’s prices. While international demand has been touted as one of the factors, the drought and the lack of compensation from either the Centre or the State to affected farmers are major electoral issues. “The development model of Hooda is a classical neoliberal example of growth which has institutionalised socio-economic disparities and perpetuated regional imbalances,” said Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

On the strength of its presence among the landless, the small peasantry, women and government employees as well as its sustained campaigns to implement the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), enhance social security benefits, and guarantee food rations, the CPI(M) has put up candidates in 18 seats.

“No party other than us is raising the issue of the fall in paddy and cotton prices. In some varieties of Basmati rice, the fall has been as much as 100 per cent. Farmers must have spent so much on diesel to cultivate the crop. Both the Congress and the BJP are blaming each other. While the Congress blames the BJP for stopping the export of paddy, the BJP says that it is the high rates of VAT [value-added tax] in Haryana that is to blame for the low demand,” said Inderjit Singh. Nearly 50 lakh bales of cotton due to be exported to Pakistan and Thailand was not exported. No one was talking about coarse grains such as bajra and millet, which were selling at rates lower than the MSP. “Bajra doesn’t have a constituency, hence no one talks about it,” said a farmer.

The INLD, on the other hand, got a breather when its leader Om Parkash Chautala, who was convicted in January 2013 in a teacher recruitment scam, was granted bail by a court on health grounds. It is another matter that the INLD chief used his recuperation period to go full throttle in the electoral arena, which prompted the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to appeal against the grant of bail to him on health grounds. His open declaration that he would govern from jail if elected Chief Minister struck an emotive chord though his opponents pointed out that the only problem was that the electorate would then have to meet him in Tihar (jail).

The INLD and the BJP have been attacking each other publicly. The Shiromani Akali Dal, though a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has been campaigning mainly for the INLD. This is an attempt to wean away Jat Sikhs, who have a presence in at least half a dozen districts and who of late have become enamoured of the Congress following the constitution of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, independent of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the parent body based in Punjab. However, if the INLD manages to get the numbers or the BJP falls short of a majority, a post-election arrangement between the two cannot be ruled out. The INLD would then stake a claim for the post of Chief Minister. It is on the basis of this that political observers have predicted a hung Assembly.

The INLD has promised 3.2 lakh jobs for the youth and is trying to win voter sympathy by claiming that its leader went to jail for giving jobs to 3,205 persons. Dushyant Chautala, Chautala’s grandson and Member of Parliament from Hisar, is contesting from the Ucchana segment where his grandfather had trounced former Congressman Virender Singh in the 2009 election with a huge margin. Virender Singh broke his three-decade-long association with the Congress recently to join the BJP. Incidentally, his wife is contesting against Dushyant Chautala.

For the first time, the Devi Lal family has fielded a woman from its fold. Naina Chautala, wife of Ajay Singh Chautala, is contesting as the INLD candidate against her own kin by marriage, K.V. Singh of the Congress, in Dabwali in Sirsa district. (Ajay Chautala has been debarred from contesting the elections for his involvement in the teachers’ recruitment scam.) The strongholds of the INLD, Sirsa and Fatehabad, may yield mixed results. The main contest will be between the Congress and the INLD as there are three reserved seats in Sirsa and one in Fatehabad where both parties have a presence. State Congress president Ashok Tanwar belongs to Sirsa.

Triangular, if not four-cornered, contests are expected in most places. The result will be a litmus test for the BJP and Modi’s ability to garner votes. Vandana Sharma, sister of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, is a high-profile candidate of the BJP. She is contesting from the Safidon segment in Jind district, which happens to be an INLD stronghold.

According to the Haryana Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms, of the 1,341 candidates in the fray, nearly 42 per cent are crorepatis. At least four out of every five candidates in the three major parties, the Congress, the INLD and the BJP, have assets worth more than Rs.1 crore. The pitch in more than one way is skewed against candidates who are unable to spend large amounts of money in the campaign.

The election will be about issues, and unemployment and price rise are major factors to be reckoned with. The lack of a wave in favour of any particular political dispensation may throw up interesting results.

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