Uncertain moves

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda addressing party workers at the Vijay Sankalp Rally in Panipat on August 24. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Haryana BJP's election in charge Kailash Vijayvargiya (centre) and other leaders at the opening of party candidate Umesh Aggarwal's election office in Gurgaon on September 18. Photo: PTI

While there is little reason for voters to get enamoured of the Congress in Haryana, it is apparent that the first 100 days of the Modi-led government at the Centre has not had the kind of impact the BJP would have wanted.

AT a function in August to lay the foundation stone for a four-lane road project in Kaithal district of Haryana, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters booed Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Accompanying Hooda was Congress spokesperson and Public Works Minister Randeep Singh Surjewala.

Hooda made an issue of Jat pride that had been hurt and swore never again to share the podium with the Prime Minister. At a subsequent rally in Panipat, he vowed to avenge the harm done to “Haryana’s pride”. (Two other Congress Chief Ministers, Prithviraj Chavan of Maharashtra and Hemant Soren of Jharkhand, too, were heckled by BJP workers.) But within three days of his public humiliation, Hooda accepted an invitation from the Prime Minister to have tea with him. “He could have declined the offer politely and made political hay out of his public insult. He lost an opportunity to connect with the people and mainly his constituency, the Jats,” said a political observer who wished to be unnamed.

Elections to the 90-member Haryana Assembly are due to be held on October 15, where the incumbent Congress will make a bid for a third term. The contest will be anything but bipolar, especially with the BJP entering the fray without any regional alliance. Not only did it break ties with the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), but it also could not arrive at a seat-sharing arrangement with the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) led by former Chief Minister Bhajan Lal’s son Kuldeep Bishnoi. The INLD too declared that there was no question of having an alliance with the BJP, especially in view of the outcome of the recent Assembly byelections in which the BJP had not fared too well. INLD president Ashok Arora, while addressing party workers, said the Modi magic was over.

The INLD has, in fact, roped in the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), another constituent of the NDA, and resolved to bring Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal of the SAD as the main campaigner. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which was exploring an alliance with the HJC, has also decided to go it alone for the 90 seats and made an appeal to all non-Jat parties for support.

The Jat factor

It is a worn-out cliché to state that caste plays a major role in Haryana politics. Despite his dipping popularity, Hooda today is the undisputed representative of Jats, who are economically, socially and politically influential. Jats constitute roughly 25 per cent of the State’s population, numerically the largest group.

The BJP, too, has been assiduously wooing this constituency after having tasted success in Jat-dominated western Uttar Pradesh. It is not without reason that a controversial Member of Parliament from western Uttar Pradesh, Sanjay Balyan, who has a case registered against him in connection with the Muzaffarnagar riots, has been making frequent visits to Haryana. Originally from Uttar Pradesh, Balyan studied in Hisar Agricultural University.

The BJP does not have a prominent Jat leader who can help consolidate Jat votes for the party. And neither will it project anyone for fear of alienating non-Jat voters, prominent among them Brahmins, Rajputs, Banias, and the Scheduled Castes.

The only known Jat face of the party is Chaudhary Birender Singh Doomarkha, grandson of the legendary Sir Chotu Ram, who quit the Congress after more than four decades of association with it. A Rajya Sabha member, Birender Singh was suspended from the party for revolting against Hooda and publicly criticising the style of functioning of the Chief Minister. But Birender Singh does not have Hooda’s mass appeal. He faced a crushing defeat at the hands of Om Prakash Chautala of the INLD at Ucchana Kalan in the 2009 elections. Birender Singh was the State Finance Minister then. In the Lok Sabha elections, too, the INLD led in the Ucchana Assembly segment.

Observers are aghast at his transformation after he joined the BJP. At a rally of BJP national president Amit Shah in Jind district, Birender Singh made a selective reference to his grandfather when he said that Chotu Ram had opposed the Muslim League. “This was the height of intellectual dishonesty and opportunism. Sir Chotu Ram opposed the Muslim League but he was equally averse to the Hindu Mahasabha. In fact, people say that had he been alive in 1947, he would have controlled the spillage of blood. His opposition to the Hindu Mahasabha was not mentioned by Birender at the rally in Jind,” said a political observer.

The other three major defections to the BJP from the Congress are of Rao Inderjit Singh, who won from Gurgaon; Ramesh Chandra Kaushik from Sonepat; and Dharambir Bhalaram from Bhiwani-Mahendargarh. Another prominent politician to have expressed his dissatisfaction with Hooda is his Cabinet colleague, Captain Ajay Yadav, an Ahir leader from Rewari, who resigned his post as Power Minister but continues to stay with the party.

Defections from Congress

Another known Ahir leader to quit the Congress was Rao Inderjit Singh, who left the party after 35 years and that too just before the Lok Sabha elections. His father, Rao Birender Singh, was Union Minister in the Cabinets of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Ahirs, like Jats, are Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and constitute roughly 10 per cent of the population. But unlike Jats, who are spread all over the State, Ahirs are concentrated in Gurgaon, Rewari and Mahendargarh in southern Haryana. Former Sonepat MP and one-time Hooda confidant Jitender Malik was another person to quit the party. Political observers say this will be a major setback for the Congress.

Arvind Sharma, a former MP of the Congress who quit the party, is now the State president of the BSP. Besides, Venod Sharma’s Jan Chetna Party and Gopal Kanda’s Haryana Lokhit Party are regional parties floated by former Congress leaders. Kanda quit the Congress after he was charged with abetting the suicide of an airhostess employed with his airline.

The dismal performance of the party in the Lok Sabha elections and the desertion of some known party leaders, including former Ministers, may give the impression that the Congress is fighting a losing battle. However, it is premature to write off the party. Although the Congress won only one of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the State, there is a feeling that the Modi wave is dissipating.

The reasons are manifold. Among the major planks on which the BJP rode to victory were price rise and unemployment. These still remain important issues.

Another factor that has given a fillip to the morale of the Congress is the performance of the party in the byelections in some States, especially in Uttarakhand where it won all three seats. Besides, the BJP is seen as desperate to avoid going in for fresh elections in Delhi after President’s Rule was imposed following the resignation of Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as Chief Minister. Lastly, the AAP, which is focussing hard on Delhi now, does not seem inclined to contest the Haryana Assembly elections. Though it lost all the 10 seats in the State in the Lok Sabha elections, it secured 4 per cent of the vote.

Observers point out that had the Modi wave been all-encompassing, the HJC would not have lost the two seats it contested. Bishnoi, incidentally the founder-president of the HJC, had held the Hisar seat, which has always witnessed a polarisation between Jats and non-Jats.

Bishnoi was unhappy with the BJP because the INLD had collaborated with the SAD in order to defeat HJC candidates. The contradictions within the NDA could not have been more apparent.

As regards the HJC, the INLD and the BJP, each feels that it can form the government on its own. The HJC renewed its attempts to forge a tie-up with the BJP for the Assembly elections but failed. Interestingly, both the HJC and the BJP share the same vote base, that is, non-Jats. Observers feel that a split in this support base will benefit the Congress or the INLD. As for the INLD, which is desperate to regain a foothold in the State, its organisation seems to be in disarray, with its top leadership behind bars following a case relating to a teacher recruitment scam.

Hooda’s sops

Hooda, meanwhile, has been holding Cabinet meetings almost on a daily basis. He is banking heavily on a slew of welfare benefits. At Rs.1,000, old-age pension in the State is the highest in the country. He has also raised the retirement age of government employees from 58 to 60 years and has been on a “university” opening spree as well.

The passage of a Bill allowing the creation of a separate Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) for Haryana has endeared him to the Sikh community in the State. The reservation for Jats in the list of OBCs has earned him brownie points within his community as well.

Recently, he waived debts totalling Rs.153 crore to woo the Scheduled Castes and the Backward Castes. He also withdrew a contentious order granting permits to private-road operators after Haryana Roadways workers’ unions went on strike on September 7 and 8, paralysing bus services across the State.

And realising ultimately that it is the Jat vote that will swing him to power a third time, Hooda rose to the defence of Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Ajit Singh after the latter was evicted from his Tughlaq Road bungalow in New Delhi following the RLD’s decimation in the Lok Sabha elections. Hooda wrote to the Urban Development Minister protesting against the eviction. But it would be a miracle if Hooda won for a third time, considering that even in 2009 he just about managed to form the government with the help of independents and defectors from the HJC.

While there is little reason for people to get enamoured of the Congress, it is also apparent that the first 100 days of the Modi-led government at the Centre has not had the kind of impact the BJP would have wanted. With its own organisation in a state of relative disarray and its inability to forge alliances in Haryana, the only thing the BJP can capitalise on is the anti-Congress sentiment in the State. While it is true that the party led in 53 of the 90 segments in the Lok Sabha elections and doubled its vote share, it may have lost some of the sheen. And with food inflation at a high, it may not be a cakewalk for the party.

It is not without reason that the BJP sees the Congress and not the INLD as its main rival in Haryana.