If the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to transcend Haryana’s deeply entrenched Jat politics during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections – where it swept all 10 seats – then the Assembly election due next week will test it as far as its caste strategy goes.
This is because the political advantage of the Balakot strikes and the resultant nationalistic fervour around Prime Minister Narendra Modi are fast dissipating in Haryana’s Jat-dominated areas and no one knows this better than the Saffron party strategists. As a party of non-Jats that made it big in a Jat-dominated state in 2014, this October’s election will indicate whether caste polarisation is back to haunt the BJP.
Emboldened by the Lok Sabha victory where the party led in 79 out of the 90 assembly segments, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi from Karnal, has given the slogan: ‘Ab ki baar 75 paar’ (this time we will win 75 seats). The party won 47 seats in the last election up from a mere four in 2009. It was in 2014 that the BJP in Haryana tested its strength, going alone without the crutches of a local ally like the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) headed by Om Prakash Chautala who usually brought in the Jat votes. The BJP in earlier days was always a junior alliance partner playing second fiddle to Jat leaders like Chautala or Bansi Lal.
Two things happened in 2014 to give strength to the BJP’s ambition to rule alone. Firstly, for several decades after 1996 – when Bhajan Lal stepped down as chief minister – the non-Jat voters had remained without a strong leader to galvanise them. That vote bank was practically crying out for political succour after years of being ruled by strong Jat leaders like Bhupinder Singh Hooda of the Congress. Secondly, the BJP did unexpectedly well in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, powered as it was by the Modi wave. So when a few months later assembly elections took place, the BJP dumped its ally the INLD and contested alone for the first time.
The 29 per cent strong Jat community however remained wary of the BJP, preferring to stay with the Jat leaders of the Congress and the INLD. The BJP won 33 per cent of the vote share mainly from non-Jat strongholds in the northern districts of the state. Punjabi Banias, Khatris, Brahmins and Rajputs helped it win.
But the community which has dominated the state’s politics for decades, sending five chief ministers to office was uneasy with this development. Khattar, an unassuming RSS pracharak, became the chief minister breaking a continuous 18 year streak of Jat rule. Since then, the BJP has unabashedly played non-Jat politics, even actively encouraging the resultant polarisation in the state.
Given this background, no one thought that the Jats would vote for the BJP in large numbers in the recent Lok Sabha elections. But as a CSDS-Lokniti poll survey pointed out, almost 50 per cent of the Jats voted the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections because nationalism was the flavour of the day. The community which sends many young men into the defence forces could not resist Modi's strong man allure.
The Assembly elections however have a different dynamic. Old caste equations and issues of livelihoods, jobs and social norms have to come to the fore. By projecting Khattar once again as the chief ministerial candidate the BJP’s non-Jat stance is clear. It doesn’t have the Dalits (20 per cent of the population) in its pocket just yet, but the division of the powerful Jat votes is attractive.
The community is divided between the powerful Hooda clan of Rohtak led by the Congress’ former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the Jannayak Janata Party led by Om Prakash Chautala’s grandson, Dushyant Chautala, and the INLD rump. The Congress is cleverly targeting the Jats and the Dalits as represented by Hooda, the chief ministerial candidate, and Kumari Selja, the state party president. Its hard to see the Jat vote bank tilting towards a Khattar dispensation in the Assembly elections because in the last five years the state government has not gone out of its way to pamper the community as previous regimes did.
Though the BJP has given tickets to many Jats in Jat-dominated constituencies of the Jind and Rohtak districts, it is mainly seen as a token representation. So, though the 58 per cent vote share that the party received in the Lok Sabha election might not be replicated and the ‘75 paar’ may also seem distant, Khattar is eyeing a long-run in the state at the helm of non-Jat communities.
(Chander Suta Dogra is a senior journalist and author. Her researched book on India’s soldiers, Missing In Action, is due to be published in December 2019)