Saffron surges in Haryana’s altered political landscape

Last Updated 20 September 2019, 10:53 IST

The complexion of politics in Haryana has changed dramatically over the last five years since the ‘unexpected’ Saffron surge in this Jat-dominated state. Opposition parties have withered away faster than many would have imagined they would.

The polarisation of non-Jat votes to the BJP’s advantage has never been so assertive. The dominant Jat community and its leaders, who held sway over politics in the state for decades, are no longer essential to determining the numbers gracing the treasury benches.

Elections usually leave no room for the incumbent government to be complacent, but this seems to have eased in Haryana this time.

Yet, in the end, it all boils down to the battle of perception and last-minute political manoeuvring that political parties are best known for. The Congress and the Chautala clan-led Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) are licking their wounds after the humiliating thrashing they got in the Lok Sabha elections. Both parties — and their tallest leaders — were reduced to dust, having failed to win even a single parliamentary seat out of the 10 in the state.

That was the BJP’s best performance ever. It has offered the party a distinct head start. But the dynamics of the Assembly elections remain a lot different from those of a Lok Sabha election. The BJP has remained alert against an expected syndrome of inertia after its feat in the general elections, which has left the Opposition struggling to strategise. The incumbent party, embarking upon a ‘Mission 75’ in a House of 90 seats, has sounded the poll bugle.

The party, in a blistering early start to its campaign, is already done with a 21-day-long yatra spanning all the districts in Haryana. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief and Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh were a part of this campaign, signalling the party’s intent to leave nothing for the last minute.

Building inroads into Jat-dominated politics has not happened overnight for the BJP. It’s the outcome of a well-calibrated strategy that first became evident when Manohar Lal Khattar, a non-Jat, was sworn-in as chief minister in 2014. Khattar was then a rookie in mainstream politics. It was his maiden election win, just like those of the other 46 BJP MLAs, all riding on the Modi wave. Khattar was hand-picked by Modi to head the state, which saw a non-Jat CM after decades. The Khattar government positioned itself in a manner that led to widespread consolidation of non-Jat votes. At the same time, the party attempted to draw a balance with the dominant Jat community, too. The Khattar government’s track record on corruption has earned the BJP significant goodwill.

The last five years of the BJP regime have witnessed a systematic attempt to demoralise the Congress that had been in power, with Bhupinder Singh Hooda as CM, for a decade before Khattar stepped in. Hooda faces a slew of cases being pursued by the CBI and the state police. Former CM Bhajan Lal’s son and Congress leader Kuldeep Bishnoi was raided by income tax authorities. The drubbing the Congress received in the recent general elections saw Hooda, his son and four-time sitting MP Deepinder Hooda, Kumari Selja, Ashok Tanwar all lose.

The BJP’s ‘take no prisoners’ approach has rattled the Congress, which saw Hooda as its best bet. Yet, given the falling stock of the party and the complexities he is surrounded with, the veteran leader has been playing hardball with the Congress high command, even threatening to part ways to form a new outfit, in a bid to seek his pound of flesh.

The party high command obliged, albeit after a prolonged spell of inertia that was perhaps intended to indicate that the high command couldn’t care less about his arm-twisting tactics. Hooda now appears in full command ahead of the elections, having got his bete noire Ashok Tanwar, a Dalit leader, ousted as state Congress chief. He himself is chairman of the campaign committee and is likely to have a major say in ticket allocation.

But the Congress is in dire straits and appears bereft of an election plan to take on the BJP. The model code of conduct will come into force soon. The change of guard in the Congress party has come about too late. Empowering party workers and leveraging upon its strengths will be paramount for the Congress even as it battles heavy internal strife. Invading the ‘political Kurukshetra’ to take on its adversaries in elections on the basis of past laurels and the same mundane strategy will prove to be a ‘Chakravyuh’ out of which the Congress cannot emerge.

The other political outfit, the INLD, has self-inflicted injuries to worry about. The party has split post a family feud. A majority of its MLAs have left the party. The Chautala-led party stares at an existential crisis. The two warring Chautala brothers — Ajay and Abhay — have parted ways. Janata Jananayak Party (JJP) is the new outfit carved out of the parent party (INLD). The BJP decimated the INLD’s vote share in the general elections.

A ‘unity move’ underway to ensure that the Chautala brothers bury the hatchet is being orchestrated by the power Khaps in Haryana and octogenarian former Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal. But the damage seems irreparable, at least for now. The INLD, sources indicate, may even struggle to find winnable candidates for the upcoming polls.

The lack of a formidable opposition has buoyed the BJP. With ‘Mission 75’, the BJP appears to be going in for the kill. Khattar, with all his failures on law and order and the administrative fronts, has been projected as the next chief ministerial candidate. Will he have the last laugh? The voters will decide soon.

(Published 19 September 2019, 16:58 IST)

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