An upbeat Congress is hoping to consolidate its support base among the non-Jats of Haryana with the ‘ghar wapsi’ of Kuldeep Bishnoi, the son of three-time chief minister Bhajan Lal.
The merger of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) with the Congress on Thursday comes in the backdrop of a violent quota agitation by the Jats that has widened the caste divide in the state.
The HJC was formed in 2007 after the Congress preferred Jat leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda to veteran Bhajan Lal as the Haryana chief minister in 2005.
The state’s politics has been dominated by three Lals – Bansi Lal, Bhajan Lal and Devi Lal – who started their political career with the Congress but parted ways at some stage. While Bansi Lal and Devi Lal were Jats, Bhajan Lal, considered the tallest non-Jat leader of Haryana, belonged to the other backward class (OBC).
Known as the master of a political culture of party-hopping – and described by an earthy phrase ‘aaya Ram gaya Ram’ -- Bhajan Lal engineered defections on many occasions to help the Congress regain power in the state.
The term – loosely translated which means ‘Ram came, Ram left’ -- was coined when legislator Gaya Lal shifted his political loyalties three times – twice in one day -- in a fortnight in 1967, barely months after Haryana was created on November 1, 1966.
Bishnoi’s move marks the return of another Lal family to the Congress fold.
In October 2004, another three-term chief minister Bansi Lal had merged his Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) with the Congress. He quit the Congress in 1996 following differences with arch-rival Bhajan Lal and formed the HVP.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Bishnoi tied up with the BJP but lost to the Indian National Lok Dal’s Dushyant Chautala from Hisar.
However, the two parties snapped ties a few months later due to differences over seat-sharing ahead of the state elections. Since then, the Congress has been trying to woo Bishnoi and the merger process was finally set in motion after his meeting with Rahul Gandhi on April 25.
Calling the proposed merger unconditional, Bishnoi said the two parties have come together to oust the BJP from Haryana.
Bishnoi’s father enjoyed widespread support among non-Jats, who constitute about 70% of Haryana’s population. However, the Jats have dominated the state’s political scene. Of the 12 chief ministers so far, nine have been Jats.
The Congress feels that the HJC merger will boost its chances in the state in the next assembly elections.
Congress leaders are of the view that non-Jats have now turned their backs to the BJP despite the ruling party appointing Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi, as the chief minister following its first electoral success in the state in 2014. Khattar became the first non-Jat to lead the state in 18 years.
Political observers insist that Bishnoi’s entry into the Congress does not augur well for Hooda who is facing the heat after his former political advisor Professor Virender, was arrested for allegedly inciting violence during the recent Jat agitation.
The arrest comes at a time when Hooda, who served the state twice as CM, is trying to make a comeback in the party after a dismal performance in 2014 Lok Sabha and assembly polls under his leadership. While the Congress managed to win just one of the 10 Lok Sabha seats, it came third with mere 15 seats in state polls.
The fact that there was no intermediary between Bishnoi and Rahul Gandhi in chalking out the merger plan also indicates the emergence of new power centre in the Congress in Haryana and it remains to be seen how the senior leaders respond to this move.