Manohar Lal Khattar gives BJP an edge in Haryana’s Punjabi belt
In 2014, the BJP won 15 seats in the belt and the Congress five seats, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) one and independents two.Updated: Oct 23, 2019 11:57 IST
Known as a “GT Road Party” in Haryana until it came to power in the state five years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is eyeing not only complete dominance of the belt but the entire state in the October 21 assembly elections.
GT Road, or Grand Trunk Road, belt comprises the five districts of Sonepat, Panipat, Karnal, Kurukshetra and Ambala. Former Haryana chief minister and senior Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda once remarked that the belt determined who formed the government in the state.
As many as 23 constituencies out of the total 90 seats in the state fall in these districts.
In 2014, the BJP won 15 seats in the belt and the Congress five, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) one and independents two. The BJP, then riding a popular wave in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wrested power from the Congress, winning 47 seats.
The INLD won 19 seats, the Congress 15 and the Haryana Janhit Congress (BL – Bhajan Lal) secured two. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) pocketed one each and the remaining was filled by an independent.
The BJP is hopeful of a clean sweep of the belt this time. “Lotus will blossom all around GT Road and the BJP will form the government with a massive win,” said Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, addressing poll rallies in Kurukshetra and Ambala districts on Friday.
Political experts attribute the rise of the BJP in the region to sustained consolidation among certain communities, especially the Punjabis who account for 8% of the state’s estimated population of around 28 million.
The GT Road belt is largely dominated by the Punjabis, who were often referred to as “sharnarthis” and “refugees” by their fellow Haryanvis but now feel politically empowered.
A large number of Punjabis settled in Haryana migrated from Jhang, Bhawalpur and Multan districts of Pakistan. Last year, several organisations, including Haryana Punjabi Swabhiman Sangh and Haryana Punjabi Ekta Manch, urged the state government o ban the words sharnarthis and refugees. They also demanded a law on the lines of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act with similar penalties for those calling the Punjabis refugees.
The Punjabis could influence the outcome not only in all the 23 seats in the GT Road Belt but also in Faridabad and Gurugram.
Hooda knew the importance of the GT Road belt, and stepped up his campaign in the region. “The BJP further consolidated its support base among the Punjabis after naming Khattar, who is from the community, as its chief minister in 2014,” said Ramji Lal, a former principal of Dyal Singh College, Karnal. “Till then, the state politics was by and large dominated by the Jats. Khattar became the first Punjabi chief minister of Haryana after the state was carved out of Punjab on November 1, 1966,” he added.
The Congress dismisses the suggestion that it had ignored the Punjabis in giving them key roles. “Our chief minister Bhajan Lal, too, migrated from Pakistan and he used to call himself a Bhawalpuria refugee. He inducted many Punjabis such as Balbir Pal Shah, Laxman Das Arora, Dharambir Gauba and Subhash Batra in his cabinet. We have always given due representation to all the communities and sections of the society,” said Congress leader from Haryana Varinder Vashisht. He added that former INLD’s Haryana chief and former state minister Ashok Arora joined the Congress last month. “That shows the Punjabis continue to have a strong faith in the Congress.”
Rajendra Sharma, head of the political sciences department at Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, said there was a sense of insecurity till 2014, given that Punjabis are mostly traders and political power in Haryana remained with the landed class like the Jats.
“The natural choice for the Punjabis in Haryana is the BJP but when the BJP was not in power they sided with the Congress. Post-2014, there is an enhancement in their self-esteem as well,” he said.
Sharma said the Punjabis dreaded the INLD rule and in comparison found the Congress a much safer bet but their first preference had always been the BJP.
There is also a growing realisation among the Punjabis that they can now make a difference to the state’s political and electoral scenario because of their increasing numerical strength. “Definitely there is a sense of security after 2014. Not only Punjabis, the other castes too are enjoying the fruits of development ushered in by the BJP. There is complete transparency in jobs and infrastructure development is being carried out without any discrimination,” said Panipat-based chartered accountant Gautam Khera.
Ambala resident Kulbir (full name), who is in the travel business, agrees. “We have seen a lot of development in the five years of the BJP rule. The levels of corruption have significantly gone down. Youth are now getting jobs without paying bribes,” he said.
Devendra Phogat and Bhushan (full name), both taxi drivers and part of a group playing cards in a park near the Ambala bus stand, differ. “Where are the jobs? Unemployment is at an all-time high. Economic recession has hit the businesses. Diwali is fast approaching and please go to the markets. The usual rush is missing this time,” said Phogat. “GST (Goods and Services Tax) and notebandi (demonetisation) have destroyed traders,” added Bhushan.
Both Congress and the INLD claim to enjoy overwhelming support of the Jats, who constitute 25% of the state’s population.
The Jat agitation in February 2016 for quotas in government jobs and college admissions, which resulted in the death of 31 people, vertically divided the state on caste lines.
Ever since, the state has seen a sharp division between Jats and non-Jats.
Political parties are now drafting their electoral strategies based on these calculations.
Among the non-Jat population, Brahmins make up 7.5%, Ahirs 5.14%, Vaishs 5%, Gujjars 3.35%, Jat Sikhs 4%, Rajputs 3.4%, Sainis 2.9%, Kumhars 2.7%, Meos and Muslims about 3.8%, Rors 1.1% and Bishnois 0.7%. The scheduled castes account for about 21% of the population.
The BJP has emerged as a major gainer in Haryana because of social engineering. “We don’t have much option. There is confusion and rampant infighting in the Congress and the INLD is fragmented. So the BJP seems to be the only viable alternative,” said Surender (full name), a shopkeeper in Karnal.
The INLD is confronted with its worst crisis ever, with former Lok Sabha member Dushyant Chautala parting ways with his grandfather and former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala and uncle Abhay Chautala and forming his own Jannayak Janata Party (JJP). Dushyant claims to be the real inheritor of the legacy of the late Choudhary Devi Lal. The disintegration of the INLD is expected to help the Congress given that both the parties vie for the same vote bank and the Chautalas are fighting a battle of survival, having been out of power for about 15 years now.
Sharma of Maharshi Dayanand University says the challenge for the BJP will be to retain power with the kind of majority it secured in 2014. “A trend seen in Haryana politics in the last 44 years is that no party has consecutively gained a majority in the assembly...”
“The big question is whether Khattar will break that jinx,” Sharma added.