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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

Modi’s appeal, Khattar’s record may be key in Haryana elections

The conversation, and its flow, in some ways, sums up the nature of the contest in the Haryana elections. Modi’s image and nationalism are factors. So is Manohar Lal Khattar’s perceived integrity on governance.

assembly-elections Updated: Oct 11, 2019 03:42 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Sonepat/Panipat/Karnal
n Pasina Kalan, Jaswinder Pal (centre, in light blue t-shirt) calls the Congress an “anti-national” party. Vikas Kumar (sitting behind, in a white shirt) believes they should vote on local factors.
n Pasina Kalan, Jaswinder Pal (centre, in light blue t-shirt) calls the Congress an “anti-national” party. Vikas Kumar (sitting behind, in a white shirt) believes they should vote on local factors.(HT PHOTO)

Over a hookah, under the warmth of a late morning sun, next to Gannaur railway crossing in Sonepat, Siyanand Tyagi is talking to his friend, Dayanand Chaudhary.

They are farmers. and the conversation hovers around the upcoming assembly elections in Haryana. In the the 2014 elections, the Gannaur assembly segment elected a Congress leader, Kuldeep Sharma, who is contesting again.

Tyagi is clear where his preferences lie. “We have a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre. We have a BJP government in the state. What is the point of having a Congress MLA in our area? Development work in this area got affected because he was in the opposition. We should vote for BJP this time: they will anyway win.”

But why does Tyagi think that the BJP is set to be re-elected? “Because of Manohar Lal Khattar,” he said. “Haryana used to be rife with corruption. All recruitments in government positions happened if we paid up. Under him, there has been clean and honest recruitment.” He then turns to Chaudhary. “His son also just got into the thermal department. And he did not have to pay anything. Kyon, Chaudhary saheb? What do you say?”

Dayanand Chaudhary nods. and acknowledges there has indeed been a change in the functioning of the government.

When asked if the government had favoured non-Jat communities over Jats, Tyagi (a non-Jat himself) jumps to the defence of the BJP. “Modiji (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) believes in sabka saath, sabka vikaas (development for all). He has shaken hands with leaders of 200 countries. You think he will ever discriminate? Parties win with the support of all castes. The BJP has a Jat candidate here. Kyon, Chaudhary saheb? What do you think?”

Dayanand Chaudhary nods again and says the government has worked for everyone.

The conversation, and its flow, in some ways, sums up the nature of the contest in the Haryana elections. Modi’s image and nationalism are factors. So is Manohar Lal Khattar’s perceived integrity on governance. But underlying it is a clear caste dynamic, where non-Jat communities remain the most fervent supporters of the BJP, seeking to enthusiastically convert the Jats. Where Jats find themselves in a minority, they nod along. Where they are dominant, the tables turn — they seek to convince their counterparts from other communities about the weaknesses of the Khattar regime. This interplay of nationalism, governance and caste lies at the centre of the state’s politics.

The nationalism vote

Pasina Kalan village is just off National Highway-1, and is a part of Panipat’s Samlakha assembly segment. The contest here is between the Congress’s Dharam Singh Chokhar, who has been a member of the legislative assembly in the past, and the BJP’s Shashikant Kaushik.

Conversations with a range of voters across castes that inhabit the village and its neighbouring areas — Brahmans, Gujjars, Pals, Jats — reveal a rare consensus: “Chokhar is a good man”, is the most common refrain.

But that is where the divergence begins.

Jaswinder Pal, a young local shopkeeper in Pasina Kalan, says that Chokhar had, indeed, in his term as MLA, started popular initiatives such as bus services for medical patients to hospitals in Chandigarh; he was also warm and accessible. “If he had stood as an independent, I would have voted for him. But I can’t vote for haath (the hand symbol of the Congress).” Why? “All their statements are celebrated in Pakistan and by terrorists. Look ar what Modiji did in Kashmir. It will help resolve the problem forever. But Congress is unhappy about it. How can we vote for them?”

Vikas Kumar, a chemist, sitting along with Pal, disagrees — the disagreement is not exactly about the Congress, but about what should determine one’s vote in the assembly election. “What Congress does nationally is not the factor here. We should vote for the right candidate. He will help the area.” But others, sitting around in the group, disagree with Kumar.

The governance vote

Karnal is a BJP stronghold. It is the assembly constituency of CM Khattar. It is also one of the Lok Sabha constituencies which BJP won by the highest margins in 2019 - a staggering 656,000 votes.

Kacchwa village is among the biggest in this otherwise predominantly urban seat. Govind Dhamija is a farmer, who owns nine acres of land. A Punjabi, Dhamija says that he has traditionally been a supporter of the BJP, even when the party was weak in the state. He plans to remain loyal this time around. “But this time, I have an additional reason. Under Congress rule, only Rohtak — the heartland of the Jats and the bastion of former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda — was developed. But Khattar has worked for all regions; he has spent crores on this village; and he is honest.”

Chandar Prakash Raheja concurs. Giving the example of former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, who has been convicted in a teacher recruitment scam, Raheja points to transparent government recruitments under Khattar. “But there is another factor too. There is no opposition. Congress is fighting within itself. Chautala has not been able to keep his own family together — how will he manage the state anymore? This is a one-sided election.”

A few others are listening to the conversation. Chabilal Das, an elderly man, is teased for being a Congressman in the past who shifted to the BJP when they came to power. But Das is quick to respond, “I will vote BJP because they have done one thing for us — given Punjabis samman (self-respect), given us a leader for the first time. Nationally, we are with Modi. But here, we Punjabis are with Khattar.”

The caste vote

In Das’s response actually lies a key dynamic of this election, which, at times, is pronounced and, at other times, forms the subtext.

Caste remains a key determinant of political choice. Their reasons may be different and genuine. But it is not a coincidence that all the vocal supporters of the BJP -- Siyanand Tyagi, Jaswinder Pal, Govind Dhamija, Chander Prakash Raheja, Chabbilal Das — are non-Jats.

The voices of opposition, on the other hand, continue to come most strongly from the Jats. In the Jat-dominated Beoli village of Samlalkha constituency, a group of men are chatting at a motorbike workshop.

Shukram Singh is a farmer. Dressed in a sparking white kurta-pyajama, Singh is clear that he would vote for the Congress. “We supported Modi at the national level in the Lok Sabha elections. But this election is about local issues, and what has happened in the state. This government has divided Jats and non-Jats. It has decided to discriminate against Jats. Look at what the community has got in the power structure, in government appointments.”

Rajesh Kumar, another farmer, nods and claims the BJP has “ruined brotherhood” at the village level. “In the village, this sentiment of who is a Jat and who is a non-Jat has seeped in when it was not there earlier. This is also an anti-farmer government.”

Both Singh and Kumar are admirers of Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the state’s most towering Jat leader, who was recently appointed the head of the campaign committee of the Congress. “The party took too long to give him charge but it has now done the right thing.”

There is one other broad, admittedly heterogeneous, caste group that will be the swing force in determining the outcome of the elections - Dalits. They constitute over 20% of the state’s population. The BJP believes that its aggressive wooing of the community through welfare schemers, its symbolic respect to BR Ambedkar, and its position on the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act will win it greater support from the community than in the past. The Congress is banking on Kumari Selja, the state unit chief, who is a Dalit leader, to play a role in winning the support of the community.

The Bhaujan Samaj Party, which won around 4% of the vote in the 2014 assembly elections and got one seat, has shrunk, but is counting on the fact that Congress’s Ashok Tanwar, another Dalit leader, has quit the party, creating to a vacuum. At a small BSP meeting in Karnal, Satish Valmiki, the party’s candidate from the constituency, said: “I admit that we have faced a crisis. But we see this as an opportunity to grow.”

But this appears unlikely, with the Dalit vote set to split between the two national parties.

The Haryana election thus rests on this interplay of Modi’s strong image as opposed to the Congress’s perceived weakness on nationalism; governance and Khattar’s honest image as opposed to Congress’s rule in the state; and caste fault lines, in particular the possible consolidation of non-Jats behind the BJP and a degree of Jat consolidation behind the Congress. Voices from the ground lend credence to the BJP’s optimism about its prospects, though whether it can achieve its ambitious target of winning 75-plus seats in the assembly of 90 will have to be seen.


First Published: Oct 10, 2019 23:04 IST

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