Lok Sabha elections 2019: Divided Opposition aims to stop BJP poll machine in Haryana
Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar went through a rocky first four years in power.
His administration was singed by a series of law-and-order debacles, primary among which was the violent Jat quota agitation in 2016 that stretched on for weeks, brought large parts of the state to a standstill and led to the deaths of at least 30 people.
The next year, followers of self-styled godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh rampaged across Panchkula to protest his conviction on rape charges, bringing back memories of a showdown between the police and devotees of another godman, Rampal, in 2014. A number of gruesome rapes and crimes against women – such as the 2017 rape and murder of a minor in Hisar – didn’t help his government’s record.
In his last year, the long-time Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist-turned-politician appears to have found his political groove.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the first-ever direct mayoral elections in five major cities of the state last December and followed it up, a month later with an emphatic victory in the high-stakes by-election in the Jind assembly constituency – a seat it has won for the first time since 1966 when the state was carved out of Punjab.
The twin victories are a favourable augury for the BJP ahead of the crucial 2019 parliamentary polls in which each of the 10 seats up for grabs will count. BJP leaders feel the February 26 Indian Air Force (IAF) strikes on a terror camp in Pakistan’s Balakot will give them an edge. The Khattar government not only immediately hailed the air strikes but also passed a resolution in the state assembly to congratulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the armed forces amid chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ by treasury benches.
The nationalist sentiment is expected to work for the party in the state that makes a sizeable contribution – Khattar put the number at 9% in November last year – to the armed forces.
As Raghuvendra Tanwar, professor emeritus, Kurukshetra University, puts it, “The armed forces are symbolic of national pride across the world.India’s action of targeting terrorist camps have united the country in a context. Haryana has an age-old bonding with the armed forces. It is only natural for a pro- active policy to win support for the person who bells the cat”. The opposition’s counter strategy hinges as much on punching holes in the BJP’s nationalistic narrative as on questioning the Khattar government’s performance.
“The BJP is indulging in pseudo-nationalism for political gains. They want to usurp the valor and glory of the armed forces. But people of Haryana can see through. The BJP has failed in terms of welfare measures for armed forces personnel. It’s a shame that they have not accorded the status of martyrs to paramilitary personnel killed in action” says Ashok Tanwar, Haryana Congress chief. “The BJP just wants to use the sacrifices of our soldiers for votes. We will put up these facts before the people and expose them”. The saffron party was a marginal player in Haryana till May 2014 when, riding the crest of a Modi wave, it bagged seven seats – its highest tally ever on its own – and then came up trumps in the state assembly polls within a few months to form its first-ever government in the Jat-dominated state.
Khattar has attributed his recent wins to his government’s achievements, centered chiefly on transparency in transfers, scandal-free recruitments to government jobs and a raft of welfare schemes. Yet, his party’s new-found confidence draws more from the opposition’s woes. The Congress, a dominant player in state politics for decades, is grappling with reports of bickering between Tanwar and two-time former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The Hooda loyalists, including many of the 17 party MLAs, have been pressing for Tanwar’s removal.
The party is divided between multiple camps – each trying to pull the other down -- instead of taking on rival parties. The feud only worsened after the Jind byection fiasco, with Randeep Singh Surjewala, who was handpicked by Congress president Rahul Gandhi as the party candidate, alleging that some party leaders betrayed him. The Congress slipped to the third slot and barely managed to not lose its deposit. The Jind gambit was expected to unite the warring Congress factions. Instead, it has widened the rift, raising questions whether the party will be able to get its act together for the Lok Sabha polls.
However, it is the former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the principal opposition party in the state, which is in deeper trouble. While Chautala, its main vote-catcher, is serving a jail term after being convicted in a teachers’ recruitment case, his two sons, Ajay and Abhay, have fallen out. The party, founded by former deputy prime minister Devi Lal, split in December last year when Ajay’s two sons, Dushyant and Digvijay, set up their Jannayak Janata Party (JJP).
The family feud spilled into the Jind by-election with both sides fielding their candidates to lay claim on Devi Lal’s legacy. JJP, which fielded Digvijay, was the runner-up ahead of the Congress. The INLD was pushed to an abysmal fifth position, prompting its alliance partner, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), to snap their 11-month-old tie-up. Before calling off the alliance, the BSP had served an ultimatum to the Chautala family to unite or forget about the alliance.
The last time the INLD (then known as Haryana Lok Dal-Rashtriya) and the BSP had joined hands in 1998, they won five LS seats. The INLD won four and one had gone to the BSP.
The political churning has led to the entry of another player in Haryana: the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Despite a weak organisational set-up in a state neighbouring its stronghold of Delhi, party chief Arvind Kejriwal has, for the past year, been holding meetings across the state, hoping to capitalise on the anti-incumbency sentiment faced by the BJP and divisions in the Congress and the INLD. The AAP supported the JJP in Jind, but the two parties have not been able to come to an agreement to form an alliance. The BJP, too, has had its share of internal upheavals as its rebel MP Raj Kumar Saini, a backward class leader who opposed the inclusion of Jats in the other backward classes (OBC) category for reservation, also set up the Loktantra Suraksha Party (LSP). Saini has joined hands with BSP .
In the elections, the BJP plans to project its government’s performance as its strong suit. “We will seek support on work done on transparency in governance, curbs put on corruption, jobs based on merit and farmers’ welfare. Though I don’t claim that we have totally eliminated corruption or achieved complete transparency, a strong beginning has been made,” says Haryana BJP president Subhash Barala.
The poll calculations of the BJP, seen by many as the biggest beneficiary of a caste divide, hinge on garnering a major chunk of the Punjabi and urban vote bank and a likely three-way division of the 23% Jat vote between the Congress and INLD factions. With the state set for a multi-cornered contest, the surfeit of spoilers may be the real decider.