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Opinion: Opinion | Haryana: BJP Tries To Retain Lead, While Congress Tackles Infighting

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Unlike 2019 and 2014, the Lok Sabha election in Haryana is shaping up to be a more open-ended contest this time. Manohar Lal Khattar, 69, who vacated the chief minister’s chair in March this year, will still be contesting from his home turf, Karnal. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has chosen to bank on the consolidation of OBC votes under Nayab Singh Saini, the current chief minister and the party’s new face in Haryana.

Khattar’s resignation was seen as a way of checking anti-incumbency ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to enjoy tremendous goodwill in the state, but chances are that the ‘Modi factor’ alone may not be enough for the party this time. Notably, three independents withdrew their support to the Saini government yesterday and have now switched to the Congress. 

The Method To Congress List

But the Congress has its own challenges. It finalised its list of Haryana candidates last week with the appointment of Raj Babbar as its nominee from Gurgaon. But the announcement has only exacerbated the fissures in the party’s ranks. The Bhupinder Singh Hooda camp seems to have gotten its way in terms of the selection of candidates, while the other faction – comprising Selja Kumari, Randeep Singh Surjewala and Kiran Choudhry – has been left seething.

Given that assembly polls in the state will come close on the heels of the Lok Sabha election, the Congress high command appears keen to keep Hooda in good humour, who has emerged as the tallest Jat leader in the state over the last decade. 

The sidelining of Brijendra Singh in Hisar apart, there seems to be a method to the Congress list as there is a conscious effort not to turn the election into a ‘Jat vs non-Jat’ contest – as the BJP would like to have it. For instance, unlike 2019, when the Congress candidates list comprised four Jat names, this year’s roster has only two names from the community. Care has also been taken to appeal more to urban voters and to have two Punjabis as well as a Brahmin in Sonipat. The strategy is clearly aimed at denting the BJP’s appeal among these communities in Haryana.

Read | “No Danger”: BJP vs Congress After 3 Independents Quit In Haryana

Apart from Babbar’s candidacy, Sonipat’s Satpal Brahmachari and Karnal’s Divyanshu Budhiraja (the 31-year-old Haryana Youth Congress president) have also come as surprise picks. In a nutshell, the Congress has struck a deft balancing act by giving tickets to two Dalits, two Jats and two Punjabis, and one each to a Gujjar, an Ahir and a Brahmin.

Jindal’s Candidature

Having ceded the Kurukshetra seat to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – where state chief and Rajya Sabha MP Sushil Gupta’s name was announced before the naming of Congress candidates – there is also an Agarwal on the INDIA bloc’s list. The perception is that the BJP admitted Congress turncoat Navin Jindal as a direct response to Gupta’s candidature. Apart from being from the same community, the two are also the richest candidates in the fray and have their business empires spread across the region.

There is another factor at play here, and that has to do with the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The embattled AAP convenor is himself an Agarwal from Haryana, and the community – which accounts for over 4% of the state’s population – has warmed up to him in recent times. 

And hence, Jindal.

Congress Surrendered to Hoodas

It’s only common sense not to put all your eggs in one basket. However, the Congress seems to have done exactly that in Haryana. Among its nine candidates, Selja Kumari, fielded from Sirsa, is the only one who is not from the Hooda camp; Ambala candidate Varun Chaudhary, son of veteran leader Phool Chand Mulana, is acceptable to all factions and thus is not really a Hooda nominee.

Not only has Hooda managed to get all his loyalists on the list, but he also ensured that Brijendra Singh, son of veteran politician Birender Singh, was denied a ticket. Ironically, it was Singh’s move to the Congress from the BJP that actually helped the grand old party turn the tide in the run-up to the polls. He is a winnable candidate and a sitting MP, but Hooda’s grudge seems to have weighed against him. That grudge goes back years. Once bitter rivals in the Congress, it was on account of Hooda’s resistance that Birender Singh was denied a berth in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet in 2013 after being invited to the swearing-in. The incident ultimately led to his exit from the Congress a year later. Now, with the denial of a ticket to Brijendra, Hooda seems intent on clearing the way for his own son, Deepinder Hooda, to take over as the undisputed Jat leader in Haryana.

Read | Opinion: Will BJP’s Experiment With A Non-Jat Chief Minister In Haryana Pay Off?

Not just senior Hooda, even the junior Hooda managed to get one of his loyalists – the young Budhiraja – on the Congress list. Given that he will be facing off against Khattar, the decision has not gone down well with a few others who were eyeing the seat, including Chanakya Pandit, son of former assembly speaker Kuldeep Sharma.

The Missing Lal Clans

Even if Hooda wanted to deny Brijendra Singh his due, there could have been a more honourable way of doing so. For instance, Congress could have fielded former deputy chief minister Chander Mohan, son of Bhajan Lal, as a surprise pick. This could have been dubbed as a way to get the backing of the sulking Kuldeep Bishnoi – the younger brother of Chander Mohan – as well as the Bishnoi community as a whole.

Bishnoi, who has been sidelined in the BJP lately, was denied the Hisar seat. In such a scenario, the Congress could have fielded a second Jat leader in Karan Singh Dalal from Faridabad (instead of Mahendar Pratap Singh). The result is that Dalal is now miffed and has been in revolt mode since Hooda had purportedly assured him of a ticket.

Or, Shruti Choudhry, granddaughter of Bansi Lal, could have been retained from the Bhiwani-Mahendragarh seat as a second Jat candidate. 

Ultimately, there is no representation this time from two Lal clans – Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal – although there are many names from the Devi Lal clan on the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the JJP and the BJP lists.

BJP’s Strategy; Survival Question For JJP

The BJP’s decision to replace Khattar with Saini was an admission that the state government might not have been as popular in its second term. The party is hoping that after its split with the Dushyant Chautala-led JJP, the anti-incumbency factor will be somewhat neutralised. The JJP, in any case, unravelled in a matter of days once it lost power, with even its state president deserting it, along with a number of prominent leaders. The JJP’s Ajay Chautala did try to extend an olive branch to its parent party, the INLD, urging it to bury the hatchet, but in vain. 

The BJP’s list doesn’t have too many surprises. Apart from Jindal, it has two more Congress turncoats this time: Ashok Tanwar from Sirsa and Ranjit Singh Chautala from the Devi Lal clan. Chautala was nominated from Hisar just days after he joined the BJP. That would mean that out of the BJP’s 10 candidates, only four are originally from its own stock.

The Congress believes it has a good chance to net a few seats in the state, while the BJP reckons that the leads it secured in 2014 and 2019 would be difficult to bridge. If the former puts its drubbing in 2014 and 2019 down to the Modi wave, the BJP is hoping that the same factor will help it in this Lok Sabha election as well. There may be many variables at play, but one thing is certain: Haryana is poised to witness a keen contest in 2024.

(Anand Kochukudy is a senior journalist and columnist.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

​The Congress believes it has a good chance to net a few seats in Haryana, while the BJP reckons that the leads it secured in 2014 and 2019 would be difficult to bridge. 

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