In Haryana, it’s BJP versus the rest

The Assembly election verdict will indicate the political future of State-based parties

As Haryana gets ready for its 14th Assembly election, to be held on October 21, it is time to see how it compares in electoral terms with other States.

Differences and similarities

Haryana’s ‘exceptionalism’ becomes evident when we consider the following factors: First, it is difficult to divide the State into culturally and geographically contiguous regions as electoral regions as is the case with some States. Instead, it is the administrative units, like districts, that have emerged as effective electoral regions, each having its own distinct political choices.

Second, Haryana, for most of its political existence, has not experienced stable party competition or a stable alignment of voters with a particular party. As a result, there has been a great degree of volatility in politics. The anti-incumbency factor was overcome only once when the ruling Congress returned to form a minority government in 2009.

Third, weak party loyalty has meant that caste and kinship are the main electoral factors. This explains the entrenchment of dynastic politics. Political families have shifted from one party to another with impunity and the electorate looks towards its ‘own’ leaders rather than political parties for patronage.

Fourth, much before the other States, Haryana witnessed the rise and fall of a number of State parties like the Vishal Haryana Party, Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) and the Haryana Janhit Congress. Only the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), an offshoot of the Lok Dal, has survived.

Fifth, unlike other Hindi-speaking States, despite the sizeable presence of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes, the social basis of political power has remained very narrow. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s vote share was 3.65% in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The land-owning and numerically strong Jat community is politically dominant in the State. Six out of 10 Chief Ministers in Haryana belonged to the Jat community, while the rest came from the upper castes.

Sixth, unlike States like Punjab, where local issues matter much more than national issues in the Assembly election, Haryana politics has been greatly influenced by all-India politics. This can be attributed to the proximity of the State to the national capital where Haryanvis live in large numbers. Also, the State’s economy is crucially linked with the National Capital Region.

And what have been the similarities with other States? First, similar to how the party became dominant in some States, the BJP became a winnable party in Haryana after agreeing to be a junior partner in its alliance with State-level parties.

Second, caste and kinship have been major factors in influencing voting behaviour. In the absence of minorities (Muslims are confined to the Mewat region), it is the Jat-non-Jat divide that has played a major factor in determining electoral results.

Third, the State compares favourably with neighbouring States in terms of having an impressive range of State-level political leadership. Despite being a small ‘new’ State, Haryana leaders like B.D. Sharma, Rao Birendra Singh, Devi Lal, Bansi Lal and Bhajan Lal had a national presence.

Fourth, like most other States, Haryana too has witnessed bipolar electoral politics with the Congress pitted against the Jana Sangh, then against the INLD, and now against the BJP. And during the heydays of coalition politics, the State also saw short-lived opportunistic alliances of parties (BJP-HVP, BJP-INLD, to name a few).


The BJP is still formidable

What is significant in this election is that the simmering age-old Jat-non-Jat divide, politically exploited to his advantage by Bhajan Lal, a Bishnoi, has once again been on display since the last Assembly election, especially after the violence unleashed in 2016 on the issue of Jat reservation. The BJP gained from it, and by making Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi Khatri, as Chief Minister, the party is hoping to reap the electoral dividend again. With the Jat vote likely to be divided between the INLD and the newly formed Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), even the Congress has given fewer tickets to Jat candidates though Bhupinder Singh Hooda, its likely chief ministerial candidate, belongs to the community.

As the 2019 Lok Sabha election results showed, national issues have taken precedence over local issues such as the high rate of unemployment, farmers’ distress, and growing crimes against women. The BJP leadership earlier flagged the Pulwama and Balakot episodes in its election campaign; now it is the dilution of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. The party is also once again banking on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

These two factors explain why the BJP looks formidable despite having a non-Haryanvi politician as its chief ministerial candidate, who, as the outgoing Chief Minister, failed to tackle the the State-wide Jat agitation in 2016 as well as the violence that broke out following the conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, in a rape case in 2017. What is in Mr. Khattar’s favour is his clean image and fair governmental appointments. Being a Punjabi helps him in ‘shrinking’ the Jat-non-Jat divide in his party, as was evident in the Lok Sabha election, according to the post-poll survey of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Indicators of the verdict

Dynastic politics is once again visible and is afflicting not only the Congress, but also the BJP which has inducted party hoppers in large numbers. This visibility is despite the fact that most of them — Bhavya Bishnoi, Arjun Singh Chautala, Deepender Hooda, Bhupinder Hooda and Shruti Choudhry — were defeated in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Rao Inderjit Singh and Brijender Singh were exceptions as they got away having the advantage of BJP tickets. This election will be significant as the verdict will give a firm indication of whether the voters have finally become averse to dynastic politics or the Lok Sabha election was just an aberration.

The verdict will also be a firm indicator of the political future of State-based parties like the INLD and the JJP. The prognosis looks ominous for the Aam Aadmi Party and Swaraj India, the newer entrants. Like in other Hindi-speaking States, the rise of the BJP does not seem to augur well for the State parties which have a narrow social support base in this ‘new India’. Thus it is a straight, though uneven, contest between the BJP and the Congress, a party that is battling factionalism and is in a state of disarray at the top.

Ashutosh Kumar is Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 3:05:37 AM |

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