Why Jind Bypoll Matters: Test Of BJP’s Non-Jat Coalition, Chautala’s Relevance, Surjewala’s Prestige
Ahead of the crucial bypoll in Jind constituency, Arihant Pawariya breaks down what’s at stake, and what’s the prize, for the parties and players fighting it out in the “heartland of Haryana politics”. Ground report:
Haryana may have to share its administrative capital, Chandigarh, with Punjab, but Jind takes pride in staking claim as the state’s undisputed political capital. Whether to launch a new political party, protest against the government, or prove your popular appeal, you come to Jind, organise a grand rally here, and demonstrate your electoral worthiness.
Though Jats comprise more than 25 per cent of the electorate, no candidate from the community has succeeded in winning the assembly seat from here in the last 40 years. It is perhaps for this reason, also, that Jind gives even non-Jats the hope to make their mark.
Political temperature is at its highest in Jind at the moment. A bypoll is scheduled to be held on 28 January. This was necessitated after Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Dr Hari Chand Midha passed away last year. A Punjabi, he contested in 2009 and 2014 from Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and won both times with the support of the party’s core vote bank: Jats.
Jind is the INLD’s stronghold, but the party has strategically fielded a non-Jat candidate from here to forge a winnable caste alliance. Caste data with the parties show that the assembly constituency has similar populations of Bania, Brahmin, and Punjabi voters, and their numbers are slightly lower than the total Jat voters, which number around 45,000 (total votes are over 170,000). In the past four decades, the constituency has been represented six times by a bania and twice by a Punjabi.
The 2019 bypoll has become a high-stakes battle for all political parties and each one of them has put their best foot forward. Not a single faction is leaving anything to chance and is putting everything on the line. And it’s not just because this is seen as a semi-final to the upcoming Lok Sabha and state assembly elections.
Every party has its reasons for going all out to win Jind.
BJP, Chief Minister Khattar Want To Prove They Can Win In Jat Heartland
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s carefully crafted non-Jat (with a tadka of anti-Jat) strategy is paying rich electoral dividends at present in Haryana. Buoyed by the 5-0 clean sweep in mayoral elections in five major cities, the BJP now wants to prove that it can win in a semi-urban area like Jind, too.
It has 36 villages where Jats are overwhelmingly in the majority. In the city, non-Jats dominate. Of the 172,000 votes, around one lakh voters live in the city. And since three-fourths of the voters are non-Jats, the BJP has never been more sure of winning this seat than it is today.
The BJP has fielded late MLA Dr Hari Chand Midha’s son, Krishan Midha. The latter quit the INLD on the insistence of Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who had assured him of a ticket. Midha is the only major non-Jat face among the top four players. Congress, INLD, and new entrant Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) have all fielded Jats. No matter who wins, history will be made: either the BJP will win this seat for the first time or a Jat will win Jind again after 47 years!
Demographics are on the BJP’s side. Three-fourth of the voters are non-Jats.
“Earlier, the election wouldn’t be about Jat–not Jat. Jats would happily vote for a non-Jat candidate because the candidate didn’t matter as the top bosses were all from their community, be it Devi Lal, Bansi Lal, Hooda, Chautala. They knew their vote was going for the chaudhar (rule) of the community and not for candidates per se. Now, the situation has reversed. CM (chief minister) as well as the local candidate are non-jats, so the community votes for only Jat candidate. That’s why today polarisation has started happening”, explains Sandeep Kumar, a garment seller in Jind’s Punjabi market.
But elections are seldom about arithmetic alone. Three major factors are keeping the BJP on its toes.
First, the influential bania community has no love lost for the BJP candidate, whose father in 2009 defeated their community’s Mange Ram Gupta, a four-time legislator from Jind. No party has fielded a bania.
Gupta, who everyone is trying to woo, has refused to endorse anyone so far. If he remains neutral, the BJP might succeed, but if he supports anyone else, the BJP could lose. In the meantime, the party has deployed its influential ministers and MLAs from the bania community to get their votes.
“Bania voters number around 14,000 and are split three-way. One, those who personally have a problem with the BJP candidate. Second, those who are traditional BJP voters, and third, those who have been traditional Congress voters (Mange Ram Gupta won on the Congress ticket thrice),” says Mahendra Mangla, a garment seller in Jind’s main bazaar.
The second cause for concern for the BJP is the dent in its Brahmin votes. Raj Kumar Saini, Member of Parliament from Kurukshetra and known for his vitriolic verbal attacks on the Jat community, launched his outfit, Loktantra Suraksha Party (LSP), after rebelling against the BJP. He has fielded a Brahmin. Now, not only is he getting almost all the Saini votes in the constituency but a substantial percentage of Brahmin votes, too.
The third factor is a possibility of the Congress denting its non-Jat coalition by taking away Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Class votes. The Congress has fielded a strong candidate in Randeep Singh Surjewala, and the party is campaigning as a united front for the first time in many years.
The fourth factor is the lacklustre campaigning by the party. Instead of bombarding every big leader from each corner of the state, the party should have focused on building the campaign more around the candidate. Perhaps, they believed in their theory of a superior demographic advantage too much. If one goes around the city, which is supposed to be the party’s stronghold, one finds more flags, banners, stickers, and vehicles of parties other than the BJP.
Midha’s campaign denies there are any loose ends. “It is a misconception that we are only winning in the city. Our babuji (Dr Hari Chand Midha) enjoyed great popularity even in villages. We are getting a lot of support from Jats there. We have organised 130 shivirs for the poor, providing free medical checkup. There is goodwill among masses due to our social service record,” says Midha’s cousin, who is managing the campaign.
Even if all is hunky-dory, in close contests where the margin of victory for the winner is expected to be less than 5,000 votes, any of the above factors can prove to be the BJP’s undoing. However, one thing can make it win: polarisation.
“Abhi bhaichara acha chal raha hai (Now there is a spirit of brotherhood). If there is no caste polarisation, the BJP will win this by 3,000 to 5,000 votes. If there is polarisation, then the BJP will win by over 10,000 votes and Surjewala will lose the deposit, as Jat votes will move from his side to Dushyant Chautala’s JJP, which is a close second in the race,” says Mangla.
“They will definitely polarise as the election comes to a close. That’s the truth. Bhaichara rehne nahi dena inhone (They won’t let that spirit of brotherhood go on),” says Rajesh Malik, another merchant in Jind’s main market.
Malik’s apprehension is not without basis. In mayoral elections, even Chief Minister Khattar made overt caste signalling just before the election in Karnal, where the contest was the closest. The caste campaign in Rohtak was more blatant in that regard.
Fight For Om Prakash Chautala’s Political Inheritance: INLD Vs JJP
Thirty years ago, amidst bitter sibling rivalry, former deputy prime minister Devi Lal anointed his son Om Prakash Chautala as his heir and Haryana’s chief minister, though his younger brother, Ranjit Singh, commanded the support of more MLAs. Some say Devi Lal didn’t appoint anyone, but let the better man win. Chautala certainly had guts. Ranjit Singh slowly faded away into irrelevance.
A similar rivalry is rocking Chautala household again, that between his younger, favourite son, Abhay, and children of the elder son Ajay, Dushyant and Digvijay. Om Prakash and son Ajay are currently serving a 10-year jail time in a teacher recruitment scam. So, Abhay became the INLD’s in-charge. Ajay’s son Dushyant Chautala, who is Member of Parliament from Hisar, and his brother recently fell out with uncle Abhay, and Om Prakash threw out his grandsons from the party. They formed a new entity, JJP, three months ago.
Jind is a do-or-die election for them. Since it is happening in the INLD’s stronghold, it is a chance to prove their worth. Though, of the 17 INLD MLAs, only four are supporting Dushyant (including his mother). But if the JJP pips the INLD here, it can hope to get not just these MLAs but also the cadre just before the all-important Lok Sabha and assembly elections.
So, defeating the INLD is much more important for the JJP than winning the seat. That’s why it has made its ace move by giving a ticket to Dushyant’s younger brother, Digvijay.
The INLD has given a ticket to Umed Singh Redhu, local Redhu Khap leader from Kandela, one of the biggest villages in Jind. It’s the same village where under the Chautala regime in 2002, police had fired upon protesting farmers, killing nine and injuring 80. After 17 years, Abhay Chautala recently apologised for the incident. The INLD is banking on villages that come under Kandela khap to deliver for it. But it’s a big risk.
Political pundits agree that though the BJP has an edge, the JJP is a close second. Before the candidates were announced, purely on the basis of demographics, they had assumed a three-way even split in Jat votes, but we talked to BJP karyakartas with access to the party’s internal surveys, which show that the JJP is taking away an overwhelming majority of the Jat votes. The INLD may not even get votes in five digits and may even come fifth, behind Raj Kumar Saini’s LSP.
Three factors are favouring the JJP’s rise:
First, the youth appeal of brothers Dushyant and Digvijay. They were in complete control of the INLD’s student wing and have taken away all the old party’s young cadre with them. Even the non-Jat youth is able to identify with them as both brothers have tried reaching out to all the communities aggressively.
Second, the stark comparison between the nature of leadership. While Abhay Chautala’s image is that of an abrasive person who is infamous for rubbing people the wrong way, Dushyant comes across as affable. His image is of a leader who has no ego and can mingle with the youth and the old alike.
‘We can grab him by his hand and tell him whatever we feel like. There is no talking back. No angry looks. He listens with humility’. This is how old people talk about him. Digvijay constantly refers to the JJP as naram dal (moderate) and the INLD as garam dal (extremist) as a way to differentiate the two parties. However, naram and garam here refer to the personal nature of leaders rather than their political ideologies.
Third, the JJP is running the most animated campaign among all, even its critics agree. Their social media game is also miles ahead of others.
One thing that caused some damage to the JJP’s image was a couple of videos of Om Prakash Chautala and his wife Snehlata that went viral. Chautala is seen calling his grandsons ‘traitors’ while Snehlata, who is ill and admitted in Gurgaon’s Medanta hospital, is saying, “Sons like Dushyant and Digvijay should never be born in any family, and if they are born, should die quickly. I don’t want these four (Son Ajay, daughter-in-law Naina, grandsons Dushyant and Digvijay) to even touch my funeral bier.”
Except some die-hard old O P Chautala fans, these videos are unlikely to change many minds. “What kind of grandfather or grandmother would say such things about their children? Didn’t Chautala fight with his brothers? Devi Lal preferred Ranjit, but Chautala usurped the CM post. Now, karma has come to haunt him in this life itself,” says Rakesh Rathi, an INLD supporter-turned-JJP fan.
The biggest problem with the party is that it is not getting substantial support from any other major caste. The appeal is limited to only the Jat community. However, if the BJP fails to forge its non-Jat alliance either out of its own falling or due to a strong showing by the Congress among lower castes, it can win. But as said earlier, even if it comes a close second after the BJP, it would have every reason to celebrate.
Congress Tries To Put Up A United Front
The Congress, on direct orders from Rahul Gandhi, had fielded its national spokesperson Surjewala, sitting MLA from neighbouring Kaithal constituency. Its calculation was that with the INLD split into two factions, it can defeat the BJP by not only getting the disgruntled Jat voters of the INLD but also banias, scheduled castes, and other backward class votes. However, the JJP spoiled the plan by fielding even a better Jat candidate than Surjewala, who has also failed to make a dent in the BJP’s non-Jat vote bank so far.
Now, his goal is to avoid embarrassment by not coming third, analysts say. He certainly wouldn’t like to be defeated by a Chautala. Their family rivalry goes back a long way. In 1993 bypoll in Jind’s Narwana seat, O P Chautala had defeated a young Surjewala. In 1996, it was Surjewala’s turn to triumph over his rival. In 2000, Chautala exacted his revenge and defeated Surjewala. In 2005, the latter pipped Chautala. Now, he would hate to be defeated by his old rival’s grandson.
On the day of his nomination, all major warring factions in Haryana Congress led by former chief minister Bhupinder Hooda, Kiran Choudhary, Shelja, state president Ashok Tanwar came together in Surjewala’s support. A video of Haryana Education Minister and BJP leader Ram Bilas Sharma poking fun at chief minister Hooda went viral where the former is saying to the latter, “Hooda sahab aap ka kanta nikal gaya (your thorn is now removed)”. Surjewala is seen as a chief minister contender and a rival of Hooda’s. If he loses here badly, it will be a big setback for his chief ministerial ambitions.
Hooda and his son are campaigning vigorously for Surjewala in Jind. However, this may do him more harm than good. There is no love lost between Jind and Hooda. The non-Jats are angry at him as they suspect him to be behind the anti-Jat agitation. Jats in Jind hate him for ignoring the constituency during his decade-long rule while taking all development works to neighbouring Rohtak district.
“We were ourselves contemplating putting Hooda’s posters with Surjewala throughout Jind,” joked one BJP strategist who didn’t wish to be identified. It is no wonder, then, that the main Congress officer in the city is plastered with posters, but Hooda is conspicuously absent from them.
Why The BJP Has An Edge
Apart from the obvious demographic advantage, there are some secular actions that the party has taken that are helping it gain favourability among Jind residents.
“There is no corruption in government jobs under the BJP regime. Only talent counts. In recent Group D exam result, 12 people from my village got the job. That’s why, here BJP will win,” says Sanjay Jalandhra, a resident of Amarehi village.
Transparency in government job examinations is increasingly seen as the single biggest achievement of the Khattar government. A few days ago, it published results of the examination for 18,000 Group D posts. Jind came third with over 1,600 youngsters bagging the job.
“The BJP is at the centre as well as in the state. Development work will happen here if we elect a BJP MLA,” says Surender Jalandhra of the same village.
“Jind is a backward district. For the last 10 years, we have elected an MLA of the opposition party. No development work has happened. That’s why this time people are with the government. The BJP has done a lot of work: new roads have been constructed and pipes are being laid underground for sewer. During rains, the whole city becomes a pool. No other government did anything for Jind,” says Amar Ahuja, a shopkeeper near Rani Talab.
However, Sanjeev Goyal, a cloth merchant in the main market, cautions that it's too soon to project BJP as the clear winner. “The margin of victory will be less than 3,000. The JJP is offering a tough competition. So, anything can happen,” he says.
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