Can Congress in Haryana cash in on the Jat ire against BJP?

The crisis in the assembly has deepened the political fault lines in Haryana

PTI05_10_2024_000147B Damage control: BJP president J.P. Nadda with Haryana Chief Minister Nayab Singh Saini and former chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar during the BJP’s state core committee meeting | PTI

The farmers’ protests in 2021 and earlier this year dominate the Lok Sabha election battle in the Jat heartland. And it will have a bearing on the ten constituencies in Haryana that go to the polls on May 25. While the Congress is trying to make a comeback by consolidating the Jat votes, the BJP’s effort is to turn the contest into a Jat vs non-Jat fight by making sure that its primary vote banks of upper castes, dalits and OBCs stay intact.

The polls became wide open after three independent legislators withdrew their support to the Nayab Singh Saini-led NDA government on May 7. Although the political uncertainty caused by this is unlikely to have much impact on the Lok Sabha polls, it has further localised the general elections. “The developments in the state assembly have, in a way, gotten Haryana rolling for the state elections scheduled in October,” said Professor Rajendra Sharma, head of department of political science, Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak. “Unusually for the state, there is intermingling of general and state elections with local and national issues with a lot of overlaps reflecting in the political calculations being done by the parties.”

At the heart of these strategic adjustments is one resounding question: who will the Jats vote for? They are a fourth of the state’s population and one of the most influential electoral groups. The community has a strong presence in about 36 assembly seats and at least four Lok Sabha constituencies.

The BJP swept the state in 2019 but now is struggling to cope with negative sentiment among farmers, especially the Jats. The pushback is evident in the Jat-dominated constituencies of Rohtak, Sirsa, Hisar and Sonipat. “Jats and Jat-Sikhs are not supporting the BJP. This is clear from the reports of BJP candidates not being allowed to enter in Jat-dominated areas,” said Sharma. The discontent over the Agniveer scheme, rising unemployment and anti-incumbency are also working against the BJP.

Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), a former ally of the BJP, is also at the receiving end of the farmers’ anger for remaining silent on their protests. After parting ways with the BJP, the JJP is contesting all 10 seats. “Dushyant Chautala’s political career is diminishing and soon he will be finished,” said Sharma. The BJP relied on Dushyant for Jat votes.

While some say that BJP-JJP disagreement was a political stunt to divide Jat votes, the saffron party is now trying to consolidate non-Jat votes. The BJP draws its strength from the non-Jat communities, and bagged 74 per cent of upper caste votes, 73 per cent of OBC votes and 58 per cent of dalit votes in 2019. The replacement of Om Prakash Dhankar, a Jat leader, as the state president with Chief Minister Saini, an OBC, just weeks before the Lok Sabha polls is indicative of this strategy.

The BJP, however, cannot afford to ignore the Jats altogether, especially with the assembly elections round the corner. Besides, unlike 2014 and 2019, there is no apparent Modi wave in the state. The party brought senior Jat leader Satish Poonia from Rajasthan as the state’s poll in-charge. “This election is not about castes. It is about national conscience. And no one understands it better than Haryana. The farmer here sweats it out to provide food and the soldiers from here shed their blood at the border to protect the country,” Poonia said at a rally in the Bhiwani-Mahendragarh constituency, in an apparent bid to woo the Jat community.

The Congress, on the other hand, is poised to capitalise on the situation by consolidating the Jat votes. The party is dominated by Jat leaders like Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Randeep Surjewala and Chaudhary Birender Singh. Hooda is not contesting, but his hold on the proceedings is clear from the fact that eight of nine candidates the Congress has fielded belong to his camp. Sirsa is the lone seat that the Selja Kumari camp got, and the former Union minister herself is contesting there against the former Congressman Ashok Tanwar. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Sushil Gupta is the INDIA bloc candidate in Kurukshetra.

If the Congress can regain lost ground in the state, it will be a resurrection of sorts for Hooda whose clout has been diminishing since 2014. The BJP is wary of it, as it would pose a significant challenge to the saffron party in the assembly polls. However, the infighting in the Congress is keeping the BJP’s hopes alive. Factionalism reflected in the ticket distribution in Hisar, Gurgaon, Bhiwani-Mahendragarh and Faridabad seats with senior party leaders expressing their discontent over the choice of candidates.

Uday Bhan, president of the Congress in the state, however, said there was no infighting and the election was being fought as per the plan. “We are confident that the Congress will win all 10 seats this time,” he said. In fact, the party is not keeping all its eggs in one basket and is wooing other castes as well. Only two of its nine candidates are Jats; two are OBCs, two dalits, two Punjabis and one Brahmin. The Congress also hopes to benefit from the Chautala family feud. In Hisar, for instance, three members of the Chautala family are locking horns in the election.

The crisis in the assembly has deepened the political fault lines in Haryana. For now, it hangs in the balance and is expected to spring surprises.