The hubris of its state leaders and factionalism is hampering Congress’ chances in the upcoming assembly elections. In August, after arm-twisting the central leadership, former two-term chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda managed to dislodge arch rivals Ashok Tanwar from the post of President of the Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee (HPCC) and Kiran Choudhry from that of leader of the Congress legislature party. However, will Hooda be able to pose a credible challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which holds near-complete sway over the state? It doesn’t appear so.
Mirroring the factionalism that afflicts the grand old party in other states as well as at the national level, these two leaders have boycotted every party meeting since their ouster. Hooda, with 12 out of the 17 MLAs supporting him, heads the strongest faction but besides him, Tanwar, Choudhry and Kumari Selja, a Rajya Sabha MP and new state Congress president, there are leaders such as Captain Ajay Yadav and Randeep Surjewala who are lobbying hard for tickets to be given to their nominees.
This abject disunity has led to a glut of aspirants demanding the party ticket: At last count, more than 500 contestants have applied for a Congress ticket for 90 seats in Haryana’s assembly. While the Congress would like to portray this as an indication of its bright prospects, the reality is that as seen in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan each faction within the party is bitterly opposed to each other and would be happy to see the BJP win rather than a rival within the party. Soon after he was removed as HPCC President Tanwar gave a clear hint of what to expect when he said: “I will support Hooda and Selja in the same way that they have been supporting me over the years.”
Though the Congress lost all 10 Lok Sabha sets in the state in the Lok Sabha polls held in May, it has managed to increase its vote-share by a little over 5 per cent as compared to the 2014 elections. However, against the BJP’s 58 per cent vote share, Congress’ 28.4 per cent doesn’t pose a big threat to the saffron party which is once again planning to fight the polls projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his achievements. Manohar Lal Khattar, Haryana’s first BJP Chief Minister, has said that the state’s implementation of central government schemes is going to win them the people’s confidence yet again.
Haryana has a high number of people in government jobs, particularly in the armed forces, and coupled with its proximity to Delhi and deeper Internet and TV penetration, the state’s largely Hindu electorate appears to be swayed by the anti-Pakistan rhetoric and the National Register for Citizens (NRC). In fact, Khattar has made NRC implementation a poll promise.
The NRC might serve as a distraction, but the BJP is not banking on it alone. The Haryana government has done well in registering almost 1.4 million farmers under the PM Kisan Nidhi, out of which nearly 30 per cent have received the third instalment of the Rs 6,000 relief given to eligible farmers per year. Perhaps this is why a confident Khattar announced the poll slogan ‘Abki bar, 75 par’ (meaning that this time the BJP aims to win more than 75 of the 90 assembly seats). In the outgoing assembly the BJP has 47 MLAs.
If the BJP is wooing farmers, which are a considerably large vote-bank, with government benefits and schemes, the Congress and other opposition parties, such as the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), too are offering loan waivers, free electricity, monthly stipends to the youth, and waving off the registration fee for tractors to lure voters.
Caste dynamics and priorities, an ever-present factor in Haryana politics, is bound to reflect in the yet-to-be announced list of candidates for both the Congress and the BJP. Both the parties claim that they have the support of both Jats and non-Jats.
The contest is largely two-way between the BJP and the Congress, as the INLD is now both divided and decimated. While the BJP is flush with resources and the morale is high, the Congress is unable to remove dissension from its state leadership or project confidence. Unlike Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the BJP governments were laden with anti-incumbency and corruption charges, the Khattar government remains unaffected by either. The Congress faces a very difficult task if it wishes to pose a credible challenge to the BJP. It is not the dearth of issues but the absence of a coherent and organised Opposition that is the BJP’s biggest ally in this election.Valay Singh is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.