Rebel Congress leader Kuldeep Bishnoi, who was recently removed from various positions he held in the party after he voted against colleague Ajay Maken in the recent Rajya Sabha polls, resigned as the Adampur MLA in the Haryana assembly, on Wednesday (August 3). Bishnoi, a four-term MLA and two-term former MP, will join the BJP on Thursday morning.
That the 53-year-old son of former Haryana chief minister, the late Bhajan Lal, was preparing to embrace saffron after dumping the Congress had been expected for some months now. A vocal critic of Congress veteran and Haryana’s Leader of Opposition Bhupinder Hooda, Bishnoi had lobbied hard to be named Congress’s Haryana unit chief. However, in April, interim party president Sonia Gandhi appointed Udai Bhan, a Hooda confidant and Dalit leader, to the post. Bishnoi had then tried to meet former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi to “seek answers” but the appointment was never granted.
Since then, Bishnoi had been in a rebellious mode. In June, media baron Kartikeya Sharma’s BJP-backed entry in the Rajya Sabha poll from Haryana created a hurdle for Congress candidate Maken’s victory. The Congress, which had 31 MLAs in the Haryana assembly, needed as many votes to ensure Maken’s win. Bishnoi cross-voted in Sharma’s favour, who eventually defeated Maken when the vote of veteran Congress MLA Kiran Chaudhary was also declared invalid.
The Congress had responded to Bishnoi’s betrayal by removing him from the posts he held but hadn’t expelled him from the party’s membership. In subsequent weeks, Bishnoi called on Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP national president JP Nadda and was all praise for the saffron party.
How Bishnoi’s exit will cost Congress
As such, there may be nothing surprising about Bishnoi joining hands with the BJP, a party with which he had, in the past, as chief of the fledgling Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), a troubled alliance. The Congress, on its part, has been nonchalant about Bishnoi’s departure. Bhan told The Federal, “whenever a colleague leaves, it is always unfortunate but Bishnoi’s exit is not a loss for the Congress nor will the BJP gain anything… so there is no loss for us and no gain to the BJP.”
While Bhan may want to put up a brave front by dismissing Bishnoi’s exit as a “no loss,” there are some key takeaways here that the Congress can only ill-afford to ignore. The BJP’s ready embrace of Bishnoi isn’t triggered purely by a sense of embarrassing the Congress, which has been the saffron party’s favourite poaching ground for the past decade. There are hard political considerations at play too.
With Bishnoi’s exit, the Congress will lose one of its most prominent non-Jat leaders, and one who is also heir to the chequered legacy of Bhajan Lal. This, at a time when the ruling BJP has consciously tried to consolidate support among Haryana’s non-Jats – an erstwhile traditional voting bloc of the Congress in the state – while the electorally dominant Jats (roughly 25 per cent of the state’s population) have been divided in their political loyalties between a Congress tightly controlled by Hooda, Dushyant Chautala’s Jananayak Janata Party (JJP) and his grandfather Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD).
Until a decade ago, the BJP rode pillion to the INLD to stay politically relevant in Haryana. It was not until 2014 that the saffron party realised the electoral merit of consolidating its base among the state’s roughly 75 per cent non-Jat population. The BJP strategically picked several non-Jat candidates in what were considered Jat-dominated constituencies where, as per traditional electoral wisdom, the Congress and INLD fielded Jat candidates. As the Jat votes got divided among the Congress, INLD and BJP, the non-Jats consolidated behind the saffron party which also had the added benefit of the Modi wave that had brought the BJP to power at the Centre earlier that year.
After it won its first-ever majority in the Haryana assembly in 2014, the BJP’s central leadership picked little-known debutante MLA, Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi Khatri by caste, as chief minister; giving Haryana its first non-Jat chief minister in nearly two decades. Incidentally, the last non-Jat chief minister of Haryana before Khattar’s appointment was Bhajan Lal (June 1991 to May 1996), who incidentally still holds the record of being the state’s longest serving chief minister – 11 years and 10 months over three separate terms.
In the 2019 assembly polls, when the BJP surprisingly lost a chunk of seats – mostly Jat dominated constituencies which voted for the Congress – but emerged as the single-largest party with 40 seats in the 90-member Assembly, there were speculations that it would bench Khattar and pick a Jat as chief minister. However, the party continued with Khattar in a clear bid to retain its base among the non-Jats while it quickly roped in Dushyant Chautala’s newly formed JJP, which had won 10 seats in its assembly poll debut, for a post-poll alliance.
Dushyant, the 34-year-old great-grandson of former deputy prime minister and Jat icon Devi Lal, had formed the JJP after a falling out with his uncle Abhay Chautala, who controls the now fledgling INLD.
BJP’s non-Jat mascot
With Khattar as chief minister and Dushyant his deputy, the BJP succeeded in a clever electoral alliance that helped the party retain its support among the non-Jats while also assuaging the hurt among the state’s formidable Jat community. But with Khattar’s personal image as a leader prone to controversies and without any mass appeal beyond his stronghold of Karnal, the BJP also realises that it needs to diversify its pantheon of non-Jat mascots and this is where Bishnoi could prove useful.
Though not a mass leader in the league of Bhupinder Hooda, Bishnoi does command significant influence in various non-Jat pockets of Haryana, particularly in and around his family stronghold of Hisar. It may be recalled that Bishnoi and Bhajan Lal had quit the Congress shortly after the party chose Bhupinder Hooda over Lal as its chief minister after winning the 2004 assembly polls. In 2007, Lal and Bishnoi went on to found a breakaway faction of the Congress – the Haryana Janhit Congress – that, in its debut assembly poll in 2009, won six seats and stopped the Congress from returning to power with a full majority. However, Hooda had managed to return as chief minister after several independents extended support to him and over the next few months, the Jat strongman went about engineering defections in the HJC’s legislative bloc.
In 2011, Bishnoi had entered into an alliance with the BJP but the coalition broke just before the 2014 Haryana assembly polls after Bishnoi accused the saffron party of trying to short-change his outfit in the seat-sharing talks. Later, after prolonged negotiations with the Gandhis and an assurance from them that his political aspirations will be taken care of, Bishnoi merged his HJC with the Congress, though his differences with Hooda continued to widen over the years.
Haryana episode can hurt Cong in Rajasthan
Now with Bishnoi set to join the BJP, the Congress’s central leadership will have to rework its social engineering in Haryana and also assess the potential electoral impact that the development may have in Rajasthan, where polls are due at the end of next year and where the Bishnoi community has a sizeable presence.
The Congress in Haryana has, over the recent past, become captive to the diktats of Hooda and his son, Rajya Sabha MP Deepender Hooda, a confidant of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. The dominance of Hooda was a major reason for the exodus of senior party leaders Birender Singh, Rao Inderjit Singh, Avtar Singh Bhadana and others – all of whom joined the BJP before or shortly after 2014. Congress sources admit that the few important state leaders who have remained with the party – Kumari Selja (Dalit), Randeep Surjewala (Jat), Kiran Chaudhary (Jat), Capt Ajay Yadav (Ahir), among others – don’t see eye to eye with Hooda.
However, the Congress leadership, already weakened due to its inability to script the party’s electoral revival, also knows it can’t risk slighting Hooda, a mass leader with enough financial muscle to back his political ambitions who until recently was part of the so-called G23 group of leaders who were challenging the authority of the Gandhis.
With Bishnoi out, Hooda has one less adversary within the party, but the Congress will also need to find and sufficiently strengthen a non-Jat face in the state to reclaim its support among vote banks other than the Jat community.
For the BJP too, there is at least one immediate hurdle that the induction of Bishnoi may create. The former Adampur MLA’s political fief is the same as that of BJP’s ally Dushyant Chautala. Dushyant had made his successful electoral debut by defeating Bishnoi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Hisar and gone on to defeat Bishnoi’s son and budding politician, Bhavya Bishnoi, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from the same seat. The political rivalry between the Chautala and the Bishnoi clans goes back several decades. Dushyant’s grandfather, OP Chautala, and Bishnoi’s father, Bhajan Lal, were also rivals who competed for political dominance over Hisar and surrounding areas in their time.
Thus, the BJP too will need to tread carefully to ensure that the legacy differences and competing political ambitions of Bishnoi and Dushyant don’t override the electoral benefits that the party is hoping to reap with the induction of the former Adampur MLA. The saffron party can draw solace from the fact that the enmity between Hooda and Dushyant – both claimants for Haryana’s Jat vote bank – is far more pronounced than that between Bishnoi and Dushyant; or at least so it seems for now.