Haryana is preparing for a proxy battle between Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar of the BJP and his predecessor Bhupinder Singh Hooda of the Congress in the Baroda assembly bypoll due in September.
Khattar is a non-Jat belonging to the merchant Khatri community while Hooda is a tall Jat leader. The Baroda segment comes under Sonepat, a Jat bastion. In 2014, in both the parliamentary and the assembly elections, the BJP had scored an unprecedented victory, riding on the Modi wave. Khattar, an RSS pracharak, was a surprise choice for the top post.
But in the 2019 assembly elections, Khattar only managed to scrape through and win 40 seats in the 90-member house. He had to take the support of the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), headed by Dushyant Chautala, that won 10 seats, to form the government. Chautala is a fourth generation politician and the great grandson of Devi Lal, former deputy prime minister and one of the tallest among Jat leaders.
Chautala drove a hard, humiliating bargain for the BJP and not only bagged the deputy chief minister’s post, but also wrested several important portfolios in the state cabinet. Therefore, in the Jat-dominated Haryana politics, Chautala has proved that without Jat support, the BJP cannot run its own government.
BJP leaders see Baroda by-elections as an opportunity to redeem the non-Jat CM’s dimmed prestige. A victory could also be a ray of hope for the cadre. Besides, the Baroda seat was being held by Congress’s Krishan Hooda, a Jat, who died in April. He has been holding the seat for three consecutive terms and even managed to defeat the BJP’s Brahmin candidate, Yogeshwar Dutt, a former Olympian, in 2019 elections.
The contest is likely to be interesting as on one hand, the loyalty of Jat voters would be put to test by Bhupinder Singh Hooda, while on the other, Khattar and Dushyant would try to project their governance record.
Hooda, a three-time chief minister, is a popular Jat leader. Besides, Khattar has to factor in anti-incumbency factor against the ruling BJP. But it’s caste politics that is likely to play an important role in the by-election.
Mohan Lal Badoli, BJP MLA from Rai, one of the six assembly segments in Sonepat parliamentary constituency, said, “The Congress has ignored development in the constituency and people are unhappy; therefore, the BJP will win the seat.”
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP swept all the 10 seats, decimating the Congress led by Hooda. Jat leaders took solace from the fact that the former CM had to face the Modi wave. Hooda, his son Deepender, and Shruti Chaudhary, granddaughter of Bansi Lal – all the three Jat faces lost the elections.
But in the assembly polls, held six months later, the BJP was restricted to only 40 seats. Hooda’s Congress wrestled four of the six assembly segments in Sonepat parliamentary constituency, including Baroda. While the Congress had fielded Jat candidates in both Baroda assembly seat and Sonepat parliamentary seat, the BJP had fielded Brahmin candidates, as these two communities dominate the area.
“Congress will win the by-election. The BJP is in power since 2014, but ensured no development. It has failed to fulfil the people’s expectations,” Hooda told The Federal.
But it may not be that easy for the Congress, if the locals are to be believed. “BJP has an advantage, being the ruling party. Chautala too could influence the polls. Khattar will not leave any stone unturned to win the election,” said Zile Singh Picholia, a political analyst.
A BJP MLA said, “The party views the election seriously because our vote share had dropped from 58 per cent in the 2014 assembly elections to 36 per cent in 2019.”
The BJP is hopeful of a victory as Dutt, a Brahmin, had lost by a thin margin of 4,840 votes and that time, it was a four-cornered contest between the Congress, BJP, JJP and Indian National Lok Dal. But now, the BJP and JJP are in an alliance.
Mange Ram Sharma, president of the World Brahmin Federation and a veteran of Haryana politics, said, “The BJP, being in power, has an edge. But it has to choose from among the competing castes as they have to factor in anti-incumbency.”
Rati Ram Chaudhary, a close aide of Bhupinder Singh Hooda, said, “There is no question of Congress losing this seat as the people of Baroda have been electing Congress candidates over other parties.” Hooda has done a lot of work for the state, he added.
Meanwhile, in a parallel development, Khattar is facing a challenge as the race is on to fill the post of party president in Haryana. Present chief Subhash Barala, a Jat, has completed his term and is not being given an extension.
A Union minister belonging to the backward Gurjar community, two Jat leaders, one of them being a sitting MP, and a Brahmin leader, who is a sitting MP from Sonepat, are all in the race. Besides, the current office bearers from these communities have also thrown in their hats. A section of party men say that the selection of party chief could be a factor in Baroda bypolls.
Sandeep Joshi, general secretary, BJP Haryana, refused to reveal much. He said, “The party has to select the state president. Names have been shortlisted. I cannot comment anything in this regard.”