Congress – A Divided House In Haryana
Even as the Congress is yet to recover from a drubbing in the recent Lok Sabha election, the party is staring at a major challenge in the coming assembly polls in Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand which were swept by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general election.
Haryana is a classic case of how the Congress has frittered away its chances in a state where the party has a presence, strong leaders as well as a social base. Instead of building on its strengths, the Congress has handed over the state to the BJP which was never a major player here. In fact, the BJP always depended on an alliance with O.P. Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal to mark its presence here.
However, the electoral landscape in Haryana has undergone a sea change since 2014 when the BJP swept the Lok Sabha and the assembly polls, edging out both the Congress and the INLD. It would have been expected that five years later, anti-incumbency against chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar would pave the way for the Congress to stage a comeback. But the Modi wave and Khattar’s own unblemished reputation ensured that the BJP won all the ten Lok Sabha seats in the recent general election and looks set for yet another resounding victory in the assembly polls later this year.
It is clear the roles have now been reversed. While the BJP is now the dominant political force, the Congress is on the margins now. If anything, the Congress has only itself to blame for its sad state in Haryana. Bitter infighting in the Congress state unit, a non-existent party organization and a new caste dynamic has ensured that the grand old party poses little or no challenge to the BJP.
The Congress party’s wash-out in the Lok Sabha should have served as a wake-up call to the squabbling state leaders and it would have been expected that they would sink their differences and work on putting up a united fight in the coming assembly elections. But they have learned no lessons from the party’s disastrous performance in the last election as they continue to trade charges against each other.
In fact, the infighting has become worse as witnessed during a recent internal meeting called by Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad to plan and strategize for the upcoming assembly poll. The proceedings degenerated into a bitter slanging match as state party president Ashok Tanwar and former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda blamed each other for the party’s disastrous electoral result. Hooda essentially wants the state unit to be entrusted to him so that he can accommodate his supporters in the distribution of tickets and also be projected as the chief ministerial candidate.
Matters have come to such a pass that even a senior and seasoned leader like Azad has not been able to quell the infighting. Both Tanwar and Hooda draw their confidence from their proximity to Congress president Rahul Gandhi. And given the current leadership crisis at the top, Hooda and Tanwar are obviously feeling sufficiently emboldened to defy any attempt at disciplining them.
Hooda may be flexing his muscles but his defeat in the recent Lok Sabha election from a Jat-dominated seat has weakened his position and his claims to be projected as the party’s chief ministerial face. What is worse, his son Deependra Hooda also lost from Rohtak, which has been the family’s stronghold since the fifties.
The defeat of the Hoodas is not only a personal loss for the father-son duo but it has also put the focus back on the sharpening divide between the dominant Jat community and the non-Jats in Haryana. The Congress woke up to this harsh reality earlier this year when the party’s prominent Jat face – the party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala- was handed a bitter defeat in the Jind bye-election. The Congress had hoped to benefit from the anti-incumbency against the Khattar government but failed to see that the chief minister’s popularity had not dimmed and that he had succeeded in consolidating the non-Jat vote in the BJP’s favour.
The violent Jat agitation which rocked Haryana in 2016 and the open preference shown by Hooda for his clansmen during his ten-year tenure as chief minister had alienated the other castes which had been feeling neglected by the Congress. In fact, the BJP’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was attributed both to the Modi wave and the coming together of the non-Jats in favour of the saffron party. It was the same story in 2019.
The shifting caste dynamic in Haryana has forced the Congress to rethink its strategy of relying on a Jat face. Till now, the party was convinced that it was essential to appease the Jat community but it now realizes that it also needs non-Jat leaders to woo the other castes. The Congress is sorely missing a leader like Bhajan Lal who had succeeded in keeping the non-Jats in the party fold. However, it is not an easy task as Hooda has dug his heels in and has the potential to create further dissension in the party’s state unit if he does not have his way.
There are no easy answers for the Congress. While the party is still struggling to find an amicable solution to this problem, the BJP is predictably upbeat after its massive victory in the Lok Sabha election. Since the assembly poll in Haryana comes barely six months after the general election, the state tends to vote for the same party in both elections. In contrast to the Congress, which is a house divided with no clear leader, the BJP has found a winner in Khattar who has emerged as a leader in his own right. He is known to be honest and upright and has also delivered on governance.