Queering the pitch for the Congress, media baron Kartikeya Sharma entered the Haryana Rajya Sabha race on Tuesday, the last day of filing nominations, backed by the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP).
Two Rajya Sabha seats from Haryana are falling vacant, and the entry of Sharma makes it a three-way contest between him, the BJP’s five-time MLA and former Transport Minister Krishan Panwar and the Congress’s Ajay Maken.
In the 90-member Haryana House, the BJP has 40 MLAs, the Congress 31, the JJP 10, while there are seven Independents and one MLA each from the INLD and the Haryana Lokhit Party. A candidate needs 31 votes to win, and the BJP can easily guarantee that, with nine to spare – and more counting ally JJP’s 10. The Congress, on the other hand, is unsure of its numbers given that one of its MLAs and senior Kuldeep Bishnoi is sulking, and could wean away other legislators from the party.
The entry of Sharma, the son of veteran Haryana leader and former Union minister Venod Sharma, was last-minute. And came with its share of conspiracy theories in the deeply divided Congress. Venod Sharma, sidelined since his son Manu Sharma’s conviction in the high-profile Jessica Lall murder case of Delhi, is an old friend of Congress Legislature Party leader and strongman Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s. That Hooda, who was recently handed over full control of the state Congress by the high command, has no love lost for Maken is another known fact.
Soon after JJP national convenor Ajay Chautala announced their support for Sharma, the Congress got busy calculating. As a senior party leader summed it: “All the 10 JJP MLAs are most likely going to support Kartikeya, and if the BJP also spares its nine MLAs, he gets 19. Then, if the seven Independent MLAs and Haryana Lokhit Party’s Gopal Kanda support him, his number reaches 27, taking him close to the mark. If the Congress fails to pacify Kuldeep Bishnoi… Kartikeya would barely require the INLD’s Abhay Chautala and two-three Congress MLAs to cross-vote to sail through.”
The Congress has been in this situation before when it comes to Rajya Sabha polls in the state. In 2016, votes of a number of Congress MLAs were disqualified over the use of an unauthorised ink pen, giving an easy victory to, incidentally, another media baron, Subhash Chandra. That time too, Hooda’s role in the drama was the subject of furious speculation. (Meanwhile, Chandra is back in the Rajya Sabha race, this time from Rajasthan, backed by the BJP and rattling the Congress ranks in the state.)
Kuldeep Bishnoi has been staying away from Congress events ever since the Haryana Congress was revamped without any significant position for him. He skipped the Congress’s three-day Chintan Shivir at Udaipur, and a CLP meeting called by Hooda. At this meeting, the Congress’s other 30 MLAs passed a resolution endorsing Maken’s nomination by the party high command.
Incidentally, Bishnoi too has old association with Venod Sharma. In the October 2014 Assembly polls, Bishnoi’s then party Haryana Janhit Congress had allied with Venod Sharma-led Jan Chetna Party. Bishnoi had merged his party with the Congress in 2016.
Kartikeya Sharma, 41, is the managing director of ITV network that runs news channels and newspapers. Apart from Hooda, father Venod Sharma is known to have strong connections with other Haryana Congress leaders. Kartikeya’s father-in-law Kuldeep Sharma is former Haryana Assembly Speaker, and was a Congress MLA till 2019.
JJP’s Chautala said: “We have supported him (Kartikeya Sharma) in the hope that he will win. Rest, it is up to him, how much he can manage, how he gets Independents and other votes on his side. If he succeeds, he will surely win.”