In any other state, Pundri might be seen as more of an exception. For 25 years, this Vidhan Sabha constituency in Haryana’s Kaithal district has not elected a candidate on a party ticket, it has sent Independents to the Assembly.
A day before voting, a small group of men here offered a snapshot of the fiesty voters who remain unswayed by party appeals and loyalties.
“Ticket pe vishwas hi nahi hai yahan (we don’t trust party symbols here)”, says Pappi Kamboj who works in a taxi stand. “Parties distribute tickets under pressure that have nothing to do with the (good of the) constituency”, says Chandrabhan Panchal.
“We will look at the candidate who stood by us for the last five years, not party affiliation”, says Subhash Chand. “How will my work get done, do I know you by face, that’s what matters”, says Chandrabhan.
It is not as if Pundri is immune to the BJP which conquered Haryana for the first time in the 2014 Assembly election without using the crutch of a regional party. And then stamped its dominance by sweeping all 10 Lok Sabha seats just five months ago.
“Rashtravaad ko toh hamne majboot kar diya (we have already strengthened nationalism). Now, the BJP should have given us a better (local) face”, says Kamboj. Even Ram Lal Chaudhary, Mandal president of the BJP, says he is not working for the party candidate in Pundri but the independent, formerly with the BJP, denied a ticket by the party.
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So why, on the day after most exit polls have predicted a BJP sweep of Haryana, must one listen to a group of voters who seemed all set to choose an Independent again? Because in varying degrees, Pundri’s scepticism, its disbelief of party politics, echoes in the state’s other constituencies.
You hear it in the sheer lack of scandal with which voters talk about candidates changing party loyalties. And in their casual predictions that the winning candidate, whichever symbol he is elected on, will switch to the victorious party. Haryana did not just give the politics of defection a catchy name, “Aya Ram, Gaya Ram”, it lends it a patina of normalcy.
You see it in the acceptance of dynasty as a fact of political life.
In all parties, including the state BJP — in which Narendra Modi and Manohar Lal Khattar are seen as exceptions to the rule — family is attached to the candidate, or the candidate to the family, and the party comes in a distant second.
In Rohtak, bastion of Congress heavyweight and former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda, the party posters prominently feature him with son Deepender, even though Deepender, defeated in the last Lok Sabha election, is not in the fray.
Asha Hooda, B S Hooda’s wife, played a key role in her husband’s campaign this time, as in previous elections. “In my speeches I spoke of unemployment, education, water. I didn’t mention Article 370 because it is sensitive. My tone is of a social worker but in the end I speak for my party”, she says.
In village Chautala, district Sirsa, home of the Devi Lal clan, whose members are now fighting from different parties — including the BJP, which has fielded Devi Lal’s grandson Aditya from this seat — K V Singh, grandson of Devi Lal’s uncle, campaigned this time for his son, Amit Sihag, who is the Congress candidate.
He spoke about what he would do if his son got elected: “Give me a chance and I will show you a politics of decency and development. I have been true to the legacy of Chaudhary Devi Lal, the others only take his name…”
You hear voter disbelief, most of all, in that difficult-to-translate word you hear in Haryana, over and over again: Chaudhar.
It is used most often to refer to the dominance of Haryana’s powerful land-owning caste, which has also been central to its politics, the Jat right of way. But it speaks, matter-of-factly, about the politics of power, and power play.
In this political landscape, the BJP has risen in the last couple of elections, not because it presented an alternative to Haryana’s fluid power politics but because it harnessed it to its own advantage, most visibly through the politics of defections — with one notable exception.
The recruitment to 18,000 Group D posts this time, the manner in which it took place, was the exception to politics-as-usual. In the Khattar regime, it happened without recommendation or bribe, “na parchi, na kharchi”, many voters say. The message, mostly, has been of a break from the past.
For the rest, the BJP strategy has banked on a consolidation of resentments — of the non-Jat castes — combined with an appeal to rashtravaad (nationalism), specifically on Article 370.
In and around Rohtak, the epicentre of the Jat agitation for quotas that turned violent in 2016, the BJP found fertile ground among the non-Jat castes for a campaign that played upon their festering grievances. While Jat voters grumble about the collapse of “bhaichara (brotherhood)” among Haryana’s “chhattis biradari (36 castes)”, and accuse the BJP of ranging “35 against 1”, voters belonging to non-Jat groups talk about the excesses and exploitations of Jat raj.
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Like in the SC mohalla in village Kiloi in Hooda’s own constituency where, Ajay, young and unemployed, says “goondagardi kam hui hai (there is less lumpenism)” in a BJP regime led by a non-Jat chief minister.
Jat and non-Jat voters, divided as they may be, agree on one thing: The removal of Article 370 is good, PM Modi has done well to remove the special status of Kashmir.
“Now we can go and buy land, do business in Kashmir”; “there will be no terrorism, no stone-pelting on our soldiers”; “now they will have to accept they are subject to Indian law, not Pakistan’s” — in a state with a strong military tradition, where roadside dhabas proclaim special discounts for customers in uniform, the removal of Article 370 is viewed by many almost exclusively from the prism of security. There is little or no empathy with the Kashmiri people, still under lockdown.
On the other side, the Congress can only hope that raging unemployment and evident farmer distress will brighten its electoral prospects. In a state where farmer anger over rising costs of inputs, limits on government procurement, and uneven access to MSPs, is palpable, the Congress’s best hope is to be at the right place at the right time. Organisationally, it is a waning presence in an erstwhile bastion.
In a state where farmer anger over rising costs of inputs, limits on government procurement, and uneven access to MSPs, is palpable, the Congress’s best hope is to be at the right place at the right time. Organisationally, it is a waning presence in an erstwhile bastion. “Congress has appointed no district president, no block presidents, in any of the state’s 22 districts for 5 years”, says Jagdish Nehra, a prominent leader of the Congress in Sirsa region since the 1970s, who is one among the many leaders of the Congress and INLD who have switched sides to the BJP.
Politically, the party has presented no new face, no new idea, that could help it combat or divert attention from the old charges of regional and caste discrimination (for the Rohtak region, and for Jats) attracted by the Hooda regimes. And it is incoherent, when it is not silent, on Article 370.
The new face in Haryana is a chip off the old block. The Jannayak Janata Party formed by young Dushyant Chautala, Devi Lal’s grandson, a breakway from the INLD, is generating some enthusiasms. Its main promise speaks to pessimistic times: Haryana for Haryanvis.
On the eve of results, then, the question is: How mich of an echo do the voices from Pundri find across Haryana?