The walls of the Budha Khera railway station in Jind are a sparkling white, the margins of the windows a bright red. And yet, they don’t completely hide the black. There were once benches in the waiting rooms but they were burnt to cinder. Just under the red paint on some windows, a thin line of a burnt wooden pane peeks through. Three years ago, during the Jat agitation for OBC status that raged across Haryana and left 30 dead, this station was one of the many under attack.
Outside, in the village, the discontent simmers. But in Elections 2019, issues of anger have begun to matter less and less. Like the walls of white, they have been whitewashed — by a battle of personality cults.
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Sitting under a banyan tree in the scorching sun, Rajesh Choudhary of the village says the issue of Jat reservation is still on his mind but he does not believe there is a leader that has proved trustworthy. Not party, but leader. “Bhupinder Singh Hooda came, he tried to do something half-heartedly, and nothing happened. Om Prakash Chautala could do nothing in his time. Manohar Lal Khattar is the same. But this election is about Narendra Modi against everybody else,” he says.
The group Choudhary is sitting with has been quiet so far, engrossed in their game of cards. But Modi’s name is enough to begin a conversation. Shankar Singh is a 20-year-old first-year student of a college in Gohana, 40 km away, set to vote on May 12 for the second time in his life. “Everyone in my college is a Modi fan. There is nobody else that has ever answered Pakistan in their own coin like him,” he says.
An elder is quick to respond, his voice tinged with irritation. “These young boys. They know no history. Have you heard of Indira Gandhi? She broke Pakistan into two parts. They had to kneel before her. She was a real leader.” But there is silence as Singh asks: “Apart from Modi, is there anyone else like that now?”
Jind is part of the Sonipat Lok Sabha constituency which, less than three months ago, saw a high voltage bypoll in its assembly seat. The Congress fielded national spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala but finished third behind the eventual winner Krishna Middha of the BJP and a spirited Digvijay Chautala of the Jannayak Janata Party. Today, in Sonipat at least, there is still talk of the Congress. Not because of the party, but the candidate it has put up — former Chief Minister Hooda.
Sube Singh Redhu lives in Nuran Khera right next to the highway that connects Jind and Sonepat. Both sides of the road are lined with tall eucalyptus trees and fields of wheat. The road itself though, is potholed, and under construction. “Hooda can fix this. He took Rohtak under his wing, and have you seen it today? Wide roads, street lights,” Redhu says.
There are, of course, various factors that a Hooda victory will depend on, primarily the question of whether the Jat votes get divided between the Congress, the JJP and the INLD. “Nobody was talking about the Congress. But people are talking about Hooda. Digvijay is fighting again but people gave him votes because he is a young Jat leader. But now there is Hooda and people might consolidate behind him,” he says. And what of the BJP candidate, sitting MP Ramesh Kaushik. “Lots of the non-Jat are with him. But not really with him. If he fought without the BJP, he would forfeit his deposit. Every candidate in the BJP is Modi,” Redhu says.
What aids the growing battle of personalities in Haryana is the lack of any discernible differences in ideology, or policy that is being communicated on the ground. The wheat is being cut in the fields of Jind, and one in every ten vehicles on the road seem to be a wheat thresher. But there are also fields, where the wheat is bundled into bunches, waiting to be sold.
“Those bunches that you see, is because more people now are cutting their crop by hand. A thresher might be more efficient. But the costs are higher now, because the costs of diesel are up. The price we get for our paddy is Rs 1,800 per quintal, which is far from enough. We approach every party to help us bring the price up, or regulate the diesel price. There is rural distress. But is there any one party that has a better plan than the other?” asks Ramvir Chautala of Butana.
Chautala has heard of the Congress’s Nyay plan of Rs 6,000 a month to 20 per cent of the country’s poorest. “But Modi is also giving Rs 6,000 every year. And part of that has come into people’s bank accounts,” he says.
Kandela village has for long been the epicentre of Jind’s rural politics, home to the powerful Kandela khap, the largest in the region. In the village with 4,700 voters, social media is the new political theatre where the personality battle is a no-contest. Suresh Singh is a Valmiki, one of the 450 dalit voters in Kandela. For decades, he says, they voted for the Congress. But he scrolls through his phone, and displays a set of messages. Some are videos of speeches by Modi, others are memes on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. “Look at these messages. Only Modi works for the poor. Even the Valmiki basti will vote for him this time,” Singh says.
He lingers on a message, that has a picture of a young boy selling tea at a railway station. “I am a carpenter, and he was a tea seller. He understands what I feel even though he may not have delivered on anything,” he says.