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National issues dominate Haryana assembly polls

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The Economic Times
19th October, 2019 23:00 IST

Krishnamani Shukla is a diehard fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sporting a saffron cap and a stole, he reaches Ballabhgarh’s Sector-61 rally ground two hours before his favourite leader is scheduled to address the gathering on a Monday afternoon.

Till the prime minister’s convoy of three military choppers make a dusty landing at the makeshift helipad in the town in south Haryana, the 38-year-old has enough time to chat with his friends, eat bread rolls being sold by vendors and break into chants of “Modi, Modi”. The sunny and dusty weather does not blow away his enthusiasm.

“I don’t know how to convey an important message to Modiji. Can you do that?” Shukla, who originally hails from Allahabad but is now a voter in Faridabad, asks this writer.

Shukla has been unemployed since he lost his sales job in a private bank six months ago. He says he tried his luck in several factories in and around Faridabad, but failed to land a job. “Modiji has solutions for all kind of problems. I wonder why can’t he solve unemployment? This election will pass, but this issue is going to haunt the PM and the party. Someone must alert him well on time,” he says. Sandeep Dagar, an agriculturist from Palwal listening to the conversation, chips in: “Farmers in Haryana are not receiving their due price promised by the state.”

Both Shukla and Dagar will, however, vote for the BJP in the Haryana assembly elections, scheduled on October 21. They say PM Modi’s decisive leadership plus his nationalistic policies have forced them to ignore the shortcomings of the Manohar Lal Khattar government. High crime rates, unemployment and discontentment among farmers are among the main issues.

The BJP’s campaign template echoes this sentiment. The strategy is simple: Talk national and make references connecting these issues to the state. For example, the abrogation of Article 370, which gave a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, is a major talking point in the campaign. The reference to Haryana is that the state is a land of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives fighting terrorists in Kashmir. Similarly, the party’s pitch for a pan-India implementation of the National Register of Citizens is a talking point with references to Gurgaon and other cities becoming “safe havens” for Bangladeshi “ghuspaithiya (infiltrators)”.

This strategy of embracing national-cumemotive issues seems to be working for the incumbent government. Very few are demanding the Khattar regime explain what it has done for the state and its people.

At the Ballabhgarh rally, PM Modi devotes the first half of his 40-minute speech to national issues — Article 370, the induction of new fighter planes (Rafale is not named, though), rampant corruption during the earlier Congress regime, among others. He then contextualises each of those pan-India issues.

On Article 370, for example, the PM says he admires Haryana as the land of brave people who lift the Tricolour, chant “Bharat Mata ki jai” and fight on the border. “This is the land of sacrifices and ascetics,” he says. After all, ascetics are not supposed to demand for material well-being — an argument that can gain traction during downturns. The state is also known as an industrial hotspot housing factories of premier brands such as Maruti, Havells, JCB, Yamaha and Escorts.

ET Magazine visited Faridabad, Palwal, Gurgaon in the south of the state, Jhajjar, Rohtak and Sonipat in central Haryana and Karnal in the north. The incumbent is the dominant force in most places. But in pockets, particularly in the south and in the Jat belt, the Congress is putting up a tough fight. Some of these regions are also the stronghold of the Jannayak Janta Party ( JJP), headed by Dushyant Chautala.

The party has a strong base among the Jats. The party was formed last year when the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) was split into two. On the ground, the JJP seems to have overtaken its parent, the INLD. Dushyant is the grandson of Om Prakash Chautala, former Haryana CM.

So what could be the voting trends this time? Residents across the state are open to sharing their problems and unhappiness with the government, but many say they are likely to vote for the incumbent again. Take the example of Deepak Sachdeva, who owns Gautam Electrical and Furniture at Karnal’s Gharaunda. He concedes that his pre-Diwali sales have hit rock bottom and he is not happy with Khattar’s performance. Yet he does not want to scout for an alternative. “There are disappointments, yes, but there is no anger against the Khattar government,” he adds.

A divided Haryana Congress does not seem to be in a position to accrue political dividends out of people’s disappointments. At a Dalit colony in Karnal, as the residents wait for the arrival of state Congress chief and Rajya Sabha MP Kumari Selja, speakers broadcast criticisms of the Khattar government, with some comments likening it to a khataara sarkar (a junked government). CM Khattar is an MLA from Karnal.

Selja tells ET Magazine: “Haryana today has the dubious distinction of topping the nation’s crime and unemployment charts. During the last five years, there were three big riots in the state. The army had to be called in.”

Such complains might have worked in favour of the Congress had there been effective communication, unity among its leaders and a strong organisation at the grassroots. Sample this: as many as 16 Congressmen have turned rebels overnight; they are contesting against the party’s nominees. The former state unit chief, Ashok Tanwar, is now supporting the Chautala-led JJP. He quit the Congress recently due to differences over ticket distribution.

A division of Jat votes will help the BJP. Senior Congress leaders are conspicuous by their absence in the campaign trail. Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi attended a rally — at Nuh in south Haryana on Monday.

His mother and interim party head Sonia Gandhi was to address her first rally for the state’s assembly elections at Mahendragarh on Friday, merely 24 hours before the campaigning ended. But Sonia cancelled the meeting due to “unavoidable reasons”. Rahul addressed the gathering.

The BJP, on the other hand, has seen stalwarts such as Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh criticising the opposition at election rallies. It almost seems the Congress’ key strategy is reliance on miracles.

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