Why a Nationalist Rhetoric Failed the BJP in Haryana

The 2019 assembly elections in Haryana were expected to confirm the “cross effects” of ruling, when the results of a national election impact a subnational election, and vice-versa. The Bharatiya Janata Party won all ten Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, and with an electoral agenda in Haryana that was strongly influenced by national issues, the party was expected to return to power in the state with an even larger mandate. However, the party could not claim an absolute majority in the state assembly.   

 

2019 marked the first time since 1972 that the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to increase its vote share in successive elections. Despite this, the BJP won fewer seats now than it did in 2014. While the assembly results seem to have bucked the trend of “cross effects,” the election results are not an aberration. The seats won by the BJP and the Congress in 2019 are actually an exact repeat of the seats won by the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) respectively in the 2009 assembly elections. The hiatus actually lies between the rhetoric that the BJP stirred through its slogan of “Abki baar 75 paar” (this time beyond 75), and the electoral reality of winning 40 seats. 

Decoding the Haryana verdict, this article argues that there were two features that set the BJP apart: first was the claim that it had fulfilled its agenda of clean governance, particularly in terms of reducing corruption, which restored the balance of development in favour of all sections of society, rather than just for the Jats; second was the extensive and immersive campaign that the BJP conducted in Haryana, which included projecting the national in the semiotics of the regional. However, what the BJP did not account for was the consolidation of votes of the Jat, Dalit and the Muslim community in favour of non-BJP parties, which included the Congress and the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP). Hence, the BJP was a recipient of the caste and community-based electoral polarisation and divisions that it had encouraged. The intensity of the BJP’s campaign is also said to have raised expectations of party ticket seekers to the extent that many BJP members actively campaigned against the party and also contested as independent candidates[1] when they were denied a party ticket (Vaid 2019). Further, the BJP suffered major losses in rural and semi-rural constituencies along the Grand Trunk (GT) road belt, which is reflective of the impact of the large-scale violence that Haryana witnessed in the wake of the Jat agitation for reservation in 2016. 

This article examines the contours of the electoral campaigns that set the tone and agenda of the election; it details the manner in which the party machinery was mobilised for the election, analyses electoral data, and also explicates the shift in the electoral landscape engendered by the 2019 state assembly election in Haryana.

Mimicking the National Rhetoric 

The overwhelming verdict in favour of the BJP in Haryana during the Lok Sabha elections, where it won all of the 10 seats, greatly improved its chances of performing well in the forthcoming assembly elections in October. The tone of the Lok Sabha campaign set by the BJP hinged on the national, and on nationalism. Narendra Modi’s rally in Ballabgarh in mid-October effectively established the link between removal of Article 370 and the assembly elections in Haryana when he said that it was the soldiers of Haryana who lost their lives in Kashmir, and that the government took this step (to abrogate Article 370) for the widows and children of these soldiers. Modi also included the Dalit community within this nationalistic narrative by claiming that Dalits from Haryana who were working in Jammu and Kashmir would no longer have to work as cleaners, but would instead be provided with opportunities in government jobs. During the speech, Modi asked the gathered spectators who had taken this decision. When they answered “Modi,” he refuted this and instead said that it was the people who had resolved to do so. Thus, by engaging the public through dialogue, he effectively established public ownership of what was clearly a party decision. Modi also invoked a “Haryanvi” identity, not by referring to state-level issues, but rather by locating the national within the regional. Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s promise of implementing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Haryana was then but a footnote in this unique appropriation of nationalism to stir regional pride.

The Congress’s campaign narrative focused on state-level issues, such as the industrial slowdown, agrarian distress, unemployment, and the mounting debt of the state. By supporting the abrogation of Article 370 and the announcement of implementing the NRC in Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda attempted to blunt the relevance of these issues. Hooda said that both these moves had become the law of the land and were therefore no longer an election issue. The Congress laid special emphasis on the rural sector, women, and unemployed youth. They assured farmers of an immediate and complete loan waiver, and also promised free power and subsidised rice and wheat for the poor. The party also promised allowances to various marginalised sections and reservations for women and the local youth. However, these populist measures were not very different from those offered by the BJP and the JJP. Therefore, apart from the Congress’s inability to set a campaign agenda that strongly mimicked the national rhetoric, they were also disadvantaged by an ineffective campaign organisation.

Party Organisation

The BJP conducted an intensive electoral campaign both in terms of political penetration and expanse. Penetration was achieved by leveraging its many foot soldiers—namely the Panna Pramukhs, booth-level workers, and mandal-level heads. As was reported in local newspapers, the party stationed organisational units at all of the 20,000-odd polling booths in the state. The party appointed 10–15 panna pramukhs per booth, and each pramukh was responsible for mobilising around 60 voters as part of its “micro-management” strategy. Voter reach was achieved through numerous rallies and yatras. Khattar conducted five statewide yatras. The BJP also poached political leaders and members of legislative assembly (MLAs) from the other parties. The Congress, on the other hand, was unequipped to take on the BJP’s campaign agenda and its organisational structure. Ashok Tanwar, the Congress party president, was unable to strengthen the party at the grassroots level, and  his resignation from the primary membership of the party exposed the deep divisions within the Congress. With the crisis of leadership at the national level continuing, it was the regional leaders within the Congress who were contesting to keep the party relevant in the state.

Contours of the Electoral Verdict

In the 90-seat assembly, the BJP won 40 seats, the Congress won 31 seats, the JJP won 10 seats, and the Haryana Lokhit Party and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) won one seat each, while 7 independent candidates were elected. Even though the BJP’s tally fell by seven seats from the previous election, its vote share actually increased from 33.20% to 36.5%.  The Congress also increased its vote share from 20.61% to 28.1%. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) vote share remained the same at around 4%. The greatest loser, however, was the INLD, who saw a massive decline in its vote share from 24.1% in 2014 to just 2.44% in 2019.[2] 

Electorally, Haryana has usually been divided into three regions,[3] namely South Haryana, Central Haryana and the GT road belt with 23, 29 and 38 seats, respectively. In South Haryana, which includes the Ahirwal region dominated by the Yadavs and also the Muslim-majority constituencies in the Nuh district, the BJP won 15 seats as compared to 14 seats in 2014. However, all three seats in Nuh were won by the Congress, even though two of the incumbent Congress MLAs joined the BJP prior to the election and contested as BJP candidates. Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, of the 11 assembly segments in which the BJP was unable to register a lead, three of them were in Nuh. Hence, while the BJP was unable to win in Muslim-majority areas, it made gains in Faridabad district, which is essentially an urban constituency. In the Jat-dominated belt of Central Haryana, the BJP won 8 seats, which is one less than its 2014 tally. If we consider the belt of the Deswali Jats, which includes 14 seats in the districts of Rohtak, Jhajjar and Sonipat, the Congress won 11 seats, while the BJP won only two, and one seat went to an independent candidate. In the 2014 assembly elections, the Congress had won 10 seats and the BJP four. However, the BJP’s greatest loss was in the GT belt where the party, which won 24 seats in 2014, was reduced to 17 seats in 2019, while the Congress party registered a gain of eight seats in this region. Interestingly, all the assembly constituencies that the BJP lost along the GT road belt were either in rural or semi-rural areas, and three districts in this belt were those worst affected by the Jat agitation in 2016. 

Further, if voting trends in reserved constituencies may be taken as a proxy to gauge the Dalit community’s participation, it is instructive to note that out of the 17 reserved assembly constituencies, the Congress won seven, the BJP five, the JJP four, and an inependent candidate one. This is a discernible shift from the 2014 assembly elections where the Congress won in four reserved constituencies, the BJP in nine, the INLD in three and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in one.[4]

An Identitarian Turn

In Haryana, there have historically been multiple axes along which identities have been shaped and leveraged: caste, religion, and political dynasty, among others. However, within the electoral space, caste and dynasty have played a disproportionately larger role. During the colonial era, leaders such as Chhotu Ram cultivated a definitive “Jat” caste identity, which helped mobilise the community in the electoral arena (Kumar 2015 and 2016). The numerical preponderance of the Jats, along with them being the dominant landed caste in the state, enabled them to assert themselves politically. Further, political dynasties and leaders have also held considerable sway in successive elections (Ziegfeld 2015: 1042). These dynasts have carved out a distinct electoral support base by cultivating certain regional bastions,[5] which has led to the rise of strong regional leaders. However, the BJP lacked strong regional leadership, and its electoral appeal was limited to urban centres. Hence, the party pursued an electoral strategy for the 2014 state assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections that polarised the electorate along Jat and non-Jat lines. The Jat quota stir in February 2016, which witnessed widespread arson and violence against the non-Jats, is said to have benefited the BJP (Dheer 2019). The BJP also claimed that its most important contribution to the state was ending the cronyism and bribery involved in getting a government job. This was also done to offset the preponderance of Jats in the lower grades of various government positions. Clearly, if non-Jat consolidation reaped electoral dividends for the party, concerted mobilisation by the Jats dented the party’s electoral prospects in the 2019 assembly elections. This was augmented by the voting preferences of Dalits and Muslims. While Dalits in Haryana constitute around 20% of the population, there has not been a concerted movement among them to assert themselves politically (Kumar 2010; 19). One reason for this has been the internal stratification within the Dalit community, which has led to intra-caste rivalries, and the absence of effective regional leadership. It is also argued that the Dalits have been competing to enter the services sector by making use of the state’s reservation policies rather than by demanding land from the dominant castes (Chowdhry 2011: 379 and 401). However, the upward mobility of Dalits has clearly upset the caste hierarchy in Haryana, which has been marked by an increase in violence[7] against the community that successive governments have been unable to address.

Reading into the Election Results

The Congress’s ability to temper the BJP’s unrivalled electoral pace came from the support that it received from the Dalit, Jat, and Muslim communities. The Jats and Dalits constitute the largest and second-largest groups among the  various communities in Haryana. It is ironic that the BJP’s slogan of “Haryana Ek, Haryanvi Ek” materialised in a manner that allowed it to increase its vote share, but lose seats. In terms of party politics, the verdict not only re-establishes the relevance of a faction-ridden Congress party in the state, but also allows the newly minted regional party, the JJP, a shot at power. An electoral space that looked to be dominated by a single party has thus been triangulated. Further, the fact that eight ministers from amongst the 10 that contested the election lost from their chosen constituencies, is suggestive of the fact that the performance of the government also remained below par. The Haryana results suggest a clear shift in subnational level electoral narratives, which may not only be dissociated from the national, but also may witness the assertion of identity-based mobilisations.

 

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