Sunday, September 06, 2009

A Confident Congress

A default victory for the Congress is likely in upcoming assembly elections in Haryana

The Congress party's convincing victory in the Lok Sabha elections where it won 9 out of the 10 constituencies in the state has emboldened its state government to recommend dissolution of the assembly and call for fresh elections seven months before its scheduled completion of five years. The Congress led by chief minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda hopes to repeat its Lok Sabha performance in the assembly elections, buoyed as it is by the scale of victory that the party achieved bucking a trend that has punished incumbent state governments before in the parliamentary elections. And the manner in which the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) - Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to lose the elections resulted in the breakdown of the alliance, thereby strengthening the prospects of the Congress even more - atleast on paper.

The victory of the Congress in 2004 had much to do with voter disenchantment with the INLD rule under former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala who was seen to be overweening and tolerant to corruption, criminalisation and authoritarianism. Since then, under the leadership of Hooda, the Congress has only consolidated its support base as opposition to the party has been in disarray. After a period of dissension within the Congress with the choice of Hooda as chief minister, the party gradually steadied itself, after dissidents left the party and formed the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC). The HJC managed a decent vote share in the Lok Sabha elections and would try again to play spoiler to the Congress' hopes in the assembly elections.

The support base of the Congress had been augmented during the Lok Sabha elections due to a deliberate strategy to woo Jat voters- Jats consititute nearly a quarter of Haryana's population - by the party. The presence of a Jat in Hooda as the chief minister helped and the conscious wooing of the Jats helped break the "monopoly" of the INLD over this community, affecting the party's fortunes dramatically. Bhupinder Singh Hooda is now seen as the undoubted leader of the Jat community in the state. Consequent to the increase in support among the Jats has been a perceptible shift of support from the Congress' traditional voter base among the poorer sections - particularly the dalits. A section of the dalits preferred the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the Lok Sabha elections and the party would want to convert that support into seats in the assembly elections.

The lack of credible opposition to the Congress is evident in the political positions of the various parties. Haryana is reeling under a drought which has affected the peasantry and many incidents of industrial unrest has taken place sporadically during the Congress rule. Yet, the opposition to the Congress has been limited in its efforts to take up these causes and has instead focussed on personalised campaigns - a characteristic of family and personality dominated politics in the state. Sectional and caste preferences still determine support to the opposition parties - the BJP for e.g. relies heavily on the Punjabi speaking populace for support; the INLD is still an out-and-out Jat party while the HJC derives a lot of support from the Bishnois. The manner in which the Congress has managed to accommodate various sectional interests has kept it in good stead against this fragmented and disjointed opposition. The Congress has played to the gallery of these sections by refusing to take on regressive traditional systems prevalent for example in the Jat community such as the institution of khap panchayats. The absence of a better alternative to the Congress has meant that many poorer and marginalised sections of Haryana's population have kept their faith with the Congress, even if its government has not done enough for them. Adding to the Congress' advantage is the breaking down of the BJP-INLD alliance and therefore an even more fragmented opposition.

The Congress government in Haryana has been unlike other "successful" ones - in Andhra Pradesh for example, where a slew of pro-poor and populist measures were helpful in retaining power. In all likelihood, the Congress can be expected to retain its majority in Haryana in the assembly elections. Yet, that would be due to default and not because of any major achievements on its government's part in a state that still enjoys rather a dubious reputation of retarded social development.

Draft of an editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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