Anna queers the pitch with poll gamble

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A different game Sisodia and Kejriwal in Hisar
A different game Sisodia and Kejriwal in Hisar

IN MANY ways, the Hisar (Haryana) byelection harks back to the one in Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) in 1974. That was when anti-corruption crusader Jayaprakash Narayan fielded Sharad Yadav for the Janata Party. His win was quite a jolt for the Congress party, throwing Indira Gandhi into the cul de sac of the Emergency, from where she had to take a desperate U-turn back onto the democracy track. In Hisar, quite a cacophony is being raised by Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption (IAC), where the defeat of the ruling Congress is not only a prestige issue but is expected to have a domino effect on future elections in the country.

Team Anna’s squeamishness about entering electoral politics has precluded the option of fielding its own man — it has instead mounted a negative campaign against Congress candidate Jaiprakash, 50, an unknown entity who is anyway expected to come third in the race. Though the campaign is high on symbolism, and the outcome will perhaps be touted as a victory of sorts for the crusaders, in the constituency itself there will hardly be a ripple.

The byelection was necessitated by the death of Bhajan Lal on 3 June at the age of 80. The top two contenders are Lal’s son Kuldeep Bishnoi (of the Haryana Janhit Congress, and supported by the BJP) and Om Prakash Chautala’s son Ajay Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal). With both parties being offshoots of the Congress, there are enough heavyweights in the fray to make it an exciting contest. But the Congress lowered the excitement level by fielding a weak candidate.

Though Chief Minister    Singh Hooda terms the bypoll as a neck and- neck race, party workers themselves admit that the prospects are bleak. “If the CM had given anyone else a ticket, we would probably have won the battle,” a party worker told TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity. “It is our efforts that had seen Jaiprakash win in 2004. Congress was in a privileged position then. But not anymore.”

The main problem with Jaiprakash seems to be that he has in the past only doled out verbal assurances.

Infighting in the Congress has also taken a toll. The seat was being coveted by Rajya Sabha MP and influential Jat leader Virendra Singh, who wanted to position his son in the fray. But his aspirations were ignored by the high command. Another influential Congress politician from Haryana, Kumari Selja, also wanted a candidate of her choice to fight for this seat. So did Randeep Singh Surejwala, PWD minister in the Haryana government. But Hooda had his own choice of candidate. Indulging him might prove expensive for the Congress.

A different game Sidhu at a Bishnoi rally
A different game Sidhu at a Bishnoi rally

That Hooda might have some idea of the unpopularity of his choice can be gauged from this incident that took place during the CM’s fortnight-long campaign in Hisar. Apparently, a voter asked the CM at a public meeting whether he should vote for Jaiprakash or the Congress. Hooda is reported to have said, “Don’t vote for anyone but me. Just think it’s me who’s fighting this poll.”

What are Team Anna’s considerations for choosing his constituency to start this campaign? Apart from the fact that it is the home ground of Arvind Kejriwal, the prime mover of the Jan Lokpal Bill, they could not have jeopardised the pro-Lokpal sentiment by choosing a turf where the outcome was uncertain. Whichever constituency it chose to start from, if the Congress happened to win, it would probably break Anna’s talismanic spell of the past few months. And the damage it will do to the team’s reputation and trust of the people would have been difficult to salvage.

But Team Anna member Manish Sisodia is denying any such strategic manoeuvre. He says, “We don’t trust the intentions of the Congress party anywhere. Hence we have taken up cudgels against it everywhere.” When asked why, instead of keeping their peace till the winter session of Parliament as promised, they are trying to influence the vote, Sisodia says, “We asked all other party heads to give it to us in writing that they would support the Jan Lokpal Bill, or be ready to face Team Anna’s ire. Only the Congress failed to give us a written assurance. That’s why we are opposing them.”

After repeatedly having maintained that theirs is an apolitical set-up, the team is now vociferous in its reasons for this blatantly political approach. “This is definitely political, but instead of garnering votes, we’re asking people to not cast their votes for the wrong party,” says an IAC member.

A rather urbanised crowd of 300-500 had gathered in Hisar’s Red Square Market, in a dusty maidan, when Kejriwal and Sisodia were addressing them. Kejriwal, ironically, sounded just like a politician when he repeatedly reminded the crowd that he himself was from Hisar and that they should listen to a son of Hisar.

DESPITE HAVING his roots there, however, it is clear that Kejriwal may have led his associates into a dark alley. Winding up his campaign, Sirsa MP Ashok Tanwar says, “Sushma Swaraj herself has been saying that Team Anna is visiting every doorstep in support of Bishnoi. They are protesting against the Congress but what alternative are they offering? The people Anna is supporting are corrupt at all levels.”

After TEHELKA spent a few days in Hisar and nearby villages, it became increasingly evident that caste polarisation, and not Team Anna’s appeal, would decide the vote. Of the 1.2 million-strong voting population in Hisar, around 4.5 lakh voters are Jats. This chunk alone is capable of making or marring any party’s fortunes. Ajay Chautala and Jaiprakash are both Jats. The second largest chunk, demographically, is comprised of Dalits, with Bishnoi at the forefront. He has garnered the support of the BSP head in Haryana, Balwan Arya.

Despite all these calculations, a recent incident could have ended up benefiting Bishnoi and eating into Chautala’s votebank. The Jat community resorted to extreme agitational measures near Jind Railway Station, blocking rail and road traffic, to demand the release of the 97 Jats charged with killing two members of a Dalit family in 2010 in Mirchpur. The conviction of only 15 accused and acquittal of the rest in September this year resulted in a polarisation of non-Jat votes towards Bishnoi. Dalit families from the village have been camping at a temple, unable to return out of fear for their lives.

So if the idea of the high-pitched anticorruption campaign was to evoke the JP movement, it is at best a mock battle. Neither is Hisar 2011 anything like Jabalpur 1974, nor is the Sonia-led Congress as powerful as it was under Indira. On top of that, the message from Hisar is a bit garbled, especially because the Congress is anyway not going to win.

Atul Chaursia is a Correspondent with Tehelka. 
atul@tehelka.com

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