Will an adverse outcome in the bye-election to the Jind Assembly seat in Haryana prompt the Bharatiya Janata Party to opt for an early state poll? Will a victory for the Congress mean that the party is on the comeback trail in a state it ruled for 10 years before 2014? How will this election affect OP Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal’s fortunes, which recently witnessed a split following a family feud, and what will it mean for the future political scene in the state?

All these questions are up in the air as the January 28 bye-poll in Jind has been converted into a high-profile political slugfest and is being seen as a precursor to the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls and the Assembly elections due later this year.

An Assembly bye-election is usually a low-key affair and tends to go unnoticed. Since a ruling party generally enjoys an edge over its political rivals, Opposition parties are not known to put their best foot forward in such contests. But the Jind bye-election, like last year’s election in Kairana, Uttar Pradesh, is proving to be an exception.

All the players – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress, the faction-ridden Indian National Lok Dal, and the fledgling Jannayak Janata Party – have a lot riding on this poll. Each party is using this election to get a measure of how it will fare in the Lok Sabha elections.

Confident BJP

The importance of this contest for the BJP can hardly be overstated even though it is going into it on an optimistic note after its clean sweep in the municipal elections last month. In the firing line of his party colleagues, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar must follow this up with a win in Jind to prove he remains in control.

The bye-poll in Jind was necessitated after its MLA, Hari Chand Middha of the Indian National Lok Dal, died in August. But the BJP has a tough contest on hand. In 2014, though the saffron party swept Haryana to form its first government in the state, Jind had eluded its grasp.

The BJP, however, believes it has an edge this time as it has chosen as its candidate Krishan Middha, the son of the deceased former MLA. The BJP is banking on the sympathy factor for a positive result as well as the consolidation of the non-Jat vote in its favour. The saffron party is encouraged by the fact that a Jat has never won this seat while the other three main competitors are all Jats.

As the battle for Jind enters its last stretch, speculation is rife that Khattar’s tenure as chief minister may be cut short if the party fares poorly in this election.

There is growing disenchantment with the Khattar regime, and if this is reflected in the Jind verdict, the Assembly polls that are due in October could be advanced and held along with the Lok Sabha election in April or May.

An early poll will ensure that anti-incumbency against Khattar does not build up any further and help deflect attention from his government’s deficiencies. The Assembly election will then be projected as a referendum on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union government’s achievements.

Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar. (Photo credit: IANS).
Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar. (Photo credit: IANS).

Congress pulls out the stops

The Congress is also pulling out all stops in this election. Instead of giving the ruling party a walk-over, it seems to have decided to make it a real contest and has taken a gamble by fielding Randeep Singh Surjewala, the Congress communication department chief, from the seat.

Feeling emboldened after its recent victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, the Congress possibly felt it should demonstrate its serious intent by nominating a high-profile and strong candidate. “The decision was taken with an eye on the coming Lok Sabha election,” remarked a member of the Congress Working Committee.

The Congress had won only one of Haryana’s 10 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. It fared no better in the Assembly election later that year when it was relegated to the third position after the Indian National Lok Dal, as the BJP swept the state, winning 47 seats in the 90-member House. The Congress views the Jind election as a stepping stone to the bigger challenge that awaits it later this year.

While Surjewala is campaigning rigorously, the party has also stepped in with the entire state leadership, including former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and former Union Minister Kumari Selja, turning up when he filed his nomination papers. The senior leaders have also hit the campaign trail.

Being held against the backdrop of a raging factional war in the Haryana Congress, the Jind poll is no cakewalk for Surjewala. The election has provided the party’s state unit an opportunity to put its house in order. It is attempting to do so as failure to put up a united fight could prove disastrous when the Congress goes into the ring for the final bout.

On the personal front, a victory will push up Surjewala’s profile and he might later even emerge as a contender for the chief minister’s post. A defeat, however, will inadvertently pave the way for Hooda’s return as the party’s face in Haryana.

Surjewala is the MLA from Kaithal, Haryana, and has been a minister in the state.

He also faces stiff competition not just from the BJP but also from the Indian National Lok Dal and the Jannayak Janata Party, which emerged following a feud within the Chautala family. Since Surjewala and the candidates of these two parties are Jats, a three-way split in the community’s vote does not augur well for the Congress leader. The party, however, is confident that his appeal cuts across all castes in view of his seniority and high profile.

OP Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal. (Photo credit: AFP).
OP Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal. (Photo credit: AFP).

Chautala seeks to show he’s boss

For OP Chautala, this election is both about reclaiming the Jind seat and about defeating the Jannayak Janata Party to prove that he retains control of the Indian National Lok Dal. He has fielded Umek Redhu from the seat. The Jannayak Janata Party has nominated Dushyant Chautala, the Chautala patriarch’s estranged grandson, who has got the backing of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party. This election will not just decide the fate of these two parties but will also have an impact on the political scene in Haryana as the Indian National Lok Dal has a substantial presence in the state.

The Aam Aadmi Party, which failed to tie up with the Congress in Delhi, was hoping that the alliance would then extend to Haryana and Punjab. But since that alliance did not work out, AAP seems to believe that piggybacking on Dushyant Chautala in this bye-poll could lead to a long-term partnership with the Jannayak Janata Party in the Assembly election as Kejriwal has plans to extend his party’s footprint beyond Delhi.