The Congress faces a dilemma in Haryana. The leadership has to take a call on whether to project a Jat or a non-Jat as the party’s face in the upcoming elections.

The Assembly elections in Haryana are due in October but there is a possibility that these could be held along with the Lok Sabha polls in April or May.

The debate on the leadership issue has gained ground after Randeep Singh Surjewala, the party’s national spokesperson and a prominent Jat leader from Haryana, suffered a humiliating defeat in the January 28 Assembly bye-election in Jind.

The bye-poll in Jind was necessitated after its MLA, Hari Chand Middha of the Indian National Lok Dal, died in August. His son Krishan Middha comfortably won the bye-poll on a BJP ticket. His victory was made possible because of the non-Jat consolidation in favour of the saffron party. The Jind verdict has not only strengthened Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s personal position but it has also confirmed that the non-Jat castes that had helped the saffron party storm to power in the state five years ago have not lost their faith in the BJP. This is an encouraging sign for Khattar and the ruling party, who had both looked vulnerable till six months ago. The BJP can now go into the coming elections with greater confidence.

Congress worried

On the other hand, the Jind election has set off alarm bells in the Congress. The result came as a shock as the party was certain that it would be the automatic beneficiary of the prevailing anti-incumbency against the Khattar government.

Much to the dismay of the Congress, however, the result has shown that it was completely wrong in assuming that the popularity ratings of the first-time chief minister of the first-time BJP government in Haryana had dropped.

The Jind election has therefore not just exposed the ongoing bitter factional wrangling in the Haryana Congress but has also forced the party to sit up and do a rethink about its earlier electoral strategy to depend on the projection of a Jat leader in the state. It can no longer afford to overlook the sharp caste divide between the dominant Jat community and others, which has worked to the advantage of the BJP.

Having formed a government in Haryana for two consecutive terms with Bhupinder Singh Hooda at the helm, the Congress has been of the firm belief that it is essential to have a Jat face to regain power in the state. In fact, the purpose of fielding Surjewala from Jind was to promote another Jat leader and to shed the party’s reliance on Hooda.

Unfortunately, Surjewala’s poor performance in the Assembly election nixed these plans. Hooda and his followers have since started a whisper campaign that the Congress can only hope to revive its fortunes in the state if it hands over the reins of the party to the former chief minister.

At the same time, there is a grudging realisation that Hooda alone will not succeed in resurrecting the party or winning an election and that he will need the help of party’s non-Jat leaders like Kuldeep Bishnoi and Selja. Selja is a Dalit while Bishnoi is the son of Bhajan Lal, who was the tallest non-Jat leader in the Congress. “Hooda should be given charge of the party and he should set out on a campaign with Selja and Bishnoi by his side,” remarked a Hooda supporter. “It will be a winning combination.”

The Hooda camp has started making overtures to the other leaders but they remain wary of the former chief minister as they believe this is only a ploy to use their support for his personal gain.

Haryana has been in the grip of a severe polarisation following the violent Jat agitation for reservations in government jobs and higher education starting 2016, which created a deep divide between this community and the others. In addition, non-Jats have not forgotten the decade-long rule of the Hooda government, which had displayed a preference for members of the Jat community in government jobs and while doling out other perks. Though the BJP’s massive victory in the 2014 Assembly election was attributed to the Modi wave, the party also benefited hugely from the simmering anger among non-Jats about the treatment meted out to them by the Hooda government.

Factionalism in Congress

The Congress has woken up to this reality after the Jind election. With less than three months to go for the Lok Sabha election, the party has to take a quick decision on the way ahead. Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was recently given charge of Haryana, is in the process of consulting all the state leaders to put the Congress house in order.

“The party is gradually realising that it can no longer ignore the other communities, and that its policy of wooing the Jat community at the cost of others has hurt the Congress,” remarked a senior Congress leader from Haryana who did not wish to be identified.

However, Azad will not find it easy to arrive at a formula that will appeal to all the factions in the party’s Haryana unit. For instance, Hooda will certainly not be happy if the party decides to overlook his claim and hands over the state unit to a non-Jat.

The Congress can ill-afford to alienate the former chief minister as he enjoys substantial support in the party’s state unit and has the potential to play spoiler in the elections. On the other hand, the Congress desperately needs to gain the confidence of the non-Jat communities. It cannot rely on the support of the Jats alone to bring back the party to power as the youth of this community has found a new hero in Digvijay Chautala, the estranged grandson of OP Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal, who was the runner-up in the Jind election.

The decision has been made more difficult because the party unit in Haryana is wracked by factionalism. Haryana Congress chief Ashok Tanwar and Hooda have been working at cross-purposes for the past four years now. Similarly, Surjewala and Hooda are not exactly on the best of terms. Not only do they belong to the same community, making them arch rivals, both nurse chief ministerial ambitions. Other senior leaders have also been sulking.

Striking a balance between all the factions is the big challenge before the Congress leadership.