Two Chautalas have been sent to jail on a 10-year sentence. No doubt, they will seek bail and probably get it. But having been convicted, they will now not be able to contest either the forthcoming Lok Sabha or Assembly elections (both due in 2014). How will this change Haryana politics? Is the most painful thorn in Congress Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s side finally out, maybe forever?
Many feel that a rudderless Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) run by the erudite Chautala family is now destined for decimation, leaving the field free for Hooda to emerge as the uncontested leader of Jats of Haryana. Others argue that Hooda’s politics has been the shoot-the-Congress-in-the-foot variety and all that the Chautalas sentencing has done is emphasise the wedge between Jats and non-Jats, vitiating the caste equation that has worked in the Congress’ favour in the past. Both arguments are interesting because they offer an insight into the complex interplay of caste and politics in Haryana.
Haryana’s political class was shocked by the sentence. Kuldeep Bishnoi, the leader of the Haryana Janhit Congress who defected and finally left the Congress, wants to occupy the position of the main opposition and one day, become chief minister. He is a Bishnoi – strongly anti-Jat. Pictures of Chautala, being led away by policemen, his head down, vied with images of Bishnoi eating laddoos after the court gave its ruling. Jats watched, angered, humiliated. Hooda who should have been jubilant that a political opponent had got just deserts was strangely subdued and would only urge Haryanvis to respect the law. The state Congress president gave a statement supporting the arrest but quickly withdrew it. The Dalits just observed but one former INLD Member of Parliament, Faqir Chand Mullana, immediately jumped the Chautala ship, joining Bishnoi.
The teacher recruitment scam for which the Chautalas have been convicted, was absurd in its simplicity. It involved substituting one set of candidates by another. But two things stand out: one, it was not just Jats who were appointed teachers via the scam, it was also non-Jats; and two, even the court order said no money changed hands. It was a scam designed to get political support, not a scheme to make money.
To keep morale intact, Ajay Chautala wrote a letter to INLD sympathisers earlier this week from Tihar jail. “Dheeraj, dharma and mitra – inke bare mein suna tha, ki inki pehchan sankat mein hoti hai” (steadfastness, religion and friends: these are tested in adversity), the letter said and added: “Let those who are trying to clip our wings, beware, we know how to fly with broken wings.” Chautala supporters said the two leaders had been hauled off to jail, even though they had taken no money. Potent stuff for Jats, who are fiercely proud, almost tribal, about their caste identity.
So, it will be no surprise to see the entire Jat community decamp to INLD after the Chautalas sentencing, notwithstanding Hooda’s efforts to build a following in the community. The Congress rule in Haryana has been oppressive for the other castes. The worst anti-Dalit riots have taken place in Mirachpur and elsewhere. Jats occupy every important public, government position in the state, whether they are competent or not.
To cite an example, the chief of the state’s crime investigation department was a Jat. After he retired, rather than let the post go to a non-Jat, he was appointed as an advisor in the same job. The state chief secretary is a Jat, having superseded several other competent bureaucrats. The principal secretary (in Haryana, they have always been people with vision, like S K Mishra) is detested by politicians and bureaucrats alike. The chief minister’s office is dominated by Jats, and the few non-Jats that are there in government have been appointed to powerful positions, not because of competence but out of the fear that other rival Congress leaders in the state might get annoyed if their candidates were not accommodated. In this, Hooda has proved to be both short-sighted and a creature of caste pressures: Om Prakash Chautala, by contrast, never ignored claims of other castes and never allowed caste to override good governance.
The result is non-Jats are taking revenge. There is a farmers’ uprising in Rewari, where fertile agricultural land has been notified by the state government for acquisition, to turn it into an industrial estate. The land to be acquired is not a small parcel: almost 3,700 acres. Rewari is the sphere of influence of Captain Ajay Yadav, former finance minister in the Hooda government. He is not a Jat.
In 2005, when Hooda first became chief minister, the Congress party had 67 seats in the 90-member Assembly. Every third member of legislative Assembly was from the Congress. In the 2009 Assembly elections, the Congress won just 46 seats out of 90, barely managing to form a government and at the mercy of independents to keep the government stable.
Hooda saw control slipping. Instead of reaching out to form a rainbow coalition, he did what came easily. He capitulated to Jats and lost caste leverage as well as the governance battle.
Jats will now want to do the right thing by Chautala, while non-Jats – who, under Bhajan Lal, voted for the Congress, and now feel cheated – are likely to coalesce behind Bishnoi who has done a tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party. This could lead to an unexpected electoral outcome in Haryana.