Om Prakash Chautala's release from jail, Bhupinder Singh Hooda's show of strength, and the revival of farmers' protests are all signs of a churn in Haryana politics, particularly within the politically influential Jat community that forms around 25 percent of the state's population.
Chautala was released from Delhi's Tihar Jail on Friday, 2 July, and he is expected to openly come out in support of the ongoing farmers' agitation. He is likely to visit the protest sites at the Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, and Shahjahanpur soon.
Meanwhile, another former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda is flexing his muscle, with his loyalist MLAs demanding a greater role for him. As many as 21 out of 33 Congress MLAs met at Hooda's residence on Monday, 5 July, ahead of a meeting with party general secretary KC Venugopal.
This article will try and look at four questions:
What could be the likely impact of Chautala's release?
What explains Bhupinder Singh Hooda's show of strength in the Congress?
What does this mean for the BJP?
What lies ahead in Haryana politics in light of these developments and the farmers' protest?
POSSIBLE IMPACT OF OM PRAKASH CHAUTALA'S RETURN
Chautala's release would no doubt boost the prospects of his party, the Indian National Lok Dal, that has been in decline since his arrest and later the formation of the Jannayak Janata Party led by Chautala's Jannayak Janata Party led by his son Ajay Chautala and grandsons Dushyant and Digvijay Chautala.
However, due to its support of the BJP government in Haryana and the unpopular farm laws, JJP has lost a great deal of support.
With Chautala back, the INLD would fancy its chances of winning back some of its support, especially its core base among the Jats of Haryana's northern districts like Sirsa, Fatehabad, Jind, Kaithal, and Hisar.
The INLD, along with the Congress, has been steadfast in its support for the farmers' agitation against the farm laws. Bulk of the protesting farmers from Haryana happen to be Jats.
In case INLD's fortunes do revive, it would mainly be at the expense of the JJP and the Congress, as the latter had begun making inroads into Chautala's erstwhile pocket-boroughs.
THE STORY BEHIND BHUPINDER SINGH HOODA'S ASSERTION
Meanwhile, Chautala's main rival within Jat politics – three term CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda – is presently engaged in a tussle for dominance within the Haryana Congress.
MLAs loyal to Hooda are demanding that he be given a greater say in the party's affairs in Haryana. Nineteen MLAs loyal to Hooda recently met Congress' in-charge for Haryana Vivek Bansal and put forward this demand.
Apparently, their demand is that Hooda be made president of the Congress' Haryana unit replacing Kumari Selja. Though Hooda is the Leader of the Opposition in the Haryana Assembly, it is the PCC president's position that matters more.
An alternative demand being put forward is a prominent role being given to Hooda's son Deepender Singh Hooda.
Congress general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal has been deputed to manage the crisis in Haryana by the party leadership and the 21 MLAs present at the meeting at Hooda's residence are likely to bat for the former CM.
It is clear that Hooda has the support of the vast majority of Congress MLAs and is by far the most popular Congress leader in the state. Therefore it can't be denied that he has a strong claim to the leadership.
However, he doesn't enjoy the support of the party high command who is said to prefer Selja as well as Randeep Singh Surjewala, presently general secretary in-charge for Karnataka. Another factor behind the high command's reluctance could be the fact that Hooda was part of the group of 23 dissenters who wrote a letter complaining about the state of affairs in the party.
The Congress leadership is stuck in a tough position. It has to balance between various competing factions of the Haryana Congress and also between castes and communities — Hooda and Surjewala are both Jats while Kumar Selja is a Dalit.
Promoting Hooda alone, may help the party consolidate its position among Jats but could cost it among non-Jats, which has become the main faultline of the state's politics.
A major factor behind Hooda's assertion is also age. He is presently 73 and would be 76 by the time the next Assembly elections are held. There are fears that the party would then project either Surjewala or Selja, both of whom are presently in their fifties and that would harm the fortunes of both the former CM and Deepender Hooda.
WHY BJP SEES THIS AS A WIN-WIN SITUATION
BJP is watching these developments closely and party insiders say it is a win-win situation for them.
The party has carefully been following a policy of consolidating non-Jat votes in the state while counting on a split in Jat votes between the Congress, INLD, and JJP. This worked well for the party in 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls when Jat votes split between Congress and INLD, with the BJP getting most of the Upper Caste, Gujjar, Ahir, and Punjabi votes.
In 2019 Lok Sabha polls again, the Jat votes split between Congress, INLD and JJP, with the BJP also getting a chunk in addition to consolidating its own base of non-Jats.
However, this strategy backfired in the 2019 Assembly polls in which Jats voted tactically for Congress in some seats and JJP in others, to defeat the BJP. The party fell short of a majority and was forced to form a government along with the JJP.
With the JJP discredited following the farmers' protests, the BJP was afraid that the Congress would consolidate the entire Jat vote bank in addition to Muslim and Dalit votes.
Chautala's release and return, whether by default or design, works to the BJP's advantage.
With Chautala around, it may not be easy for even a Hooda led Congress to expand in the INLD's strongholds in the North. It must be remembered that Hooda isn't a pan-Haryana Jat leader and his area of dominance are districts like Rohtak, Jhajjar, and Sonipat.
This would become even more difficult for Hooda if he's denied prominence in the Congress' state unit.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
It's important to see the Congress' recent efforts at keeping peace in faction-ridden units — in Kerala it has tried to move beyond the polarised A-Group vs I-Group politics while in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have taken a hands-on approach to try and resolve the crisis.
It is likely that they may have to step in regarding Haryana at some point. A great deal would then depend on how much Rahul Gandhi is willing to concede to the Hoodas. The party leadership has already once tried to clip their wings, such as after the 2014 Assembly poll defeat — when the party unit remained under the leadership of Hooda-baiter Ashok Tanwar and the legislative party leader post went to another rival Kiran Chaudhary.
This time, it is possible that the party may be more amenable to concede some space to Hooda given how he led the party to a good fightback in the 2019 Assembly polls.
In the long run, a lot would depend on how the farmers' protest plays out. The BJP is confident that it would be able to withstand the political fallout of the agitation the way it weathered the storm of the Jat protests. In fact, the latter helped consolidate its support among non-Jats, who saw the BJP as the only party safeguarding their interests as opposed to the Jat-dominated Congress and INLD.
But if the agitation regains momentum and causes political damage to the BJP like it did during the civic elections and bypolls in Haryana, it may work to the advantage of the Congress that's still the Opposition party in Haryana best placed to take advantage of the BJP's follies.
However, if the Congress high command fails to retain Hooda in its ranks, it would plunge Haryana into a different kind of political competition — with the Hoodas and two factions of Chautalas competing for Jat votes and the BJP and Congress competing for non-Jat votes.
In such an eventuality both Hoodas and Chautalas would be watching out for developments in the 'alternative front' space. But that's still a distant reality. The picture regarding the immediate crisis may be clearer in a week or so.