Jind Bypoll: Can Randeep Surjewala Defeat Chautalas Once Again?

The by-election to the Jind Assembly constituency in Haryana is turning out to be a high-profile battle, with the Congress fielding senior leader Randeep Singh Surjewala and the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) nominating Digvijay Chautala. The BJP candidate is Krishan Midha, son of Dr Hari Chand Midha, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) MLA whose death has necessitated the bypoll. Not having a candidate of its own, the INLD decided to allot its symbol to Umed Singh Redhu who had filed his nomination as an independent candidate.

The polling will take place on 28 January.

On the surface, the Congress' decision to field Surjewala is a surprising one. Being the party's communications in-charge, he has a lot on his plate and moreover, he is already a sitting MLA from Kaithal in the Haryana Assembly. So why did the Congress deploy Surjewala in the bypoll when Assembly elections are due in just nine months time?

The answer lies not in the Congress but in the INLD.

The Battle For Jat Votes

The INLD is in complete disarray after jailed patriarch Om Prakash Chautala expelled his grandsons Dushyant Chautala and Digvijay Chautala and later their father Ajay Chautala from the party. They have since formed the JJP. The Congress has sensed an opportunity to politically marginalise the Chautalas and win back Jat votes that it lost to the INLD in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly elections later that year.

Jats form around 25 to 30 percent of Haryana's population but they have dominated the state's politics since its formation. Except for Bhajan Lal and now possibly Manohar Lal Khattar, no non-Jat Chief Minister has managed to complete a full term.

Though the community is present across the state, there are a few known strongholds, all of which have been dominated by a few political families. So while the Hoodas hold sway over Rohtak and have some influence in Sonipat, Bansi Lal's family has dominated Bhiwani. The northern strongholds like Jind, Kaithal and Sirsa have witnessed a tussle between two powerful Jat families: the Chautalas and Surjewalas. The clash between Randeep Singh Surjewala and Digvijay Chautala in this month’s bypoll in Jind is only the latest chapter in an old rivalry.

The rivalry goes back to another bypoll 26 years ago in a different constituency in Jind district – Narwana. The constituency saw eight elections between 1977 and 2005 and in seven of these it elected someone from the Surjewala or Chautala families. Till 1991, Surjewala's father Shamsher Singh Surjewala won Narwana thrice losing it only in 1987. The seat fell vacant after he was elected to Parliament in 1993.

Randeep Singh Surjewala contested from his father's seat in the bypoll but was defeated by Om Prakash Chautala. Both the Chautalas and the then Congress chief minister of Haryana Bhajan Lal called it a defeat of the Surjewala family. Even though he had already spent nine years in politics, Surjewala was just 26 then and this was his first election.

However in 1996, Surjewala contested from Narwana once again and won, pushing Chautala to third position. But Chautala had his revenge in the 2000 elections as he defeated Surjewala by a narrow margin of about 2,000 votes and went on to become chief minister of Haryana.

The rivalry continued in 2005 with Surjewala emerging triumphant and Chautala being voted out of power in the state. However, after this the nature of the rivalry between the two families changed. Narwana, the electoral battleground where they clashed, was made a reserved constituency.

Om Prakash Chautala shifted to Ellenabad in Sirsa district while Surjewala shifted to Kaithal, the seat his father had won in 2005. Meanwhile, Shamsher Singh Surjewala filed a case accusing Om Prakash Chautala and his sons Ajay and Abhay Chautala of having assets disproportionate to their income. The CBI filed a charge sheet against them in 2010.

Om Prakash Chautala and Ajay Chautala are in jail after being sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after being found guilty in a scam involving the recruitment of teachers.

With the Chautalas in jail and fighting among themselves, the Congress believes it can finish them politically and become the pre-eminent choice for the Jat community. And who better to do it than Randeep Singh Surjewala who has defeated Chautala in the past.

Jind: A Seat Which Hasn’t Elected A Jat In Over 40 Years

Jind is an unlikely constituency to witness a Surjewala vs Chautala clash. Unlike neighbouring Narwana, which used to be dominated by the two Jat families, Jind has elected non-Jat MLAs for over 40 years. The Congress won the seat in 1991, 2000 and 2005 by fielding a Bania candidate Mange Ram Gupta. And in 2009 and 2014, INLD's Hari Chand Midha, a Khatri, won the seat.

This is largely to do with the fact that a majority of voters are now urban and this proportion is increasing as Jind grows as a city. The BJP under Manohar Lal Khattar, himself a Khatri, senses an opportunity.

Since 2014, BJP has ruled Haryana by consolidating non-Jat voters who were upset with the community's dominance over the state's politics. Jats account for a little less than 30 percent of the votes in Jind. The BJP is hoping for a consolidation of non-Jat votes and a split in Jat votes between the Congress, the JJP and the INLD. Krishan Midha, son of Dr Hari Chand Midha, fits perfectly with the BJP's plan of consolidating Khatri, Brahmin and Bania voters.

The deciding role is likely to be played by Dalit voters who form a little less than 20 percent of the electorate in the constituency. With the BSP not contesting the bypoll, the Congress might be able to gain a substantial chunk of Dalit votes.

Impact on Lok Sabha Polls

For the Congress, winning Jind isn't just about Jat votes. It is also to reclaim parts of Haryana it had lost in the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. In the Lok Sabha elections, its only winner was Deepender Singh Hooda in Rohtak. In the Assembly polls, most of its seats were concentrated around the Hoodas' sphere of influence in Rohtak and Sonipat. In the Assembly elections, it was completely wiped out in Jat-dominated northern and central districts like Sirsa, Fatehabad, Jind and Hisar as well as BJP's urban GT Road strongholds like Panipat, Karnal, Kurukshetra and Ambala.

The only Congress leader who managed to win in Northern Haryana was Randeep Singh Surjewala in Kaithal. Therefore, the party is putting its best foot forward to win Jind.

The bypoll will have a direct bearing on the Sonipat Lok Sabha constituency that it is a part of. In 2014, the Congress lost the seat by about 77,000 votes. BJP's Ramesh Chander Kaushik, a non-Jat, won the seat mainly due to a split in Jat votes between it and the INLD.

However, if we combine the votes in the nine Assembly segments in Sonipat in the 2014 Assembly elections, the INLD was marginally ahead of the Congress and well ahead of the BJP.

The bypoll is significant for another reason. It will also help gauge the impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move of providing 10 percent reservation to economically weaker sections within upper castes. It needs to be seen whether the election sees a consolidation of the upper castes behind BJP or a backlash from OBCs and Dalits.

Also Read: In Jind, Surjewala, Chautala file nomination

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