SONIPAT: The contest in the parliamentary constituency of Sonipat in Haryana symbolizes the change in kind of politics that the country has witnessed in the last five year. It is the seat to watch out for in this state where the Congress has gone on the front foot by fielding its heavyweight former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda. He will be taking on Ramesh Chander Kaushik of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Digvijay Singh Chautala of the newly formed Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) and Surendra Chikkara of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD).

It needs to be underlined that the Lok Sabha polls in the ten seats of Haryana are the precursor to the state assembly polls that are to follow a few months down the line. A victory in the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha polls will be a major boost for any party when it goes into the assembly poll battle a few months down the line.

Moving into the rural heartland of Sonipat constituency, it is clear that it is no walkover for Hooda. The shadow of the 2016 Jat reservation agitation looms large over the Lok Sabha constituency. Though the developments had marked the unraveling of the BJP government led by Manohar Lal Khattar, the party had managed polarisation along caste lines.

In the area that always took pride in its social fabric of 36 Biradaris (communities), it is Jats who stand isolated against the 35 other Biradaris. And the supporters on both sides make no bones about it.

“People have not forgotten the violence unleashed by agitating Jats on others. We will teach them a lesson,” said Nand Lal, an auto rickshaw driver in Gohana town who is clearly swayed by the narrative against the Jats. He believes that all other issues will be taken care of if Hooda who is a Jat candidate loses.

“Although my majority customers are Jats, I want them on the receiving end because we have always been suppressed whenever they have been in power. They have never refrained from exercising both political and muscle power. To cap it all majority of policemen are Jats who never listen to grievances from other communities,” added Neeraj Gupta who runs an eating joint in the town.

His reporter had visited this area when the Jat agitation violence was at its peak and Gohana was one of the main theatres of the violence. The general perception among those who have been viewing the developments critically has all along been that the BJP had achieved the caste polarization riding on two factors.

One, it allowed the Kurukshetra MP Raj Kumar Saini to continue spewing violence against Jats and on the other the administration on the ground stood paralyzed. With the result that the people from other communities could neither approach the Congress nor the INLD as both these parties were perceived to be Jat parties and despite everything, they had only the BJP to turn to. As of now Saini has departed from the BJP and the issue of reservation continues to be tied in legal wrangles.

Broadly speaking, those involved in the continuing the anti Jat whisper campaign are persuading people to vote for the sitting MP Kaushik.

The Jats on the other hand stand hurt and are slowly rallying around Hooda. “It is very sad how our entire community was blamed and tarnished for the violence. The implications have been horrifying since the divide was also reflected on social occasions. This was never the case earlier. We need to come together and also take along other communities and ensure that a person like Hooda who developed this area a lot during his tenure as the two time chief minister gets to represent this seat,” said Jit Singh Hooda of Sanghi village. Interestingly, Hooda’s son Deepender Hooda is contesting from the neighbouring seat of Rohtak.

Even the Jats and others who have been traditional supporters of INLD, and even those who recently switched loyalties to JJP are likely to support Hooda this time. This was disclosed by Balbir Singh, renowned for manufacturing Hookahs in the entire region, who proudly displays pictures of INLD leaders Devi Lal and Om Prakash Chautala in his shop at Anaj Mandi in Gohana. He comes from the Dalit community of Baroda assembly constituency.

“It is said that the INLD split just on the eve of the elections. But the boy (Digvijay Chautala) holds a lot of promises for the days to come. Many people to whom I have been talking may rally behind Hooda if the Congress campaign machinery approaches them with humility instead of arrogance,” he said. Many commoners are viewing JJP and INLD candidates as those eating into Hooda’s vote share.

Fielding Hooda from this seat has been the right move by the Congress. It is being assumed that his presence in the poll battle will have an impact in the neighbouring seats as well. A victory for him and his son will be a great boost.

Sonipat and Rohtak constituencies also cover the districts of Jhajjar and Jind. This area known as Deswal-Jat belt had returned 10 Congress MLAs out of total 15 in the 2014 assembly polls when the Modi wave was at its peak. Jats comprise more than one fourth of the population in this belt.

The Congress high command that had given a cold shoulder to Hooda for quite some time as he fought his legal battles alone facing charges of all sorts related to land deals and alleged corruption had to field him for all practical reasons. He was declared the poll co-ordination committee in-charge in March. It is an open secret that among the squabbling Congress leaders in the state, he alone has the most powerful pan Haryana image.

Hooda’s opponents are trying to raise the issue of land scams and trying to tell the people that he would abandon his seat to contest the assembly polls. Even as the BJP achieved caste polarization after the Jat reservation violence, Khattar administration continues to draw flak for allowing the situation to deteriorate and failing to deliver. It has repeatedly been shamed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court on the alleged gang rapes that took places right next to the national highway near Murthal when the agitation was at its peak

Knowing this very well, the BJP is trying to tell the voter that the battle is not between Hooda and Kaushik but Congress and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. What to talk of Kaushik, even Khattar is not a part of the discourse. It is here that the BJP is trying to sell Pulwama and Balakote air strikes while making no reference to demonetization or the implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST).

“We will vote en-block for Modi because he is a leader who can take decisions and has the courage to take on Pakistan,” says Pawan Kumar, a barber.

The BJP has also been trying to sell the recent recruitment for 18,000 grade four employees in the state which people across the spectrum agree was largely transparent . This is a part of general discussions at public places. But such attempts are largely nullified when people refer to the recent agitation of the Haryana Roadways employees who fought the Khattar government’s decision to privatize local bus routes tooth and nail and earned a lot of public appreciation. The matter is pending before the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

The BJP supporters largely agree that Kaushik as an MP has failed to deliver. “We have never seen him in the last five years. If he wins it will just be because of us foot soldiers seeking votes in the name of Modi. There is no doubt that he is a Boda (weak) candidate before Hooda,” said a BJP functionary.

But commoners like Rakesh Kumar who runs a small tea stall near Gohana bus stop have their own wisdom. “I know that I will be voting for my future chief minister if I vote for Hooda. The Modi government has been a big let down for people like me in any case,” he said.

Deepender Malik, a legal professional, has a different take on things when he says, “Forget about caste equations. No one can deny that important educational and medical institutions came up in this part of the state when Hooda was the chief minister and this is why people should vote for him again.”

Haryana is primarily rural and a visit to the grain market where wheat procurement is on was enough to know that the farmer remains unhappy with the BJP regime both at the centre and in the state. “No one is willing to address our concerns. The government has announced Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops like Bajra but there is hardly any procurement. The MSP last season was Rs 1950 per quintal and were compelled to sell at Rs 1400. What is the point of announcing MSP’s when you are not inclined to procure the produce,” Balraj Sangwan of Butana village told The Citizen.

Another farmer Rajesh Bharadwaj said, “There are hardly any facilities for farmers in the procurement centres. All the talk about implementing Swaminathan Panel’s recommendations has proved to be a big zero.”

A large number of farmers are quite well aware of the failures of the Modi government. “Right from his claims on economy, demonetization and GST to generating jobs, the government has been a complete failure. The Acche Din promised were just an illusion to befool people and now they are again trying to mislead people,” said Jagbir Singh who had come to sell his wheat at Gohana Mandi which is among the biggest for wheat and paddy procurement in the entire region.

Ironically, there is no campaign visible on the ground. There have been odd rallies by candidates and a few road shows are to follow after the wheat procurement is over by this week end. But the cacophony that defines poll campaigns in India is missing for now. But the electorate is vocal the moment you start talking politics to them.

There are many genuine issues that will not make it to the poll discourse. Among them are the concerns of women. “The women here normally vote where they are told to by the male members of the family. No one is concerned about the increasing cases of abduction of young girls from marginalized communities or the harassment of women from states as far as West Bengal and Assam whom the men from these areas ‘marry’ in the face of the skewed sex ratio,” pointed out Sunita Tyagi, an eminent social worker who has been fighting for the rights of the poor and the marginalized.

Her husband Dr CD Sharma is also a leading social activist who runs a hospital in Gohana charging just Rs 10 as his consultation fee and carrying out tests at rates lesser than those at government hospitals. “I believe the electorate is slowly becoming aware of things. There is still a long way to go but they have started understanding what is good for them. Hope has to be nurtured.”