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The national implications of the Hisar bypoll

By Neerja Chowdhury
October 17, 2011 18:02 IST
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Hisar has turned out to be a double edged sword for Team Anna. While it can now take credit for the Congress' rout in Hisar, its stance in the bypoll has divided its own core team, says Neerja Chowdhury.

Thanks to the Anna team, the Hisar bypoll which would have otherwise received cursory noticed, acquired a national profile. Thanks to the media coverage, the three main candidates in the fray -- victor Kuldeep Bishnoi, runner up Ajay Chautala and Jai Prakash, who trailed as a poor third -- suddenly became nationally known figures. To that extent the Hisar bypoll, necessitated by the death of Bhajan Lal, one time Congress veteran who had floated his own party towards the end of his life, is an Anna election.

The moot point however is different. Did the Anna factor influence the poll outcome? Naturally members of the Anna team are claiming it as their victory because the Congress candidate was badly mauled and the other two candidates, who had given their support to the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill, unlike the Congress, captured the first and the second positions.

The election outcome has been on expected lines. In 2009, Jan Hit Congress leader Bhajan Lal had won and the Congress had come third. Hisar is a non-Jat constituency and this used to favour Bhajan Lal enabling him to win from here. This time too, it has gone to benefit his son Kuldeep Bishnoi who had the additional advantage of an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

It is naturally difficult to compute the difference made by the Anna factor. What is however significant about this election is not just the Jat versus non-Jat polarisation, but that the Jats have gravitated behind Ajay Chautala, son of Om Prakash Chautala, instead of standing behind the Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda or getting divided between the Congress and INLD, which had happened in 2009.

Since Ajay Chautala hardly enjoys a scintillating image, it was obviously not the corruption issue which swayed the Jats to his side, but disenchantment with Hooda and his government, and this should cause the Haryana CM worry. It will also embolden the dissidents in the party to gun for him again. But the poll result may also be a straw to indicate which way the wind may be blowing in Haryana, if the Jats are also looking at the INLD with new eyes.

Instead of winning over Kuldeep Bishnoi to his side -- for, after all, his father was a veteran Congressman -- the chief minister fielded Jai Prakash again and what is more, staked his personal prestige and camped there personally as did his ministers and he also invited other high profile Congress leaders like Delhi CM Shiela Dixit to campaign in Hisar.

It is possible that the Anna factor helped to consolidate the non-Jats behind Bishnoi that much more, and the Jats gravitated towards Chautala en-masse in a counter-move, since he was the stronger of the two Jat candidates and they did not want to waste their votes by backing Jai Prakash. It could have been fear of the impact of the Anna factor which further polarised an already polarised situation.

Theoretically speaking, the Hisar poll outcome could have given a huge impetus to Team Anna to go for the kill in other states going to the polls next year. And that is why, as part of a well thought through strategy, they zeroed in on Hisar, knowing that the Congress was on a weak wicket here. They must have thought that the Congress defeat would give them a chance to claim it as their victory.

But Hisar has turned out to be a double edged sword for Team Anna. While it can now take credit for the Congress' rout in Hisar, its stance in the bypoll has divided its own core team. Santosh Hedge has publicly questioned the wisdom of jumping into Hisar, and others like Prashant Bhushan were reportedly against it.

The team singled out the Congress, as the party to defeat. It jumped the gun even before the government had brought the Lokpal Bill in the Winter Session of Parliament, which it had promised to do. As has been pointed out by Congress leaders to underscore the Anna team's bias against the party, they did not make Khadakvasla in Maharashtra their testing ground, though it is only two hours away from Anna Hazare's village Ralegan Siddhi, where Congress ally the NCP is in the fray against the BJP.

This has raised questions in the minds of its supporters and in the country about the non-partisan character of Anna's anti-graft movement. To that extent, its credibility has been dented.

On its part, the Congress appears to have launched a counter offensive at the political level. Digvijay Singh's attack against Anna and his team is calculated to tie them in knots about the support given them by the RSS -- and this is happening, with the RSS claiming to have lent the agitation its backing and Anna Hazare denying it.

In the coming days, the Congress can be expected to pursue a dual strategy of winning over Anna on the one hand -- Rahul Gandhi is believed to have reached out to Hazare and the sarpanch of Ralegan and others are meeting the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru family -- and delinking him from his team, on the other hand, which is already beginning to happen.  

Bhushan's statement favouring a plebiscite in Kashmir has also widened the fault lines in Team Anna. Though Bhushan is entitled to his view and the attacks on him are to be condemned in the strongest possible terms, Bhushan is no longer just an individual. He is a public face of Team Anna whose views are bound to have a bearing on the whole group and what it wants to do.

Today, Anna and his team find themselves on the defensive, whether it is on the issue of RSS support, or on Kashmir or Hisar. Anna himself has resorted to a maun vrat to let the dust kicked up by various controversies, settle.

Having evoked large scale support and having raised high hopes, that things could be different, he would do well to keep his attention focussed on the bull's eye -- that is a strong Lokpal Bill, which ensures accountability of those in high office. And on mounting pressure on every political party so that they field candidates with a clean image. Getting into every contentious issue will only end up dissipating the movement he has built up.

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