Deepender Hooda loses keenly-fought Rohtak battle; Haryana Congress leader no longer poster boy of Centrist defiance.

See-sawing non-stop between winning and losing Rohtak through a day that ended in a crash must have been cruel for Congress candidate Deepender Singh Hooda. But it’s worse.

In 2014, Deepender was one of the few left standing after a Modi wave swept across the nation. It was a remarkable victory, for Rohtak, the beating political heart of Haryana, was the venue of a five-cornered contest between the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian National Lok Dal, Aam Aadmi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

Well over a million votes were polled, and Hooda Junior got almost half of them. With father Bhupinder Singh Hooda then chief minister of Haryana and Deepender its lone Congress MP, things couldn’t have been better given that the BJP had won seven of the state’s 10 Lok Sabha seats.

Five years later, his father is no longer the chief minister and Deepender has failed to pull off the impossible again, though not for lack of effort, even as Modi’s saffron juggernaut crushed a fragmented Opposition for victory in every one of Haryana’s 10 constituencies.

With the Rohtak loss, Deepender is no longer a poster boy of centrist defiance in the Hindi heartland, having lost by a 15,000-odd vote-margin. He had garnered well over two-thirds of the vote in the 2009 elections, and about half of it in 2014. Rohtak is a Hooda family playground if ever there was one: it has elected Deepender three times, his father Bhupinder Singh Hooda four times, and his grandfather Ranbir Singh Hooda twice.

Adding insult and the threat of political redundance to Deepender’s loss is the defeat of his father and former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda from adjoining Sonepat constituency. Hooda Senior is the original giant killer, having beaten the grand old man of Haryana politics and once deputy prime minister of the republic, Devi Lal, not once or twice but three consecutive times in general elections.

It appears to have gone wrong for the Hoodas. In the Congress view, the Jat vote is the ticket to the Assembly polls due in October this year. The Jats—the state’s socially dominant community that constitutes about a fourth of the population and is given to en bloc voting—have been smarting at their reservation movement being patiently outmanoeuvred by the ruling BJP government of Manohar Lal Khattar, which most of them don’t like anyway.

The Khattar dispensation is instinctively mistrusted by a large section of the Jats, whose clan-based social structure is inward-looking and cannot readily make peace with the existence of a non-Jat chief minister—Khattar is a Punjabi. Add to that the BJP’s preference to stitching up a non-Jat votebandhan—it’s worked rather well in the general elections — and the antagonised community becomes low-hanging poll fruit.

Hooda Senior appears to have bought this line and gone along with the incipient Congress stratagem in contesting from Sonepat, a Jat-dominated constituency. More than Jat, it’s a Dahiya-dominated constituency, home to no less than a conservatively estimated 40 of the 50-odd villages of this largest Jat clan in Haryana. Of course, it should have helped that Hooda Senior’s wife is a Dahiya too.

The other battles on the Hooda horizon have pertained to foes from within the party. Top of the list is Randeep Singh Surjewala, AICC media in-charge and said to be close to Rahul Gandhi. Surjewala remains MLA from Kaithal but his wings have been clipped after coming third in the recent Jind bypoll, where the BJP’s Punjabi candidate Krishan Midha won hands down.

Congress state president Ashok Tanwar is another foe whose tussles for control with Hooda Senior are regular political fare in Haryana. Tanwar has, however, lost comprehensively to the BJP in the reserved constituency of Sirsa, and is thus off the danger list for now. Given that the Congress has won practically nothing except Deepender’s feat in Rohtak after Tanwar took over in 2014, it was all for the Hoodas to gain from a Congress loss in all other Haryana seats except the ones they were contesting.

It could have been good. The coast would have been clear for the Hoodas had things panned out: Jats seething for change, Surjewala down if not out, Tanwar losing Sirsa and down too, father and son winning Sonepat and Rohtak respectively, Assembly elections on the horizon.

Except that the Hoodas lost.

The Sonepat result also puts a large question mark on the Jat vote. It now appears that this chunk of the north Indian electorate isn’t really lost to the BJP — think Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh too. The community may have gone with the Modi flow again, or a large fragment of it may have, signalling significant disenchantment with other political outfits in either case.
Time is short, and the Congress has its work cut out if it wants to prevent a Khattar comeback in the shadow of Modi’s return.

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