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Why this Haryana seat could decide fate of more than one Congress leader

The contest for the Sonepat Lok Sabha seat will be fierce, with Congress' Bhupinder Singh Hooda up against the BJP incumbent and a Chautala grandson.

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Chandigarh: In fielding former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda from the Sonepat Lok Sabha seat, the Congress has decided to put the Jat leader’s popularity to test ahead of the assembly polls later this year.

Hooda, a two-term chief minister (2004-2014), is vying for the top post yet again, but will now have to cross this electoral hurdle before he can stake claim to the position.

The election is also expected to settle the leadership tussle between Hooda and his arch-rival Ashok Tanwar, the Haryana Congress chief, who is contesting the Sirsa Lok Sabha seat, and possibly extinguish the infighting that stalks the party’s state unit.

Contesting the Lok Sabha election should not be tough prospect for four-term MP Hooda, but he is certainly out of practice. The last time he stood for the Lok Sabha polls was in 2004, when he was elected from his family’s pocket borough Rohtak with a margin of over 1.5 lakh votes.

He contested the Vidhan Sabha elections later that year and the Rohtak seat went to his son Deepender Hooda.

Deepender has held the seat ever since and is now the Congress candidate from Rohtak once again.

Focus on Jat belt

By fielding two members of the Hooda clan, overlooking the one-family- one-ticket norm, the Congress is trying to retain its hold on the state’s Jat belt, which stretches across Sonepat, Rohtak and Sirsa.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the 2014 assembly elections with a clear majority — sweeping up 47 of the state’s 90 seats — the Jat-dominated seats proved a weak point. The party has also failed to groom prominent Jat leaders over the past five years.

Considered one of the tallest Jat leaders of Haryana, Hooda has been chosen to contest from Sonepat, which has a substantial Jat population grouped among half a dozen prominent khaps.

In the election, Hooda will be up against incumbent BJP MP Ramesh Chander Kaushik. A former Congressman and Brahmin leader, Kaushik had defeated Congress candidate Jagbir Singh Malik by over 77,000 votes in 2014.

Since 1977, the Congress has held the seat four times and the BJP, thrice.

Clash of the titans

The contest for Sonepat is expected to be fierce, with the Jannnayak Janta Party — the breakaway faction of former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) — fielding Digvijay Chautala. Digvijay is the son of Ajay Chautala, Chautala senior’s younger son, and the younger brother of Hisar MP Dushyant Chautala.

Ajay, currently in jail with his father for a teachers’ recruitment scam, and his sons parted ways with the INLD following a schism in the family last year.

In the rift, former chief minister Chautala sided with his elder son Abhay, who is running the INLD.

The INLD has fielded Surender Chikara from the seat. Former deputy prime minister Devi Lal, the late patriarch of the Chautala family, had won the Sonepat seat in 1980.

The Jind Vidhan Sabha segment, which forms a part of the Sonepat parliamentary seat, was won by the BJP earlier this year. Digvijay was the JJP candidate and came in second, while Congress national spokesperson Randeep Surjewala was third.

To curb infighting

The Congress brass is said to be hoping that fielding Hooda from Sonepat will help stem the ugly infighting that the party’s state unit is fraught with.

State party president Ashok Tanwar, the Congress candidate for the Sirsa Lok Sabha seat, is Hooda’s arch-rival.

Each of them claims to be the party’s true leader in the state, and the duo has been at loggerheads over the past several years. An electoral battle, the party believes, could be the final test for each of them to prove their supremacy.

Surjewala, another contender for the chief minister’s post, had blamed leaders within the party for his defeat in the Jind bypoll. The party will be watching with interest how the Congress fares in the Jind assembly segment with Hooda as its candidate.

Popularity vs taint

Apart from the Congress wanting its bigwigs in the state to prove their mettle in the Lok Sabha polls, the electoral battle for Hooda will also be a test of how the series of CBI corruption cases against him have affected his political fortunes.

Facing charges of corruption and quid pro quo during his tenures as chief minister, Hooda has been booked in multiple cases, with the latest one filed just this January.

The 10 parliamentary seats of Haryana go to polls in the sixth phase of the Lok Sabha elections on 12 May.

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