Sandeep Sharma, an 18-year-old first-time voter from Dashrath village in Safidon assembly constituency of Haryana, complains about the lack of employment opportunities in his home district of Jind and blames the incumbent Congress government for having done little to create jobs.

“Why should I leave my village and go to find work in Delhi, Gurgaon or Chandigarh?. Why can’t I find work in my village or in Jind," he asked.

In the past, the choice before voters was between the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) of former chief minister Om Prakash Chautala, Sharma said. Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised jobs to the youth, “I want to give him a chance this time," said the second-year student of arts.

Anti-incumbency is something the Congress has to contend with in Wednesday’s assembly elections after being in power for 10 years in the northern state. The INLD, the main opposition party in Haryana, is mired in corruption cases, with Chautala in jail after being sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in a teacher recruitment scam.

That has brought Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the forefront of the electoral arena in a state where the party has rarely done well in assembly elections.

Having won just four seats in the 90-member assembly in 2009, the state BJP leadership, for the first time, is seeing a fighting chance of winning power in Haryana on the back of Modi’s popularity. In the April-May general election, the party won seven of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the state encompassing 52 assembly constituencies.

While the BJP’s entire campaign revolves around Modi, the party has given 27 seats to members of the dominant Jat community that has 27% of the vote in Haryana, where analysts say any party has to win a large section of the Jat votes to form a government.

The party’s only vulnerability is the absence of a state leader who can match the stature of chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda or Chautala—both veterans in Harayan politics.

“It is a different election this time. People are divided on who to support. Even the loyalty of the Jat voters is also divided in this election. Why shouldn’t people start looking for options? We get power supply for only three-four hours, the roads are not good, and irrigation facilities are also not satisfactory. Do you know how much it costs to buy diesel?" said Kapur Singh, a 53-year-old farmer in Khedi Taloda village, who also complained about rising prices of fertilizers and the cost of farming.

Interestingly, the vacuum created by the implosion of the Congress and the INLD in the Lok Sabha polls has provided an opening to the BJP, which has distributed 17 tickets to outsiders who joined the party after the general election. Of these, 15 have been given tickets to contest from rural areas.

Political analysts point out that the BJP has neither “a face" nor “a base" in the state and that its popularity has been historically confined to upper-caste urban voters.

“This time, the situation in Haryana is very fluid. Several groups shifting sides has left the voters confused and it would ideally lay more focus on candidates instead of parties," said Kushal Pal, an associate professor and head of the political science department at Dyal Singh College in Karnal.

“In a multi-corner contest, the ruling party at the centre in Delhi usually benefits and that is what is working in favour of the BJP," he added.

The INLD factor

Despite corruption scandals and Chautala’s conviction and imprisonment, the INLD remains the strongest local political force and is seen as the key challenger to the BJP in the elections.

Chautala used bail granted to him for medical treatment to campaign for his party and exploit perceived sympathy for his plight among a section of his supporters. He returned to jail on 11 October on the Delhi high court’s orders. His two sons, daughter-in-law and grandson have been campaigning energetically for the party to preserve its Jat voter base.

“This time the main battle is between Chautala and Narendra Modi. If the INLD doesn’t win or doesn’t perform well in Haryana, there is a very strong possibility that its workers will leave the party. How long will they continue to work for a party which is not in power?" said Pradeep Kumar, a 39-year-old fruit juice vendor in Jind.

There are few who still swear by the party that has given four generations of politicians to Haryana, starting with the late Devi Lal, who served once as India’s deputy prime minister.

Dushyant Chautala, the 25-year-old new scion of the clan, is contesting from the Uchana Kalana constituency. The young Chautala recently defeated Kuldeep Bishnoi, son of former Haryana chief minister Bhajan Lal, in the Lok Sabha election.

“The Hooda government has not performed badly, but it is a time for change. Narendra Modi has not kept his promise of containing inflation and so the INLD is the only credible option," said Raj Kumar, a 32-year-old vegetable seller in Madhosinghana village in Ellenabad constituency, where Abhay Chautala, son of Om Prakash Chautala, is in the fray.

The Congress party’s rout in the April-May general election calls for a change in the state government, according to several voters. It won just one of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana, compared with nine in 2009, and its vote share dropped to 22.9% from 41.77%.

“I used to vote for the Congress, but Hooda has not done enough. The roads in our village continue to remain bad, the situation of power has not improved, and the government is involved in too many scams. This time, my vote will go for Modi," said Rampal, a 45-year-old tailor in Bahu Akbarpur village in Meham assembly constituency.

Rampal has hung BJP flags outside his house.

The odds seem to favour the BJP, but the INLD could just emerge as the X Factor in Wednesday’s election.

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