Ajay, 20, a resident of Kurukshetra, has studied till Class X at a government school in his village. As the scorching sun beats down mercilessly, he moves his kulcha stall near the entrance of Brahma Sarovar in Kurukshetra, before sitting down.
Ajay, who would cast his vote in the Lok Sabha elections for the first time when the 10 seats in Haryana go to polls on 12 May, said he was confident about whom to vote for. “He speaks like a strong leader who can give a befitting reply to the country’s enemies," he said, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the air strikes.
Ajay, however, looks puzzled when asked if he benefitted from any government scheme. “We have toilets in the market," he mumbled.
“Naukri kahan hai? (Where are the jobs?)" asked Bhagwan Das, 52, a tea seller who has a stall near the iconic pilgrim site for the last 25 years. “My daughter completed her BA last year. She keeps filling forms, but has not got any job yet. Gareeb ke liye kaun karta hai? Par Modiji desh ke liye bahot kuch kar rahe hain. Desh ka naam ho raha hai (Who cares to work for the poor? But Modiji is doing a lot for the country. The country is getting recognized). We do not know the number, but he got so many terrorists killed in Pakistan," he said, wiping the sweat off his face.
The call for national security made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has become a major poll issue in the state, even as concerns over lack of jobs, law and order, farmers’ woes and women’s safety fight for attention. Haryana is among the states in India with the worst unemployment rates, according to the Fifth Annual Employment-Unemployment Survey (2015-16).
In its maiden term, the BJP-led state government under Manohar Lal Khattar has struggled to maintain law and order. Within a month of coming to power, the government had deployed security forces to evict Rampal, a self-proclaimed godman from Hisar, following his conviction in a murder case. The siege lasted several days and claimed six civilian lives. In 2016, the Jat reservation stir left 30 dead and properties worth thousands of crores gutted. The following year, the conviction and subsequent arrest of Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the head of Sirsa-based Dera Sacha Sauda, had sparked violence, killing at least 41 people.
Yet, the dominant narrative is how the country’s armed forces are waging a war against terrorism. BJP candidates have repeatedly highlighted the surgical strike and the Balakot air strike in their election speeches. “Today, we are safe, because we have a prime minister who can safeguard us. He avenged the killing of our soldiers and gave a befitting reply to the enemies (referring to the Balakot air strike)," said BJP candidate from Kurukshetra, Nayab Singh Saini, at a public rally 51km from Kurukshetra.
With one of the largest population of ex-servicemen, the call for national security has found resonance in the state, especially among the youth.
“Jo shaheed the, wo humare bhai the. Haryana ke har ek ghar se ek fauji nikalta hai (Those who sacrificed their lives were our own brothers. Every household in Haryana produces an Army man)," said Bhupender Nehra, 36, from Rohtak, about the killing of 41 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Pulwama.
In the Jat heartland of Hisar, Sukha Singh, 20, from Peeranvali village echoed similar sentiments. “The BJP candidate is a first-timer, he does not know the constituency well. But my vote would be for Modiji. There is no alternative," said Singh, a science graduate.
Opposition parties, including the Congress, Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), and Jannayak Janta Party(JJP) have attacked the BJP for not tackling local issues and taking advantage of achievements of the armed forces.
“It is likely that Khattar knows that the day his candidates start seeking votes in his name, all of them will lose their deposit. So, they are banking on Modi," said JJP leader Dushyant Chautala. JJP is contesting the elections in all 10 seats in alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has been allotted three seats in the state.
“Our youngsters are moving outside the state for job opportunities. Gurugram is among the most unsafe cities for women. CAG data shows that half of the total funds for ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ were spent on advertisements and promotions," said Chautala, who is eyeing to retain his seat from Hisar.
INLD has not been able to wrest power in the state after 2005, but has been a strong opposition. In 2014, it had won two seats, while the Congress had got one. The BJP had won seven seats.
For the Congress, Haryana is a prestige battle. The party is fighting to revive itself. Two heavyweights, including two-time former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and his son and three-time MP Deepinder Singh Hooda, are contesting from the Jat heartland of Sonepat and Rohtak, the epicentre of the Jat agitation.
The eateries and amusement parks along the national highways running through state, which were burnt down during the 2016 Jat agitation, have been rebuilt. The remnants of the violence were hard to find, but the issue still echoes, albeit with restraint.
Hooda denied there was any “caste divide" in his rallies and urged people from all communities to vote for the party. He is banking on development carried out during his term and failed promises of the BJP, to make a comeback.
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