After thwarting foes within, two-time chief minister and Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda, 72, is donning battle gear to campaign across Haryana to ensure the return of his party in the state that is currently led by Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) first-time chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar.
For Hooda, BJP's national issues like abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and national security are of little relevance for the assembly election.
It is the local issues like rising unemployment, deteriorating law and order, closure of industrial units and increasing debt that are the deciding factors.
"Once Haryana was number one due to high economic parameters, including the per capita income and per capita investment. Now it is number one in crime with a huge unemployment," Hooda told IANS on Thursday during an interaction while touring Jat-dominated Congress stronghold of Meham constituency that is represented by Anand Singh Dangi.
According to Hooda, the state has the highest unemployment rate of 28.7 percent in the country.
"There has been no regular recruitment in government departments for five years. For Class IV posts, postgraduates have been enrolled," he said.
"Article 370 is no more an issue," he reacted sharply when asked by IANS.
"No one is opposing it. The BJP is just trying to get mileage out of it. Rather it should now focus on restoring peace in Kashmir," a confident Hooda, who has been winning his Garhi Sampla-Kiloi seat with a comfortable margin ever since he became the first Chief Minister in 2005, said.
Refuting rumours that the party is still divided in two camps — one led by him and the other by former Union minister and state party president Kumari Selja, Hooda said: "We have been campaigning together, in coordination too."
Hooda, a Congress veteran, had exerted pressure on the party leadership to replace Ashok Tanwar with Selja — a Dalit — as the party's state unit president.
Party leaders said Hooda had categorically told Congress president Sonia Gandhi ahead of the polls that he would not take the party into the assembly elections under Tanwar's leadership.
At that time, Hooda, along with his former cabinet colleagues, camped in New Delhi sought a "free hand" in the selection of candidates and the conduct of the party's campaign for the polls.
Hooda was also obliged by the party by giving nominations to at least 60 candidates of his choice for the 90-member legislative assembly.
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To challenge Hooda in his stronghold of Garhi Sampla-Kiloi, the BJP has fielded defected Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Satish Nandal against him. Nandal had joined the party on June 29.
Nandal had twice contested the assembly elections against Hooda from Garhi Sampla-Kiloi on an INLD ticket in 2009 and 2014. He finished as runner-up on both occasions.
The BJP's vote share in the Garhi Sampla-Kiloi segment in Rohtak district in the last Lok Sabha polls rose substantially compared to the previous elections.
Hooda's son, Deepender, who lost the Rohtak Lok Sabha seat in May, managed to take a lead of 45,725 votes from Garhi Sampla-Kiloi.
Hooda, who is seeking votes on the basis of development carried out by him in his two stints, said his experience would help bring the state out of bankruptcy, arrest corruption and inefficiency, and end red tapism.
His son Deepender Hooda, a three-time MP from Rohtak, his wife Asha Hooda and some members of the his family are campaigning aggressively for Hooda senior in Garhi Sampla-Kiloi, as the latter is devoting his maximum time for campaigning for other candidates.
Hooda was on a whirlwind tour of his constituency on Wednesday.
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In his election meetings, Hooda reminds of his party's major manifesto promises like waiving farmers' loans within 24 hours of coming to power.
"Our leader Hooda is going to be the next Chief Minister again. We have categorically told him not to waste his time and energy by campaigning here. He should focus in other constituencies to get the maximum seats," Niranjan Sangwan, a shopkeeper in Kiloi village, told
Hooda's aides said he toured extensively in Ambala, Yamunanagar, Panipat, Gurugram, Fatehabad, Sirsa, Nuh and several other districts. On Thursday, he toured extensively in Rohtak, Sirsa and Panipat districts.
It is literally a do-or-die battle for political survival for Hooda, who suffered a humiliating defeat in the last Lok Sabha elections along with his son.
"This time, Bhupinder Hooda is fighting on two fronts -- one is to re-establish himself and the second is to ensure the party's return as he forced the high command to announce him as the Congress Legislature Party leader just ahead of the polls despite all odds, and then got the maximum say in ticket allocation," a political observer told IANS.
The result of the 90-member Haryana Assembly will be declared on October 24.
In the 2014 Assembly polls, the BJP improved its 2009 tally of four to 47, followed by the INLD with 19 legislators and the Congress with 15 seats.Two seats went to the Haryana Janhit Congress, and one each to the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Five Independent candidates were also elected.