Poised for power

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is confident of keeping his chair

28-Manohar-Lal-Khattar Manohar Lal Khattar | PTI

AT AN ELECTION rally in Congress-held Kaithal, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar said: “The same people who called me a novice in politics now say I am a player.” The comment captured his journey from a political unknown to the BJP’s mascot in the coming assembly elections in the state. Thrust onto political centre stage in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked him as chief minister, Khattar, who was till then confined to the BJP’s behind-the-scenes strategising, is now confidence personified.

The Khattar government has resorted to a massive event management on the eve of elections. The Jan Ashirwad Yatra is an example of that. —Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Congress leader

Khattar, 65, has indeed come a long way. In the 2014 assembly polls, when he was nominated by the BJP to contest from Karnal, partymen ran a signature campaign asking for a local person as candidate. Khattar won the seat by more than 63,000 votes, and then edged out Jat stalwarts in the race for the chief minister’s chair.

Only the second non-Jat leader to become chief minister of Haryana, a state whose politics has been dominated by the Jats, Khattar, a Punjabi Khatri, has come to be known as the ‘fourth Lal’ [former chief ministers Bansi Lal, Devi Lal and Bhajan Lal being the other three]. His humble background—he belongs to a small trader’s family that had migrated from Pakistan and settled in Rohtak—has become his USP. The BJP highlights the fact that he does not own a house or a motor vehicle.

“His simplicity and humble lifestyle set him apart from the other leaders that the state has seen. There are no allegations of corruption or wrongdoing against him,” said Dr Kushal Pal Singh, head of department, political science, Dyal Singh College, Karnal.

Khattar’s no-nonsense nature earned him the moniker ‘headmaster’ from childhood friends. He wanted to become a doctor, but the family could not afford it. In 1974, he came to Delhi to pursue higher education, and ran a shop in Sadar Bazar to fund his graduation and to support his family.

He joined the RSS in 1977, becoming a full-time pracharak in 1980. There was tremendous pressure on him from his family to leave the RSS and get married, but he resisted it. He moved to the BJP in 1994. From 2000 to 2014, he was organisational general secretary of the BJP in Haryana. He developed a good rapport with Modi when the latter was the BJP’s in charge of Haryana. For the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, he was made chairman of the state election campaign committee.

Khattar’s initiation into governance though was anything but smooth. There was severe criticism of his government’s handling of the violent agitation by Jats for reservation in jobs and educational institutions. There were demands of his resignation both within and outside the BJP. Later, the violence witnessed during the arrest of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh also raised questions about his ability to handle such situations.

Khattar, however, survived the incidents, silencing critics who had almost written him off. While the central leadership of the BJP backed him firmly, he worked on establishing himself politically by consolidating the non-Jat support base, which included the traders and the upper castes. The impression that has gathered ground is that the Khattar regime has equitably distributed the benefits of government schemes. BJP leaders talk about how the chief minister has not allowed favours in appointments and transfers even to the kin of partymen. The party also credits him with ending the hegemony of political dynasties in the state, which includes the Lals, the Chautalas and the Hoodas.

All the same, the Khattar government attempted to bring the Jats into its fold. Captain Abhimanyu, an influential Jat leader, was given a prominent place in the government. A number of Jat leaders from the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal have been brought into the BJP, and the party has given tickets to 20 Jat candidates in these elections.

“Khattarji has shown to the people of Haryana what a development-oriented and honest government is like,” said state BJP president Subhash Barala. “His clean image is a big departure from the corruption of the earlier chief ministers. Our government has ensured that every section of the society benefits from its schemes.”

Khattar’s emphasis has been on facilitating the last-mile delivery of Central schemes on health care, housing, electricity, toilets and cooking gas. A social security scheme was launched, under which Rs6,000 is given per year to poor families. Also, the government claims to have worked for the welfare of farmers, which includes implementing the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, enhancing the compensation amount for crop loss due to natural calamities to Rs12,000 per acre from Rs10,000 per acre and purchasing crops at minimum support price.

However, Khattar’s opponents said that he did not have much to show for his achievements and hence is investing heavily in event management. “The Khattar government has resorted to a massive event management on the eve of elections,” said Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda. “The Jan Ashirwad Yatra is an example of that. With every section of the society unhappy with the government, it was absurd on the part of the chief minister to go out to seek people’s blessings.”

Also, Khattar has had his share of controversy resulting from his comments, especially on issues related to women. Bang in the middle of poll season, his usage of a Hindi proverb—Khoda pahad, nikli chuhiya—to describe the Congress falling back on Sonia Gandhi for leadership created a furore, with the opposition party accusing him of being a misogynist.

Khattar, however, responded to the Congress’s criticism by saying that it should not get annoyed over proverbs. The nonchalance, perhaps, signals Khattar’s confidence as he seeks reelection.