When the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine picked his name out of nowhere to head the BJP government in Haryana, it was in line with the party’s strategy in successive states, of choosing chief ministers outside dominant castes. Unknown to most, it was also at a piece with Manohar Lal Khattar’s steady and behind-the-scenes rise as a BJP troubleshooter, across states and crises. Those who have monitored that ascent know it began with Modi handpicking him to manage an election in earthquake-hit Bhuj in 2002 soon after he took over as the Gujarat CM for the first time. Khattar’s 2014 swearing-in completed that circle: he became the first BJP leader to be made CM in his debut poll, after Modi.
Five years later, the 65-year-old leader remains as firmly ensconced within that sphere as outside it.
When Haryana votes on October 21, five months after the BJP got 58.21 per cent of the state’s votes, Khattar is the man to beat. A large part of it is due to the Opposition’s weak and split ranks, Modi’s continuing popularity, and the appeal of the BJP’s strident campaign over abrogation of Article 370. But, it is also a recognition of Khattar’s success in delivering a corruption-free government.
A surprise choice for Chief Minister in 2014, Manohar Lal Khattar has survived many a crises, including the Jat agitation that led to 20 deaths, even as the BJP has gone from strength to strength in Haryana. However,with both 2014 and 2019 seen as essentially Modi wins, Khattar has a point to prove with the coming Assembly polls.
At the height of one of the worst crises faced by him — the Jat agitation in 2016 — Manohar Lal ‘Khattar’, derided for being a “Punjabi” and an “outsider”, in a deeply clan-bound state that has no love lost for either Punjabis or outsiders, announced that he was dropping his surname. Three years later, that is far from an issue. Instead, Haryana may well be witnessing the addition of another ‘Lal’ to its famous troika of Devi Lal, Bhajan Lal and Bansi Lal: Manohar Lal.
Another nickname bears equal weight, with a BJP slogan for Haryana declaring ‘Mano Again’.
The Jat agitation, leading to violence across districts and death of 20, was the second time the Khattar government found itself on the backfoot. The first was in November 2014, within weeks of Khattar taking over as CM, when the followers of Sant Rampal held off police for a week. Then, a year after the Jat stir, the BJP government found itself fumbling against protests following the arrest of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim. The televised embarrassment included protesters running riot in Panchkula, a heartbeat away from capital Chandigarh.
While calls were made for Khattar’s head each time, BJP president Amit Shah stood by him. To those who trooped to the BJP headquarters in Delhi with their concerns in August 2017, Shah was categorical, “Koi sawaal hi nahin uthta (There is no question of replacing Khattar).” This was after Modi had himself called the violence “deeply distressing” and said it was being “closely monitored”.
The BJP’s reasoning in choosing Khattar was garnering the anti-Jat votes, with the dominant Jats solidly behind entrenched regional parties like the INLD. The decision to stick to this, especially through the Jat stir, has proven profitable so far.
In December last year, the BJP’s mayoral candidates swept elections held in five cities. In February 2019, it won the high-stakes Jind bypoll, defeating, among others, Congress heavyweight Randeep Singh Surjewala. Between 2009 and 2014 Assembly polls, its vote share rose from 6.73 per cent to 33.2 per cent. By the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it had crossed the half-way mark.
The kharif millet crop has been harvested, and the farm lands of South Haryana (Gurgaon, Rewari, Mahendragarh), which are not as fortunate as other parts of the state in terms of irrigation, either have standing cotton plants or are being readied for the winter mustard and wheat crops. Up north, in Bhiwani and Hisar, a canal sustains paddy fields, which are also ripe for harvest. With time on their hands for the next few weeks, farmers hang around village chowks playing cards.
With the competition lopsided, the campaigning is lacklustre and polls hardly a topic of conversation. But mention them, and opinions tumble out.
In Pataudi and Rewari Assembly segments, the voters could have been the Opposition’s for the taking, it seems. If there had been an Opposition around. Those who voted for the BJP in 2014 and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections say they are backing Independents, with the BJP denying tickets to sitting MLAs Bimla Chaudhary and Randhir Singh Kapriwas.
“It is good that they denied ticket to Chaudhary, but we will vote for Narendra Pahadi, who has been associated with the BJP and RSS but was not fielded,” says Amrit Singh, a Yadav in his mid-40s, at Uncha-Majra village in Pataudi Assembly constituency, going on to talk about Chaudhary’s “poor performance”.
In Rewari, Kapriwas, rebuffed by the BJP, is contesting as an Independent. Waiting for a bus at the Chillar stand, Vijay, a Jat in his early 50s, says, “It was unfair to deny ticket to a sitting MLA. Kapriwas didn’t do anything wrong.”
Many of them go on to admit that the winning Independents may anyway veer towards the BJP if it returns to power.
One of the biggest Opposition candidates in Southern Haryana is party veteran Captain Ajay Yadav’s son Chiranjeev Yadav, contesting from the family seat of Rewari. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, whose sister is married to Chiranjeev, has turned up to lend a hand.
The Congress, which ruled Haryana till 2014, is trying to capture the space vacated by the INLD. It finished third after the INLD in the 2014 Assembly polls (winning 15 seats against 40 in 2009), but between the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, its vote share rose from 22.9 to 28.51 per cent. It was largely on account of the complete decimation of the INLD, which shrank from 24.43 per cent to 1.9 per cent.
But, apart from the Modi factor, the Congress is up against infighting, with Bhupinder Singh Hooda never hiding his discontent as long as Rahul Gandhi’s handpicked Ashok Tanwar was Haryana PCC chief. The divide ran so deep that when the INLD lost its position as the main opposition in the Assembly following a split soon after the 2014 polls, the Congress did not even name CLP leader Kiran Chaudhry as replacement for a long time.
Now, having clawed his way back into the Congress establishment, Hooda, arguably the party’s tallest Haryana leader, has had to be content with being the parliamentary unit leader and accept Kumari Selja as state chief, as part of the usual Congress balancing act. Tanwar has since announced support to a range of anti-BJP, anti-Congress leaders, while there are murmurings of candidates being picked not for winnability but loyalty. Hooda’s camp has cornered the lion’s share of tickets.
Jatinder Nagpal, a municipal councillor from Indri near Karnal, says the Congress would have had a clear edge on several seats had it fielded the right candidates. At Indri, for example, Congress rebel Rakesh Kamboj is giving a tough fight to party candidate Ram Kumar Kashyap, a turncoat from the INLD. Says Nagpal, “Kamboj has been working here for 22 years and there is a strong sympathy wave for him following the death of his only son.”
If Hooda would like to be seen as Sonia Gandhi’s man though, there is no evidence of high command benefaction on the ground. He has been fending off questions regarding the Gandhis’ virtual absence from campaigning, even as Modi is scheduled to hold seven rallies and Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh 15 public meetings between them. Still, the only seats where the Congress is actually putting up a fight are in Hooda’s bastion of the Rohtak-Sonepat belt.
Putting up a brave front, Hooda says, “The response the Congress is getting is beyond our expectations. The bubble of the BJP’s slogan — Ab ki baar 75 paar — has already burst.”
If Hooda, a two-time CM, is feeling the drag of his virtually moribund party, young Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) leader Dushyant Chautala is rising from the ashes of his. The great-grandson of INLD founder and former deputy prime minister Devi Lal, the 31-year-old who floated a separate party less than a year ago is now taking away its votes. Struggling since Om Prakash Chautala was jailed in a teachers’ recruitment scam in 2013, along with elder son and Dushyant’s father Ajay, the INLD has suffered a series of divisions. In November 2018, Chautala precipitated the first crisis by expelling Ajay and Dushyant, seeking to pass on the reins to younger son Abhay.
Soon after the 2014 Assembly elections, 17 of the INLD’s 19 MLAs crossed over to the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, its vote share plunged from 24 per cent in 2014 to 1.9 per cent — lower than the BSP’s 3.6 per cent. The JJP polled 4.9 per cent.
This time, the only seat where the INLD is confident of a good performance is Ellenabad, from where Abhay is contesting.
From the start, Dushyant posited himself as the inheritor of the legacy of Devi Lal, naming his party after the title ‘Jannayak (People’s Leader)’ enjoyed by the late stalwart. In 2014, he became the youngest ever Lok Sabha MP, defeating Kuldeep Bishnoi, scion of the Bhajan Lal clan. The JJP itself made rivals sit up when, barely two months after its formation in December 2018 and months before the Lok Sabha elections, Dushyant’s younger brother Digvijay gave a scare to the BJP in the Jind Assembly seat bypoll.
While Dushyant lost this year’s Lok Sabha elections as a JJP-Aam Aadmi Party candidate, it was in the pocketborough of another big name in Haryana, Union minister Birender Singh. Each of these moves established him as a veritable leader, not afraid of taking risks.
Having studied in the US as well as holding a law degree, Dushyant also made a judicious choice of candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. While none of the JJP nominees won, they were talked about for their “youth” and “educational qualifications”.
Says Bag Singh, a Jat farmer in his mid-50s, at Bhattu village in Fatehabad Assembly seat in Sirsa, “The JJP is a new party. It has a new leader and he is an educated leader, for the future. Chautala did not seek popular opinion before expelling Dushyant.”
Others, traditionally INLD supporters, predict, “Dushyant will become CM, either in alliance this time or in the very near future.”
Before that happens though, the JJP may have to widen its appeal, which remains largely restricted to the INLD’s Jat vote bank. The JJP has fielded 34 Jat candidates, followed by the Congress (27) and BJP (20) this time. While the community forms 27 per cent of the state’s population and hence is a force to reckon with, the BJP has shown that tapping into the remaining 75 per cent can pay rich dividends.
Across constituencies, what also seems to be clearly paying off for the BJP is the transparency in recruitment for government jobs under the Khattar government — in a state where youths from farming families are looking for a way out (agriculture and allied sectors contribute over 17 per cent of gross value added in Haryana).
This was done by tasking the Haryana Staff Selection Commission with recruiting Class IV employees. Last year, over 34,000 such posts were filled up without a single complaint of corruption, which was unprecedented. Haryana Agriculture Minister Om Praksh Dhanker says this “restored the faith of people in government”. Transfers of teachers is now decided online — freeing it of notorious political interference.
“In my 80 years, I haven’t seen so many people from South Haryana get government jobs. That too without any bribe or interference,” says Ramprakh Yadav of Siha village in Kosli Assembly seat in Rewari.
Agrees Ashok Kumar, a Rajput in his late 40s, at Haluwas village in Bhiwani seat. “Youngsters in village after village have got jobs without a bribe. What else do you want?”
Says Ajit Yadav, also of Siha village, “Children of our Ahirwal community are talented. All they need is fair opportunity. Earlier, you got jobs either if you had money to pay bribes or you belonged to a particular caste or region. With hiring made on merit, our children are getting jobs.”
Karnal-based advocate Narinder Singh Cheema gives the example of Hooda “favouring” Rohtak as CM — this time he is contesting from Garhi Sampla-Kiloi in the district. “All development works were concentrated in Rohtak to benefit a particular community,” he says.
A Jat farmer in his late 40s, of Bhattu village in Fatehabad, counters community members as they declare their opposition to the BJP, on the same grounds. “Unlike previous CMs, Manohar Lal doesn’t do anything for his family. He is working for the entire state,” says Vikram Singh, going on to list people from his village who have got government jobs.
One of the Khattar government’s first directives was a circular asking heads of all departments to list “officers of doubtful integrity” and “undesirable contact men”. The image of a clean government was reinforced through a CM’s portal, modelled after that of the PM and open to people, and a CM Window in every district where public could file complaints. From daily crop procurement records to e-challans, a wide range of services in Haryana are now digitalised.
In 2016, the Haryana government started a programme called ‘Chief Ministers Good Governance Associates (GGAs)’ under which youngsters from across the country were recruited for each of the state’s 22 districts, and tasked with overseeing public delivery systems. They also handled the CM Window and reported directly to him.
The CM Window has since acquired a reputation for quick redressal with dismissals and suspensions of several officials.
Former Haryana Chamber of Commerce President Chander Bhan Goel calls it an effective tool that he has himself used.
This, coupled with popular Central schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (launched from Haryana), have held Khattar in good stead. Haryana heavyweights and old hands such as Ram Bilas Sharma, O P Dhankar, Anil Vij and Capt Abhimanyu Singh, who were seen as his opponents and placated with ministries, seem to have reconciled to their roles.
The BJP is also getting good traction with its Article 370 campaign, with Haryana having sizeable numbers in the defence forces. Ex-serviceman Gurmeet Singh, former sarpanch of Kalsa village in Kurukshetra, says he and his friends used to be Congress or INLD supporters but had shifted to the BJP because of its “strong leadership”. “PM Modi has removed the thorns sown by Jawaharlal Nehru. It is a historic step in the right direction,” he says.
At the Karnal Bar Council office, Cheema speaks for a group of lawyers: “The step was overdue but no one had the spine to take it.”
Even BJP voters angry with the party’s sitting MLAs or nominees generally don’t have a harsh word against Khattar. Among BJP leaders facing the heat is state unit chief Subhash Barala, who doesn’t appear to have even his Jat community vote sealed up in Tohana, bordering Punjab. Incidentally, in Haryana, unlike Maharashtra, the BJP has re-nominated three-fourths of its incumbent MLAs.
Come polls, another issue would be watched closely: the Khattar government’s token system of procurement in mandis, which imposes daily limits on producers, and requires farmers to return for cash payments. It can mean a lot of disgruntled farmers. A minor irritant lately is the stringent Motor Vehicles Act extending to farm tractors.
However, days away from voting, that is not expected to be enough of a hurdle for the BJP to stumble. For the Opposition, here is a thought: three years after the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress won the biggest mandate in India’s history, it was Haryana that indicated a turning of the tide when, in 1987, Devi Lal stormed to power defeating the Congress under Bansi Lal.
The also Lals
Devi Lal’s family: Grandson Abhay Singh Chautala is INLD candidate from Ellenabad; great grandson Dushyant (JJP) is contesting from Uchana Kalan; another grandson, Aditya Devi Lal, is BJP candidate from Dabwali; Devi Lal’s son Ranjit Singh Chautala is fighting as an Independent from Rania.
Bhajan Lal’s family: Sons Kuldeep Bishnoi and Chander Mohan are contesting on Congress tickets from traditional seats Adampur and Panchkula. Bishnoi, who has won the seat twice, is pitted against Tik Tok star Sonali Phogat (BJP).
Bansi Lal’s family: Daughter-in-law Kiran Chaudhry (Congress) is contesting from family’s Tosham seat; in Badhra, his son Ranbir Mahendra (Congress) is pitted against JJP’s Naina Chautala, the mother of Dushyant.