Rank outsider in 2014, ML Khattar is a rising star on political horizon of Haryana
Barely into his second week as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s first-ever chief minister in Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar’s administrative skills, political maturity and capacity to tackle even routine matters were being watched closely.
A case in point that turned out to be a testament of his trademark working style, reflecting his straight-forward mannerisms and an obsession with the rulebook was an unexpected visit of his sister-in-law (his brother’s wife) seeking transfer to a place of her choice.
She had come to Chandigarh a week after he became CM and urged him to transfer her from Narnaul in Mahendragarh district to her hometown Rohtak. A bachelor, Khattar has four brothers with whom he shares a close bond.
“But Khattar refused citing rules and policies and asked her to go on leave without pay if she was unable to attend office. She left with tear in her eyes,” says a BJP leader, privy to this episode.
It is this zero-tolerance towards favoritism that formed the bedrock of plain-speaking Khattar’s working style in the past five years. Unrest against the BJP’s first CM started building up in the beginning within the party because he didn’t entertain demands of the frontline leaders and expectations of the cadre that wanted share in the spoils of power.
“On the contrary, Khattar used to keep an eye even on the number of tea cups served at his official residence. He used to tick off the staff for being extravagant,” says a senior state-cadre bureaucrat.
Dharamvir Mirzapur, the BJP’s Kurukshetra district chief who has known Khattar since the early 1990s, says he doesn’t tolerate “indiscipline”.
“He abhors liars. Iske saamne jhoot nahin chalta (Lies don’t work for him). He began using a laptop in 1998. He likes data and has an eye for the details. That’s the secret behind his successful stint as CM,” says Mirzapur.
A staunch Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue known for practicing austerity, Khattar surprised one and all by becoming the Haryana chief minister in 2014.
“All of us were stunned,” admits a BJP leader.
Not only his elevation as CM but also his unconventional working style used to evoke sharp reactions in the beginning.
But in spite of initial missteps, the Delhi University graduate didn’t flinch and firmly stuck to most of his decisions.
Barring a few dark spots such as the February 2016 Jat quota stir, which saw large-scale violence and arson in several parts of the state, followed by killings of protesting Dera Sacha Sauda followers in Panchkula in August 2017, Khattar is credited with a slew of positive changes.
His decision to introduce pre-qualification conditions for the candidates contesting panchayat elections stood the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. His government has also been successful to an extent in improving sex ratio, which had since long put Haryana in poor light. In what analysts describe the game-changer by the Khattar government is fair recruitments.
“In the beginning, we used to get upset when he would say that jobs will be given on merit only,” says Karnal-based Pankaj Bharti, a former RSS pracharak, who has known Khattar since the mid-1990s.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections were his major test. As the BJP won all the 10 parliamentary seats with massive margins — barring Rohtak— the poll outcome had a major bearing on his stature and standing as well. The BJP’s performance boosted the morale of the cadre and set the tone for the soon-to-held assembly elections.
Even before the poll bugle was sounded, the BJP made it amply clear that ‘clean image’ and ‘monk-like persona’ of Khattar will be the trump card of the party in its bid to retain power in Haryana.
Union defence minister Rajnath Singh had described Khattar as “fakir” while Union home minister and BJP national president Amit Shah heaped praises on him for “uprooting corruption” in the state, sending a clear message that the party was banking heavily on the sitting CM for its electoral fortunes.
If the first-time MLA was a rank outsider in October 2014, Khattar he has emerged as a tall and respected leader not only within the BJP but on the political horizon of the state five years later.