Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar(Photo: Yogesh Kumar/Hindustan Times)
Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar(Photo: Yogesh Kumar/Hindustan Times)

Why is BJP counting on Khattar for ‘Mission 75’ in Haryana | Opinion

With Saturday’s announcement of the Haryana assembly election came a flashback to an instructive lesson this writer learnt exactly five years ago in the unpredictable Jatland.
UPDATED ON SEP 22, 2019 10:16 AM IST

That politics is the art of the possible is a primer that even hard-nosed hacks learn, or are taught, over and over again.

With Saturday’s announcement of the Haryana assembly election came a flashback to an instructive lesson this writer learnt exactly five years ago in the unpredictable Jatland.

Sometime in September 2014, four months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascent to power, a Chandigarh Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader dropped in at the HT office in Mohali for an off-the-cuff lowdown on the assembly elections in Haryana.

Accompanying him was a stranger – a modest-looking middle-aged man, in crumpled kurta-pyjama, who introduced himself as a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The latter came across as remarkably upbeat about the BJP’s electoral chances despite it being a fringe player in state politics until then.

As if to stretch his incredulous argument further, his next query was on the BJP’s potential chief ministerial faces. In response, this writer couldn’t name anyone beyond the party’s three known leaders in Haryana: Anil Vij, Ram Bilas Sharma and Captain Abhimanyu. “Don’t count me out!” he said, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Weeks later, the BJP sprang a big surprise, chalking up its first-ever victory in Haryana since it was carved out of Punjab in 1966. But, a bigger surprise was the elevation as chief minister of the RSS man who had left me with a parting teaser: Manohar Lal Khattar.


Cut to 2019. From a rookie chief minister to the lynchpin of the party’s re-election sweepstakes, Khattar has come a long way.

If the party was catapulted to power in 2014 by the Modi momentum, it is now counting more on the 65-year-old leader’s persona and performance than on the domino effect of its stellar Lok Sabha victory to accomplish its Mission 75 -- to win 75 of the 90 seats up for grabs.

As Haryana’s first non-Jat chief minister since 1996 – the last was Bhajan Lal, a Bishnoi – Khattar has turned the long-entrenched caste calculus on its head. Also, he is now decidedly in the pole position in what is set to be a direct contest between the BJP and Congress.

That’s why Khattar, not given to hyperbole, came across as so sanguine about the challenge ahead. “There is, for the first time, pro-incumbency groundswell in Haryana,” he told this writer last month. “The momentum is on the BJP’s side.”

How did Khattar, so bereft of experience in administration and political management, cultivate a formidable profile? The answer lies as much in his adopting a homespun style of governance that was radically different from his predecessor’s as in his micro-managed schemes that addressed longstanding grievances on inequitable development, caused chiefly by discriminatory caste considerations of the previous regimes.

“Khattar didn’t go by the playbook of his predecessors,” says Pramod Kumar, a Chandigarh-based political analyst. “He made a break from the long-entrenched political culture by assiduously cultivating his credentials as an honest and no-nonsense administrator.”

If Bansi Lal was known to be autocratic, Om Prakash Chautala left behind the legacy of a Jat-minded and scam-plagued ruler. Khattar’s predecessor Bhupinder Singh Hooda, despite a reasonably impressive record of governance in his 10-year rule, blighted his report card with a raft of controversial land deals that later landed him in legal soup.

A low key Khattar, in contrast, portrayed himself as a stickler for the rule of law, an image bolstered by scandal-free government recruitment and helped by an online transfer policy that significantly stemmed graft-tainted postings and transfers.


Even while consolidating the non-Jat, urban votebank – roughly 60% of the electorate that forms the bedrock of the party’s political surge as reflected in its serial victories in mayoral contests, the Jind bypoll and topped by clean sweep of the 10 Lok Sabha seats – Khattar steered clear of exploiting caste faultlines that were cleaved open by the violent Jat quota agitation in 2016.

Rather, he cultivated and co-opted the Jats, denting the support base of both the Congress and the Chautala clan. Nothing underlines this more tellingly than the flight of several Jat faces from both parties to the BJP’s fold.

Resisting the temptation of populist waivers and freebies, Khattar’s hands-on governance, aided by a set of bright bureaucrats in the CM’s office, focused on last-mile delivery of state and central schemes, while drafting all MLAs in drawing up constituency-specific priorities. That deepened the saffron base and also fortified Khattar’s grip on administration and the party, which had looked wobbly during his slipshod handling of law and order blow-ups.

Not surprisingly, the BJP is harping on Khattar’s track record of clean governance as its main electoral trump card, shrewdly juxtaposing it with the Modi-spun nationalist narrative freshly fired up by the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.

In election time, desertions are often a sign of which way the wind is blowing. On that count, the BJP is the first choice. Clearly, the BJP looks unassailable as much due to Khattar’s standout performance as due to the Opposition’s woes. The RSS parcharak-turned-politician seems on course to script an October Revolution 2.0.

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