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Why Modi should pick Sushma Swaraj as new Haryana CM

Sushma Swaraj can - potentially - manage the bureaucracy, a skill ML Khattar sorely lacked, and manage the politics, which is turning against the BJP very rapidly in the state.

opinion Updated: Aug 27, 2017 09:51 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
Sushma Swaraj,Modi,ML Khattar
Sushma Swaraj can - potentially - manage the bureaucracy, a skill ML Khattar sorely lacked, and manage the politics, which is turning against the BJP very rapidly in the state. (HT)

There is something fundamental that has changed with Friday’s developments in Haryana for the BJP.

To restore the faith of citizens in the state, and to regain their own credibility, PM Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah need to take a tough call and ask the state CM Manohar Lal Khattar to go. Even though they have reportedly decided to stick to the CM for now, the BJP needs to see in this crisis a chance to reinvent its reputation in the state. And that can only happen if it thinks out of the box.

Beyond Khattar

Let us first return to the basics.

Two failures of the Haryana government stand out- the failure to impose Section 144 in Panchkula, thus allowing Dera supporters to congregate in the run up to the verdict with weapons; and the failure to anticipate and then control the aggression, violence, vandalism of the supporters after Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s conviction.

This has led to deaths, destruction, devastation and generated a climate of fear across parts of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi.

The fact that there was such mob violence in support of a convicted rapist tells its own story. But what is of relevance here is that the a section of society - organised, defiant, armed, belligerent - confronted the state. And for a while at least, it won by destroying the state’s monopoly over force and causing lawlessness and fear.

Now, even the Punjab and Haryana High Court has directly told the government it allowed the city to burn for political gains.

Given that the Khattar government failed - in the not-so-distant past - to control the Jat agitation, which paralysed the state and its neighbours, what is obvious is there is a pattern of criminal incompetence: criminal because no other word can describe the state’s abdication of its duty to protect life.

No one - and not even the most ardent of supporters of the party - can, in good faith, now defend Khattar’s record. His exit should have been the most natural outcome of this anarchy.

By Saturday afternoon however, reports indicated that BJP has in fact decided to repose his faith in the man - and let him continue in office. Various explanations have been put forward justifying the decision.

The official spin is that the situation was actually well managed and the violence could have been a lot worse - this is very difficult to accept, for it does not answer the simple question of why they were allowed to congregate in the first place and cause such havoc. The unofficial explanation is that resignation would now mean handing the opposition a victory - in fact, resignation and a tactical retreat would have given the BJP the moral high ground and an opportunity to begin on a clean slate.

Even if the BJP has asked Khattar to stay for now and ensure no violence occurs on Monday, when the sentence will be declared in the case, it can only be a stop-gap measure. As a signal of repentance to citizens - and yes what happened requires public acknowledgment in some form - and electoral considerations of the Lok Sabha and Haryana assembly polls in 2019, the party needs to look beyond Khattar.

After Khattar, who?

One of the reasons the BJP is reluctant to shift Khattar is also because of the paucity of choices. If he is indeed asked to go, who are the potential leaders BJP can pick? Here is a quick - indicative but not comprehensive - list of 5 names, why some should not even be considered and why others fall short. But there is a surprising fifth name may be the most appropriate.

1. Subhash Barala is the state unit chief - and should, by virtue of the office, be an obvious contender for the Chief Ministership. But his son Vikas, was only recently charged and arrested in the stalking case against Varnika Kundu. The state chief was accused of using personal and political influence to dilute the case. Appointing him is out of question, and he is lucky to save his own job. He is also Jat- which does not work in BJP’s caste matrix for reasons explained below.

2. Captain Abhimanyu is seen as a relatively competent administrator, but is not seen as spotless - in a state where anti corruption was an important theme in the BJP campaign and Khattar’s USP has been his integrity. He is also a Jat. In Haryana’s polity, Jats have been the traditionally dominant political caste. But BJP succeeded in the 2014 assembly polls by stitching together a broad non-Jat coalition in the state. This is line with its strategy elsewhere too of carving out alliances of non dominant castes. Making a Jat CM could potentially alienate non Jat communities.

There are other state ministers but fail on either integrity, administrative competence, political skill or the social background test.

3. Chaudhary Birender Singh is a union cabinet minister. He is experienced. But two factors weigh against Singh. He is a Jat. Singh also happens to be an import from the Congress, and spent 42 long years in the party. He, in fact, joined BJP only after the party’s Lok Sabha victory. Appointing someone like him would be unpalatable to the Sangh as well as the BJP cadre. Accommodating someone at the centre is easy. But handing over a state to someone who is new to the party is not so easy. That is why even someone as popular and strong as Himanta Biswa Sarma was made Deputy CM in Assam. The only Congress import who is a BJP CM today is N Biren Singh in Manipur - and that worked because BJP did not have either an organisation or a pool of strong leaders there.

4. Rao Inderjit Singh - he is a minister at the centre; and a non-Jat. But he too is a Congress import right before the 2014 elections.

5. Sushma Swaraj: Due to her national profile, role in Parliament, and years in Delhi, many forget that Sushma Swaraj is from Haryana.

Indeed, Swaraj began her political career from the state and became a cabinet minister for labour and employment at the age of 25 back in 1977, in the Janata Party government in Haryana. Swaraj then became the president of the Janata Party in the state. She was again the education minister in the state between 1987 and 1990.

There are four major reasons why she may actually be PM Narendra Modi’s best bet.

Why Sushma works

First, the crisis in Haryana is so grave that BJP needs someone with a national stature who can, from Day 1, establish writ and authority. All accounts from the External Affairs Ministry suggest that Swaraj has a remarkably sharp mind who understands both politics and governance. She can - potentially - manage the bureaucracy, a skill Khattar sorely lacked, and manage the politics, which is turning against the BJP very rapidly in the state.

Two, it will also portray both Modi and the BJP as extremely serious in tackling the situation in the state. That Modi would put one of the most senior leaders of the party to counter violence on the streets will show how he is willing to correct his own errors in judgement (Khattar was the PM’s pick) and put the best out there - irrespective of any past rivalry - to achieve the larger goal of restoring order and governance. Haryana is an important state - because of its location, economy, and political weight that has far surpassed its population strength and it needs deft handling. It will also give Khattar a face-saver, for he would be replaced not by a junior but someone much higher up in the league.

Three, Swaraj - because of her stature again - is not seen as enmeshed in the caste matrix of the state, or the factional struggles of the party. This means no one will oppose her and will in fact rally around her. This will also help project her as above the petty battles that mark the political landscape and could help the BJP broaden its constituency.

Four, Swaraj’s appointment will help repair the party’s image as a patriarchal, misogynist outfit. Given that the support on the streets was for a convicted rapist, and only recently, BJP was seen as attempting to protect a stalker, Swaraj would reach out to women - a constituency the BJP has been cultivating in recent elections as a separate constituency.

There are three possible impediments to her selection.

The first is her equation with the PM. It is an open secret in Delhi before 2014 that Swaraj, close to L K Advani, was opposed to Modi’s elevation as the party’s PM face; that as the leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, she harboured her own ambitions; and that Modi was uncomfortable with her. But top sources - in the party and the government - have told HT that the Modi-Swaraj equation today is far smoother than is publicly believed. Swaraj has kept a low profile as minister, worked efficiently in key areas, not tried to steal the limelight, and reconciled to her role and the PM’s leadership. Modi has appreciated the shift in attitude, given her space and appreciated her work publicly. The clear hierarchy now means that the equations are more settled.

The second impediment is that her exit from the centre will leave a gap in an anyway weak cabinet. Contrary to conventional wisdom again, Swaraj is an important minister - and is deeply involved in framing key foreign policy issues, particularly the neighbourhood. But a big cabinet reshuffle is due. And given the PM, NSA and Foreign Secretary’s powerful roles in the foreign policy process, her exit can be managed as another minister picks the baton.

And finally, her health - she has just gone through a kidney transplant - is a potential concern. But sources who work closely with Swaraj in MEA say that she has recovered, is fully engaged with work, meets people and reads files carefully through the day - including late at night, and can travel - as she did recently to Nepal.

Haryana is burning. And it has the potential to burn the BJP with it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to think out of the box and act. He does not have to look far. It is time to send his colleague in South Block back to where she started her political life. Chandigarh beckons.

First Published: Aug 26, 2017 18:28 IST