There is one political leader who holds out a big lesson for the Congress party – Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, whose political prowess would be put to test as the state votes on 21 October.
After starting off disastrously, which made it look like Haryana could be that one state where the BJP would lose its grip, Manohar Lal Khattar is now a turnaround story looking decisively poised to waltz to power — a textbook case of how a mucky situation can be reversed.
The 65-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader – with deep roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – first became chief minister in 2014. Khattar wasn’t the face of the election then, and was chosen to lead the BJP in Haryana after the party’s handsome victory. The unconventional choice caused a flutter because the BJP of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi went for a non-Jat leader for a state whose politics had been shaped by the dominant Jat community for long. This poll season, however, the BJP goes to the hustings with Khattar as its unequivocal leader, whose ‘MaNo again’ war cry takes off from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very successful campaign, ‘NaMo again’.
With the Congress, particularly the Hooda clan, in free fall and no other opposition party coming across as challenging enough, Khattar seems set to return as Haryana’s chief minister. The picture, however, wasn’t always this rosy. From a leadership revolt to a violent Jat agitation to Dera Sacha Sauda stir, Khattar’s rule hasn’t been without formidable challenges. But as he rode through each crisis thrown his way, the Congress in Haryana was a study in contrast as it kept devolving.
The turbulent ride
Manohar Lal Khattar was seen as a nobody in the BJP’s scheme of things in Haryana, and many believed he won the coveted CM post only because of his proximity to Modi.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the first hurdle that he faced was simmering internal revolt. His colleagues’ resentment towards him and lack of faith in his leadership only kept rising, leading to an open revolt by 18 party MLAs in 2017. rebellion continued well into late last year when MLAs, including a cabinet minister, spoke out against Khattar. The situation was such that BJP president Amit Shah was forced to step in. But Khattar came out unscathed while the ones on the losing side are those 18 MLAs – none of them has been given the ticket for the upcoming assembly election.
If dicey intra-party dynamics weren’t enough of a burden that made Khattar seem like a weak link, external factors only added to his sorry image. The February 2016 protests by Jats over demand for reservation under the Other Backward Class (OBC) category brought Haryana to a standstill. The Army was called in and Khattar came out looking like a powerless, inept and unprepared leader, bringing much embarrassment to the BJP that takes pride in its ‘strong leadership’.
Already seen as someone with zero governance experience and barely-there administrative capabilities, a series of such events added to Khattar’s woes.
In August 2017, Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s conviction led to violent agitations by his followers, leading to deaths and severe injuries. Once again, the government was caught napping while the situation dangerously spiralled out of control. Khattar, in fact, later did admit there had been ‘lapses’. Yet again, the ‘good governance’ touting BJP was left red-faced.
A similar drama played out when supporters of Rampal, a self-styled godman, refused to allow the police to enter his ashram to arrest him. It was only after a long and embarrassing standoff lasting a week that the police were finally able to enter the ashram, but not before more damage had been done to Khattar and his government’s image.
Women’s safety – or the lack thereof – and innumerable instances of rape, stalking and irresponsible statements by the administration became defining aspects of Khattar’s tenure. The infamous case involving the son of state BJP chief Subhash Barala in an alleged stalking incident brought terrible press to the party and an already beleaguered regime.
For the first few years of his tenure, Khattar seemed like a lost cause and Haryana like a state the BJP would be unable to hold on to.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are hardly the sorts who sit back when a disaster is unfolding in their party – a marked difference from the helplessness and lack of interest of the Congress high command.
Aware of the importance of retaining Haryana and not wanting to lose a single election, the BJP top leadership is believed to have politely told Khattar to get his act together. On his part, the initial rawness of leading a state gave way to a semblance of control and understanding. Soon, things began to look up.
With the Congress being a non-factor due to its own internal troubles and the Chautalas’ Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) splitting in late 2018, Khattar developed the much-needed confidence that he could leave his problematic run behind and emerge as a powerful political force.
Controversies became few and far between, and Khattar began talking more about development, good governance and the need to follow the ‘Gujarat model’ designed by Modi himself. The proof of the BJP’s changed electoral prospects in Haryana came in December 2018, when the party swept the mayoral polls.
Of course, Khattar continues to make controversial comments, but they are more stray than being a regular feature. What his story, however, tells you is that even being absolutely down in the dumps can be reversed if: One, the party top command knows exactly when and how to step in; and two, leaders, even those who are seen as feeble and unskilled, are able to reorient themselves.