Think of a chief minister who is running scared in his own state. Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, found it safer to hoist the tricolour in Panchkula this Republic Day — and not in Panipat where it was originally scheduled.
The Panipat venue was 16 km from the Karnal village from where Khattar had to turn back his helicopter a fortnight ago, after protesters vandalised the helipad. In another Karnal village a month before, he had to cancel his programme for the same reason. In Ambala, 13 farmers were booked on charges of attempt to murder and rioting after they waved black flags and allegedly damaged vehicles in Khattar’s convoy ‘with sticks’.
‘Haryana mein kya khichdi pak rahi hai (what’s cooking in Haryana)? Who is in control there?’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi must be wondering. Khattar may not have an answer even though, in their old days as pracharaks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the 1990s, he used to cook delicious khichdi for Modi whenever the latter visited him in Haryana. The CM brings no comfort to the PM who must be worried about his ambitious farm reforms. Instead of trying to pacify the farmers of Haryana and find some middle ground to end the stalemate, Khattar is taking them on. “There is freedom to agitate but it doesn’t mean there is freedom to spread anarchy,” he said in his Republic Day address.
If a government has to suspend mobile internet and SMS services in 17 out of 22 districts in the state, the CM has reasons to fear anarchy. But who does the prime minister look to for support in Haryana? A chief minister for over five years doesn’t have the political capital to talk to his own people! Forget about supporting the Centre, M.L. Khattar is looking to PM Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah to save his government that teeters on the edge. He took his deputy and crucial ally Dushyant Chautala of the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) to meet them in Delhi. ‘Sort out his problem or your government in Haryana goes’ was the unstated message to the BJP high command.
What can the central BJP leadership do if a majority of JJP MLAs are edgy and exploring options? It wouldn’t be an issue at all if the JJP had to be split. But preventing a possible split in another party is a different ball game.
The failed experiment
If Khattar is turning out to be a political liability today, Modi and Shah must take the blame for this. He was a part of their experiment in social engineering, a simple arithmetical calculation: galvanize the diverse, disparate, numerically smaller communities and together they will outnumber the dominant community. So, they went for a Punjabi Khatri CM in Haryana where Jats are estimated to constitute a little over a quarter of the population. They opted for a Brahmin CM, Devendra Fadnavis, in Maharashtra where Marathas constitute about one-third of the population. They went for an OBC leader, Raghubar Das, in Jharkhand where tribals constitute around 26 per cent of the population.
The Modi-Shah strategy is, however, unravelling one after another; Khattar may be the next in line to prove its fallacy. His administrative and political inexperience was exposed way back in 2016 during the violent Jat reservation stir when the police ‘crumpled to its knees’.
If he recovered to a certain extent from that setback, it was not because he learnt the art of governance. It was because of his clean image in a state whose one former CM (Om Prakash Chautala) is serving a jail term in the teachers’ recruitment scam and another (Bhupinder Hooda) is facing probes in land acquisition cases, which, the Congress alleges, are a result of political vendetta.
Modi-Shah’s social engineering formula wasn’t good enough in the 2019 Haryana assembly election, in which the BJP gave “abki baar, sattar paar” slogan — over 70 seats in the 90-member assembly. The non-Jat consolidation, which a Khatri CM was expected to bring, didn’t happen the way the BJP would have wished. That’s how the BJP was forced to ally with the JJP to form the government. So, look at the big irony here: the CM and the Deputy CM of Haryana have different views about farm laws but they can’t split because both will then go down. And the continuing farmers’ agitation won’t allow them to live with these contradictions.
The problem lies elsewhere
Khattar’s case points to a larger problem confronting the BJP: Modi may be a mass leader and Amit Shah an accomplished political strategist, but they are poor talent-hunters. Khattar, Fadnavis, and Raghubar Das have failed them. Look at their choice of CM candidates in other states — Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, Sarbananda Sonowal in Assam, Trivendra Rawat in Uttarakhand, Jairam Thakur in Himachal Pradesh, Pramod Sawant in Goa, Biplab Deb in Tripura, and N. Biren Singh in Manipur. Can you put your finger on even one of these names as a mass leader, years after Modi-Shah made them CMs? Modi and Shah, too, would find it difficult.
I will be damned for excluding Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath from this list. He has emerged as a mass leader, for sure. But was he the PM’s first choice? Frankly, I don’t know. Different BJP leaders have different takes on this. Apart from Modi, the only two people who would know are Amit Shah and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. And don’t expect them to share any wisdom on this. There could probably be another person — Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha. He was said to be the PM’s first choice as UP CM. Don’t expect even him to make you any wiser for I have tried many times.
Of the three BJP CMs left, B.S. Yediyurappa of Karnataka and Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh are mass leaders but they are not exactly Modi-Shah’s finds. That leaves us with Pema Khandu of Arunachal Pradesh. He is certainly a mass leader in his state but he bargained to retain chief ministership with the BJP before he defected from the People’s Party of Arunachal.
Even in states where Modi-Shah promoted certain leaders, indirectly projecting them as potential CMs, they were in for disappointment. In Odisha, for instance, they promoted Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan but he failed miserably. The BJP trumped the Congress to emerge as the principal opposition party, but its tally of 23 in the 147-member Assembly is not something Modi or Shah would be proud of. Pradhan, a very powerful minister at the Centre, also ended up splitting the Odisha BJP– between his loyalists and others. No wonder, the BJP high command is exploring other options to groom as its face in Odisha.
Modi and Shah might have been let down by the people who they sought to promote but they haven’t given up on trying to groom new faces in every state. There is a constant attempt to replace old faces such as Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, and Sushil Modi in Bihar, among others. Yediyurappa and Chouhan are trying their best not to join that list any time soon. It’s probably time Modi and Shah should change their criteria for new faces. For one, they may stop treating constant tweets and statements in their praise by party leaders (read job applicants) as an indication of the latter’s potential as mass leaders — that is, if the PM and HM really don’t want puppets as CMs as the Congress’ Gandhi family does.
Views are personal.