In Haryana, BJP needs urgent course correction

In Haryana, BJP needs urgent course correction

When the BJP's top duo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah named fellow RSS pracharak Manohar Lal Khattar to be chief minister of Haryana in late 2014, it was an unexpected choice for the coveted post to rule 'Jatland'. Khattar's lack of experience invited questions over his administrative competence and political acumen. In hindsight, all these questions appear justified.  

Haryana has suffered a series of governance failures since that has left the government with a lot of answering to do. Khattar was not one from the Jat community that had ruled the state for well over four decades ever since it was carved out of Punjab in 1966. And he was a greenhorn in mainstream politics.  Indeed, the October 2014 assembly election was the first-ever election that he contested, to become not just a first-time legislator, but the chief minister, too. He was Modi's trusted man and that turned the tide in his favour. The two had worked together for the Sangh some 22 years ago in Haryana.

It was also the first time that the saffron party had come to power in Haryana on its own. That was essentially because Haryana polls were held just a few months after the general elections when the Modi wave was still strong. It swept away the Congress' decade-long rule. Over three years down the line, that impetus seems to have waned. The saffron party, it appears, has failed to live up to its mandate.    

Khattar's image as an upright, honest leader is undeniable. But what casts the shadow over this virtue is his government's ineffectiveness in dealing with situations that have risen one after the other. Governance and law and order have taken a beating. Khattar is seen to have dealt with situations selectively, often soft-pedalling for political expediency, sending the wrong signals to the electorate.  

His government last month decided to withdraw hundreds of criminal cases registered against people of the dominant Jat community who had been booked for arson and violence during the Jat quota agitation in 2016. Khattar decided to withdraw the cases because the community's leaders were threatening to launch another round of fierce agitations, which the government could ill-afford. The immediate trigger was, however, that they were threatening to disrupt a much-hyped 'bike rally' led by BJP chief Amit Shah. Khattar's government buckled under pressure. The ones who are now expecting a 'safe-exit' option from the government, although it will be for the court to take a final call on these cases, were the ones who unleashed the mayhem on the streets for several days during the ugly quota stir.  

In fact, the quota agitation itself was another big failure of the government. Protesters had held the state to ransom, broken the law at will, ran amok, burnt public properties and targeted private properties of non-Jats deliberately. The government watched helplessly and cluelessly. Parts of the state, including many areas in Haryana around the national capital region, were paralysed on account of an ineffective state apparatus as a large section of the police force stood by as mute spectators.

The Khattar government repeated that dubious feat when Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh was convicted for rape in August last. It let Ram Rahim Singh's goons and followers unleash bloody violence on the streets, and when things got out of control, some 40 people were killed and over 200 injured in just an hour or two in Panchkula and Sirsa - the epicentres of the violence - in police firing. The flooding of the streets with blood and dead bodies could have been avoided.

The state machinery, through phone call intercepts - now a part of court evidence in cases of sedition against the perpetrators of the violence - was well aware of the fact that the sect followers were preparing to unleash violence. Yet, it allowed them to gather by the thousands in Panchkula ahead of the day of Ram Rahim Singh's conviction. The Punjab and Haryana High Court came down heavily on the Khattar government.

The Dera episode was not Khattar's first encounter with the violence that self-styled 'godmen' could inspire. He had had a chance to learn a lesson just a month after coming to power, when his police had had a bloody stand-off with the armed militia of 'Baba' Rampal. That episode, too, had left many injured as the government bungled.

Polls approaching

Apart from these law and order failures, Khattar's government is also facing flak for being unable to handle the contentious Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal issue despite the verdict of the Supreme Court in its favour.  

Haryana elections could be advanced, it is being said, to be held along with the general elections next year, although Khattar publicly denied such a possibility last week. Meanwhile, there is talk of Jat ministers in his cabinet being unhappy and there have been demands for a change of leadership, even a failed attempt to bring in a central minister to run the state until polls.

For close to 40 years, Jats have dominated the discourse in Haryana. They constitute 29% of the state's population and seven of the state's nine chief ministers before Khattar were Jats. The community is not amused about a non-Jat being at the helm of affairs.

But to crown Khattar CM was a deliberate decision to polarise the non-Jat vote. It was also an attempt to put in place an image of a non-corrupt government. The BJP may have achieved both these goals partially. But the quintessential aspect of effective governance has been lost in the bargain. The Khattar government's mundane functioning and loss of momentum is a boon for the opposition. With polls not far away now, the BJP needs a course correction in Haryana.

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