Manohar Lal Khattar is often compared with PM Narendra Modi. Like Modi, he comes from a modest background, lives a simple life, is a former RSS pracharak, and is often seen in the “Modi jacket”, in any case a fashion statement among BJP politicians.
Some also liken him to Nityanand Swami, the first chief minister of Uttarakhand, who was chosen for the job by the BJP when the state came into existence in 2000. Swami too was an old RSS loyalist, known for his integrity and simplicity, and, like Khattar, had no administrative experience.
Swami lasted barely a year as chief minister. Soon after he took over, a whisper campaign began that he was an “outsider”. The fact that he was born in Haryana, something he could not have helped, was held against him although he had studied and worked all his life in Dehradun. Next, he was dubbed impractical and simplistic and, therefore, incapable of ensuring the BJP’s victory in the nascent state’s first election. His rivals in the party succeeded, Swami was removed, and Bhagat Singh Koshyari, another RSS veteran but hailing from the hills, was anointed chief minister. It is another matter that the BJP still lost the election to the Congress.
Khattar is being compared to Swami because, besides these similarities, he also looks vulnerable. His vulnerability comes from the fact that he is a “Punjabi”, a term used in Haryana to describe people who were uprooted from western Punjab during Partition and who chose to settle in what would later become Haryana. Essentially, the term encompasses Hindus irrespective of caste, and excludes Sikhs who are counted separately in political-electoral calculations.
Since Punjabis constitute about eight per cent of the state’s population, they are a can’t-be-ignored political constituency. They hold important positions in all parties; the INLD even has a Punjabi, Ashok Arora, as its president. The Haryana government has almost always had one or two Punjabi ministers. In the Bhupinder Singh Hooda government, it was agriculture minister Paramvir Singh. But a Punjabi chief minister? It was unthinkable, until the BJP chose Khattar.
People like Khattar, even if born and settled in Haryana, are still known as “Punjabis”. In fact, they like to call themselves Punjabis and identify more easily with Punjabis elsewhere because of their common language and culture, which are rooted in pre-Partition Punjab, than with Haryanvis.
It was for that very reason that a Punjabi chief minister in Haryana was unthinkable. After all, wasn’t Punjab reorganised because of a demand for an exclusive Punjabi-speaking state?
Before denouncing this as parochialism, or seeing shades of Haryana’s khap culture in it, one should consider a few questions. Hindus are about one-third of the population of Jammu and Kashmir, but why is the chief minister always Muslim? They are about 47 per cent of the population in Punjab, but why is the chief minister always a Sikh? Also, why can’t a Gujarati settler become the chief minister of Maharashtra? There is no law to prevent any of this, but in each case there is an unwritten convention that no political party considers prudent to question.
In Haryana, the BJP has taken the risk, perhaps unwittingly. Since the party has got only a few seats in the Jat belt, and the state has been ruled by a string of Jat CMs for 18 years, it decided to go for a non-Jat. The choice fell on Khattar most probably because — unlike the other non-Jat contenders — he carries no baggage. In the process, the state has got a chief minister who starts his innings with a disadvantage none of his predecessors had.
It is not necessary that Khattar should become another Nityanand Swamil; no two persons are alike despite obvious similarities. But he will need all the skills he has learnt over the decades in the RSS. He will also have to be very tactful and sensitive. The opposition will watch his every step. So will his rivals within the BJP.