Ground Reports

On The Ground In Haryana's Karnal, Where ML Khattar Is Contesting His Maiden Lok Sabha Election After A Decade As CM

Ankit Saxena

May 17, 2024, 04:26 PM | Updated May 24, 2024, 07:11 PM IST

Representative Image
Representative Image
  • Without the Modi factor, uncertainty emerges on who will emerge victorious in the 25 May elections in Haryana.
  • Around 4 pm, as early evening descends, all roads around the Karan stadium in Karnal (Haryana), begin to bustle with movement of parents dropping young kids, groups of college-going walking or on cycles, adults in rickshaws or on bikes — all heading towards the stadium.

    Stepping into the stadium, one is greeted with an ongoing boxing session, right behind which, athletes begin to warm up. Next to it, girls can be seen warming up for kabaddi training. On moving further into the compound, every edge of the facility looks busy with sports activities, including basketball, javelin, wrestling, taekwondo, badminton, and more.

    Many of these athletes are training to participate in upcoming national and international tournaments, younger ones training to compete in future, while those who got selected to compete in the Paris Olympics 2024, are away for expert training at other venues.

    Not just in Karnal — Haryana, as a whole state, is known for its participation and set of achievements in the nation’s sporting culture, making a mark at both national and international levels. This culture, since years, remains a key driver of growth in the state, and has raised the state’s social and economic conditions.

    As the state goes to vote on 25 May, amidst the prevailing turbulence among the three major political parties in Haryana — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress, and the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) — the Karnal seat, stands at the centre with Haryana's former Chief Minister and seasoned BJP leader, ML Khattar, contesting for the first time to secure a seat in the Lok Sabha.

    In brief, the Karnal parliamentary seat comprises nine legislative assemblies, including Nilokheri, Indri, Karnal, Gharaunda, and Assandh in Karnal district, and Panipat city, Panipat rural, Israna, and Samalkha in Panipat district. Apart from Karnal and Panipat, most areas exhibit a mix of urban-rural character, with an agriculture-industrial economy centred around the GT Karnal Road.

    Karnal Lok Sabha Constituency map. (Ceoharyana.gov.in)
    Karnal Lok Sabha Constituency map. (Ceoharyana.gov.in)

    The stakes are high for Khattar, who has been a pivotal figure in shaping major developments as the CM of Haryana over the past decade. For the same, policies and infrastructure related to sports are also significant factors in evaluating the government's performance.

    Traditionally, while other regions of Haryana have heavily relied on sports for growth, Karnal has primarily thrived on self-sustained income generated from agriculture and industrial development. Much of the youth in the region have historically pursued careers in the military or continued in farming.

    However, during Swarajya’s visit to the constituency, locals say, in the past years, Karnal’s participation has also seen an increase, not just in training but also in achieving results in all — state, national, and international level games.  

    Sports policies in the last decade

    “Before 2014, a major issue in the state was the availability of coaches. Also, among them, not all were putting in full effort. The government looked into this, and ensured appointing more coaches,” says one of the coaches at Karan stadium.

     “Adding to this, policies have also changed in the last two terms. The Haryana sports and physical fitness policy of 2015, also helped in making athletics more disciplined and regularise. Increased cash awards, and employment benefits, served as strong motivators for both athletes and coaches. Earlier, rewards were only granted to international winners, but under the Khattar government, these cash rewards were revised, also including national level and participation rewards,” he tells Swarajya.

    But these achievements, have not come in days, or a month, but through years of dedication and training.

    "It is also the inherent strength of athletes here, that has driven success in combat sports like wrestling and boxing. With improved infrastructure, they're now excelling in a wider range of games,” tells an official from the sports directorate in Panchkula.

    He adds, “It is also about the grassroots efforts for each athlete, their family, entire village, and community stand together. The entire village contributes to the athlete's diet, sourcing food and milk from all around.”

    Hence the sports culture stems from its policies at the local level, which other states often visit and study.

    “Not all athletes can access amenities and coaching in cities and towns. For the same, the government launched the Khel Nursery Scheme, to reach rural areas and nurture talent from a young age,” says the coach, while suggesting we visit some ongoing nurseries, particularly in rural areas like Assandh and Nilokheri.

    He adds, “The Khel Nursery policy is renewed annually and has been successfully ongoing under the current government. This year, Karnal alone has 123 allotted nurseries, set to begin after the elections.”

    Internal roads making several villages accessible under government schemes. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Internal roads making several villages accessible under government schemes. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Judo training session (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Judo training session (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    National awardees Judo athletes with Coach Ritu Maan. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    National awardees Judo athletes with Coach Ritu Maan. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)

    “Through the policy, what helps more is the monthly stipend the young athletes are given — athletes aged 8-14 receive Rs 1500 per month, while those aged 14-19 receive Rs 2000. This helps these kids, regardless of their financial conditions, to sustain their diets, equipment and training needs, which previously always had been an issue.”

    She adds, “At present, there have been big achievements in Kabaddi, and athletics. Now the goal with this nursery to continue is to prepare the Judo batch for the Asian Games, and then the Olympics in the coming future.”

    21-year-old Pooja Hathwala, member of India's Kabaddi team, trains at the same institute. She played a crucial role in the national team's gold medal win at the 2023 Asian Games, where she was recognised as the star raider.

    She tells Swarajya, “I began training in my village, but for the past six years, I've been training here. My parents always supported my decision to pursue Kabaddi. While my brother also played for some time, he eventually stopped. I am the only one in my family and village to have reached this level. I was also the youngest in the tournament in 2023.”

    At this age, her coach says, she has already won 22 medals, in total. Under the state government’s policy, for the Asian Games gold medal, the Haryana government awarded her a cash reward of Rs 3 crore and a job as a senior coach in the state.

    Kabaddi training game for Under-19 Karnal state team. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Kabaddi training game for Under-19 Karnal state team. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    All national level women Kabaddi athletes at the institute. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    All national level women Kabaddi athletes at the institute. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)

    “These rewards and employment options have really motivated the athletes, and us parents, to see a future in sports in the state,” adds a parent, who had come to meet his daughter.

    He tells Swarajya, “My daughter and two of her friends play hockey here. My son is in the military. If these girls want to play, it's a good thing. Through hard work, they will bring medals for Haryana and the country. As they progress, they will receive rewards from the government and secure good jobs.”

    Evening training sessions of women athletes. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Evening training sessions of women athletes. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    The only hockey facility in the region. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    The only hockey facility in the region. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)

    Sentiment for BJP in Khattar’s Constituency

    Despite the increasing sports culture in the constituency, with most content with the state’s support, beyond this, there seems to be a mixed sentiment towards the former chief minister and the BJP in the villages and towns of Karnal.

    Villagers in Assandh, say, “You cannot be sure this time what is going to happen. Many are upset that not much has happened. Now you get the hint.”

    “Khattar's rally is happening right now, but do you see any excitement? He was the CM. All the noise is just because of the security. He's been in power for two terms, everyone knows what he's going to say, and does not have much interest,” one of the villagers, sitting at an evening gathering adds.

    Another farmer from the group, says, “Mera naam ya photo mat daalna, main bata raha hu, bhaut log vote daalenge Khattar saab ko. Lekin BJP ya Modi ke liye nahi. Kisaan naraaz hai. Kaafi vote katenge bhi iss baar inke, Congress ki taraf.

    A stop for ML Khattar's Rally in Assandh. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    A stop for ML Khattar's Rally in Assandh. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Villagers in Assandh, bordering Panipat.  (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Villagers in Assandh, bordering Panipat. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)

    Similarly, in the Nilokheri Assembly Constituency at the main market, many were hesitant to provide their names or photographs but expressed uncertainty about the upcoming election. This northern region of Karnal is known as an engineering hub and has witnessed major outmigration of young people to Canada and New Zealand.

    The older shopkeepers, in a consensus, stated, "We all voted for BJP in the past. We've been voting for them for the last 10 years. But this time, there could be a turnaround. It's not finalised yet."

    On asking about the Modi factor, they said, “This is Haryana. Here, people focus on the candidate. We all voted for Khattar sahab in the last two elections. Yes, some voted based on the Modi factor last time, but that's not the case this time."

    Satish Kumar, a vegetable seller in Nilokheri, tells Swarajya, “ The government made many promises, but we haven't seen much outcome. We faced so much trouble during Covid. I am still in debt from that time. But now our time is almost done.”

    “All I can see is that the government is providing a lot of support for playing sports. My son is also part of the sports nursery at the government school here. He plays handball. Everyone is troubled by unemployment. I've told my son that he should pursue his passion for sports if he wants to. There are no jobs even after studying so much. My nephew is a graduate but is also here, helping with the vegetables."

    Satish Kumar, and other locals in Nilokheri.  (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)
    Satish Kumar, and other locals in Nilokheri. (AnkitSaxena/Swarajya)

    Farmers' protests, 'muft bijli' and Delhi influence

    Among the assembly constituencies in Karnal, the regions of Panipat and Samalkha are the closest to Delhi, exerting a significant influence shaped by the capital city — on the demands and concerns of the locals.

    Due to its proximity to Delhi, most industries are concentrated here, and a considerable portion of the population is engaged in the service sector. This is also the region, which saw the farmer protest closely, at the Singhu border, between Delhi and Haryana.

    In a village in Samalkha, there is a growing hope for more welfare initiatives, such as free electricity and water, similar to what the Aam Aadmi Party has implemented in Delhi.

    Villagers along with the village Pradhan, tell Swarajya, “We don’t want to vote on temples, but on real issues. If free electricity can be provided in Delhi, why can't the government do the same here? Humaare mudde to clear hai, Bijli, paani, naukriyan aur kisaan.”

    “Most of the farmers and locals here are also agitated. During the protest, our roads were damaged, and blocked. What did we do? The protest will have a negative impact on voting this time.”

    “Both candidates are from the Punjabi community. Khattar has been the face here for so long. The Congress has put forward a young candidate, Divyanshu Budhiraja. Many votes may sway due to a new candidate and on caste lines. Additionally, there is also sympathy with Kejriwal in Delhi, after his arrest,” the people added.  

    The sentiments and needs of the people vary widely here, with a greater focus on welfare schemes, contrary to the northern regions of Karnal.

    As opinions differ from region to region within this constituency, several concerns have made this a challenging battle for the ex-CM and veteran leader ML Khattar, previously a strong holder from Karnal.

    As per reports, in 2014, Khattar sailed through with a significant margin (over 63,000 votes) thanks to the Modi wave. However, in 2019, the gap narrowed to more than 45,000 votes.

    While people acknowledge the government's work, particularly in policies for the sports ecosystem, several concerns persist among the remaining population. Further, with the absence of the Modi factor, it remains to be seen who will emerge victorious in the coming weeks.


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