Sidhu Loyalist Charanjit Singh Channi Becomes Punjab's First Dalit CM: What Does It Mean For 2022 Polls
It is clear that Channi is simply a placeholder while Sidhu would be projected as the CM face in the 2022 election campaign.
On Sunday (20 September), the All India Congress Committee (AICC) announced 49-year-old Charanjit Singh Channi as the state’s new Chief Minister, and the leader of the Punjab Congress Legislature Party (CLP).
The announcement was preceded by hectic meetings in Chandigarh by AICC-appointed observers Harish Chaudhary and Ajay Maken, and Punjab affairs in-charge Harish Rawat. Senior leaders Ambika Soni and K C Venugopal also held a meeting with Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi.
Soon after being elected CLP leader, Channi and other leaders met Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit to stake claim to form the new government. The development comes days after former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh was forced to resign.
On his part, Amarinder made it clear that he was “not hanging his boots anytime soon” sparking speculations that he might join a different party, possibly BJP. The 79-year-old politician stated that he would decide his future political course of action after consultation with his supporters. He also hit out at Sidhu, targeting his “Pakistan connection” and calling him “anti-national, dangerous, unstable and incompetent”.
Channi, a close aide of State Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu, is the first first Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab - a state where Dalits constitute 32 per cent of the population, yet haven't seen proportional political voice. While the name of senior Congress leader Sukhjinder Randhawa was at the forefront, reportedly, Sidhu strongly batted for Channi in the party meetings.
Channi on Monday took oath as the new Chief Minister of Punjab while O P Soni and Sukhjinder Randhawa took oath as Deputy Chief Ministers.
Forty-nine year-old Channi was the Technical Education Minister in Captain Amarinder Singh’s Cabinet. He was among the rebel ministers who supported the ouster of Singh, saying that the latter had not fulfilled the party’s 2017 election promises.
Channi began his political journey as president of the Kharar municipal council in 2002. In 2007, he contested and won the Punjab Vidhan Sabha seat from Chamkaur Sahib in Rupnagar district as an Independent. He later joined the Congress party and got re-elected from the same seat in 2012 and 2017. From 2015 to 2016, during the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) rule, he was the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.
In 2017, Channi secured the portfolios of Technical Education, Industrial Training, Employment Generation and Tourism and Cultural Affairs in Amarinder Singh's cabinet.
Channi's career hasn't been free of controversies.
In 2018, he was accused by a woman IAS officer of sending an “inappropriate text” message. The then CM Amarinder Singh tried to diffuse the situation by asking him to apologise to the officer. The Punjab Women Commission took a suo motu cognisance of the matter and sought a response from the government. In May this year, the women’s panel chief threatened to go on a hunger strike if the State government failed to apprise her within a week of its stand on the issue.
The same year, Channi again sparked a row when he chose to toss a coin to decide on postings for lecturers selected through the Punjab Public Service Commission examination. He had reportedly invited 37 lecturers for a discussion before handing them orders. Channi decided to toss a coin to break the deadlock between two candidates who wanted the same station in Patiala. He justified his move saying that it “was done after both the candidates had agreed to it”.
Ahead of the Assembly poll due in early 2022, all parties in the state are wooing the Dalit community which forms 32 per cent of the state's population. Congress's choice in Channi is being seen in the same light. The SAD has already announced that if voted to power, the Deputy Chief Minister would be from the Dalit community.
Despite the milestone of becoming the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab, Channi's selection would make little long-term impact. His selection is being seen as a temporary arrangement. Analysts point out that Channi is simply a placeholder while Sidhu would be projected as the CM face in the 2022 election campaign.
Meanwhile, Sidhu has been consistently trying to make inroads into the ‘Panthic’ (Sikh) vote bank which traditionally is associated with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by the ‘Badal’ family.
The Hindu voters in the state, which constitute around 38.5 per cent of the population (as opposed to 57 per cent Sikh population) as per the 2011 census, had traditionally aligned with the Congress with Capt. Amarinder’s moderate image. Sidhu's attempt to woo the ‘Panthic’ voters may end harming the party's Hindu vote bank. Another factor can be the SAD breaking alliance with the BJP, enabling the Hindu vote bank to decidedly shift towards the BJP.
The happenings in Punjab show the assertion by Congress high command — Rahul Gandhi and and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The political turmoil within the party and the unceremonious ouster of Captain Amarinder Singh highlights the fault lines between those loyal to the Nehru-Gandhi family and the group of 23 senior leaders who had sought an overhaul of the grand old party — seemingly in defiance of the centrality of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Lok Sabha member from Punjab Manish Tewari, known for his closeness to Amarinder Singh, posted a 32-year-old picture of Rajiv Gandhi, addressing a National Students Union of India convention in April 1989, to make a political point. “This was the Congress!” he captioned the picture. In another tweet, he added that “there is dignity in Ekla Chalo Re (Go it alone)”.
Rajya Sabha member Kapil Sibal tweeted, “Changing Guard... Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Punjab. Age old saying : A stitch in time saves nine Will it?”
On Saturday, Lok Sabha member from Thiruvananthapuram Shashi Tharoor argued in favour of a “permanent president” for the Congress party.
“We all want Congress to have a permanent president. No one will speak against Sonia Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi is a leader who has led us so well. But even she has been saying for years that she has a desire to step down,” Tharoor said. “We saw a new leadership emerge under Rahul Gandhi when Sonia Gandhi had stepped down. But if he is willing to come back into the party’s leadership role, that needs to happen fast,” he added.
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