Channi v/s Mann: Tale Of The Two Dark Horses In Punjab’s Assembly Elections 2022
A hung assembly would open doors for negotiations for a coalition that would erode the political capital of both Mann and Channi, and the victory for one means the end of the road for another.
At the peak of the farmer protests, at the beginning of 2021, Captain Amarinder Singh, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, was the favourite to emerge as the winner in the 2022 elections. The Akalis, then a distant second, were trying to command some loyalty on the ground, especially in the villages, but were not successful.
A few months later, thanks to their charity at Singhu, Captain’s political hegemony in Punjab was being challenged by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). However, the Congress leadership at 10 Janpath had other ideas.
Parachuting the eccentric Navjot Singh Sidhu from nowhere, they created an unnecessary divide within their own party which ended with the infamous exit of the Captain, including a very public resignation, and the emergence of a substitute leader no one had heard of at the national level; Charanjit Singh Channi.
Much to the dismay of Sidhu, who backs himself as the leader to take Punjab ahead, under the garb of sugarcoated poetry and rhetoric and without any real ideas, Channi, taking a cue from Kejriwal, established his presence through an advertising spree in the few weeks he had, and largely, it worked.
A mere substitute, installed to cushion the impact from Captain’s exit and to hold on to the high seat until Sidhu took over, emerged as the first dark horse in the Punjab Assembly Elections of 2022. Channi was not looking to play deputy, or a doormat, but wanted complete control, even if it came at the expense of Sidhu.
The latter, driven by his impatience and shortsightedness, did not help his cause either. Sometimes, it was about attacking the Channi government, and often, it was about making a case for Punjab to be drawn closer to Pakistan with respect to trade and cultural ties. Thus, on the question of national security, Sidhu became everyone’s political punching bag, rightfully so, and Channi emerged as the blue-eyed boy for Congress’ first family. Apparently, he has more Punjab in his blood than Sidhu, if rumours are to be believed.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had its shares of troubles in the state too. Since 2014, from electing 4 Lok Sabha MPs to 2017, when they emerged as the biggest party in the opposition in the state, to 2018 when they lost two of their four MPs and most of their MLAs, to 2019 when they were routed in the entire state, losing deposits on 12 of the 13 seats, the party has had one constant through its thick and thin; Bhagwant Singh Mann, the only Lok Sabha MP from the AAP, across India.
Therefore, when the question of riding the wave of change in the state emerged, Mann was the obvious choice. However, this was not without its share of infightings, for Kejriwal, the Delhi Chief Minister, the emergence of Mann and the probability of him winning the Punjab Assembly Elections amounted to having an equal within the party and also a party counterpart with more constitutional powers. From a leader as publicly insecure as Kejriwal, some degree of resistance was not surprising.
Eventually, Kejriwal had to settle for Mann as the CM face, for the latter came with the blessings of the state unit. At a party meet in Mohali, as the crowd erupted, cheering on Mann’s name for the CM candidacy, Kejriwal was faced with the choice of losing the prospects of winning the state altogether versus taking the backseat temporarily and letting Mann take the wheel until the elections. Unlike Sidhu, better sense prevailed, and Kejriwal settled for Mann from Sangrur.
Beyond the two dark knights, there is a wounded horse with an ego of an elephant that is much closer to retirement than to victory, enabled by the BJP whose best case scenario as of today in the state is four to eight seats. And then there are the Akalis, with all the political muscle at the local level, and the legacy of Prakash Singh Badal they would like to employ after being without any power for five years, but without any probability of hitting the magic number of 59. However, the magic number is not within the grasp of both Channi and Mann as well.
For Channi, the best case scenario is the least probable, that is, him winning over 65 seats for the Congress in an assembly of 117 seats. He wins, he becomes a remote controlled Chief Minister for 10 Janpath, much like the other Congress CMs across the country. Two, he wins close to 45 seats, loses his credibility as the leader, and is pushed into an alliance with the AAP with Sidhu asked to take over the party’s state unit completely in case of a continued hung assembly. Three, he manages around 30 seats, bringing down Congress’ tally by more than half, and is politically routed.
For Mann, the story is no different. He wins 70-odd seats for the party, a probability widely accepted by many observers today, his first battle would be from within the party itself, given Kejriwal would do everything in his power to displace him. Two, he wins 45-odd seats, he will find himself pushed around for an alliance either with the Congress or even with the Akalis, and in both cases, he would be a remote controlled CM from Delhi. Three, AAP wins less than 30 seats, and that would be the end of Mann, and perhaps, the party in the state.
Mann and Channi, even with all their political accomplishments, are at the end of the day, fronts or scapegoats for their respective parties, forwarded to cushion the impact of a defeat or an incomplete victory in a state that would witness a strong resurgence of the Akalis, as the third bigger player, and this is when BJP is nowhere in the equation and the Captain is past his prime.
A hung assembly would open doors for negotiations for a coalition that would erode the political capital of both Mann and Channi, and the victory for one means the end of the road for another, for both leaders lack the cadre and political resources to wait out until 2026.
When looked at from the outside, the story of Channi and Mann comes across as one of destiny, political change, and hope, but as one digs further, they both come across as political byproducts of a comedy of errors committed by all the parties around them. Channi and Mann are early winners in an electoral battle they shall inevitably lose, for even as the dark knights, their expendability is that of a pawn in this political chess.
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