Taking a subtle dig at Navjot Singh Sidhu, the official Twitter handle of the Congress party released a video yesterday (17 January) featuring Sonu Sood whose sister is contesting from Moga on the party ticket. In what appears to be a carefully staged and scripted video, the actor, trying to sound all candid and honest, bats for the sitting Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi.
Mocking the antics of Sidhu, the actor goes on to say that the state needs a face that is not desperate for power but rather a ‘backbencher’, someone who is elevated from nowhere and made to govern the state selflessly. The video then ends with some melodramatic shots of Channi, and with the Congress tweeting it out, the question beckons if the party has placed its bets on the Dalit face of the party in the state instead of the otherwise erratic Sidhu.
The underlying political feud between Sidhu and Channi has not gone unnoticed. Merely days after Channi took office as the new Chief Minister of Punjab, Sidhu, as the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee Chief was at loggerheads with the new cabinet on the issue of portfolio appointments in the new cabinet. In the past, Sidhu has attacked the Channi government in public, stating that it lacks the political will to take the sacrilege and subsequent firing cases to their rightful conclusion.
Sidhu’s outbursts in public became a cause of concern for the party unit in the state, desperately eyeing a victory in the face of an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) resurgence. While Channi was elevated to the position as a scapegoat to bridge the political gap between the infamous exit of Captain Amarinder Singh and the Assembly Elections, the Dalit Sikh Chief Minister has managed to carve out significant support on the ground, and much to the dismay of Sidhu, emerged as a safer bet for the party in the state.
In Channi, the Congress top brass at 10 Janpath have found a politician who not only furthers their agenda of Dalit politics, but also can be remote controlled from New Delhi, quite unlike the Captain or the otherwise unpredictable Sidhu.
There is also the vote bank advantage that Channi brings to the table. Post the departure of Captain, the Congress will find its Jat-Sikh vote bank dented even further. Already, the party did not enjoy much support from the community, even during their wins in 2002 and 2017, and the elevation of Channi will further distance the Congress from that vote. From a Dalit vote bank perspective, Channi is a good bet, however.
In the Malwa belt, where 69 assembly constituencies are present, Channi would be expected to capitalise on the Dalit vote bank, and wrestle back the reserved seats won by the AAP in 2017. In almost all the constituencies of Malwa, the Dalit population is in excess of 25 per cent, and in an election with so many contenders, that constitutes a significant vote bank. As things stand today, without a strategic vote transfer, any party winning 30 per cent of the vote could emerge as the winner in any given seat, especially in Malwa.
Barring Patiala in the Malwa belt, where the Captain is expected to make a sweep given his home advantage, and Sangrur where AAP’s Bhagwant Mann is expected to win big, Channi would be trusted to win the assembly constituencies that fall in Ferozpur, Mohali, Ludhiana, Moga, Fazilka, and Bathinda; areas where the Congress did well in 2017 under Captain Amarinder Singh.
For any party, success in the Malwa belt would be the make-or-break moment in these elections. If Channi can defend the Malwa belt against AAP, he would eliminate any possibility of an AAP majority in the state, given the latter does not enjoy significant support in Doaba or Majha belt.
Channi is not oblivious to the vote bank reality on the ground as well. In the months since his elevation, he has been busy asserting himself, introducing programmes for the Dalit population. Taking a cue from Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, Channi has gone on an advertising spree across the state, from billboards to radio, and from newspapers to rallies.
With Channi, they stand a better chance of securing the Dalit vote, given the Jat-Sikh vote bank would be drawn closer to the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Captain’s Punjab Lok Congress (PLC). If they decide to opt for Sidhu, however, they not only risk losing more Hindu votes and Jat-Sikh votes due to his erratic behaviour, but will also end up angering the Dalit vote bank.
The Congress, while placing their bets on Channi, also dodge the baggage of national security that comes with Sidhu. Infamous for his overtly brotherly love for officials within the Pakistani forces and the Prime Minister himself, Sidhu has only invited trouble for himself for raising the point of free and open trade with the neighbouring country while mocking the security lapse during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For the party, in the long-term, Channi would be a good bet, both at a state level, and a national level, and while a ploy to use Channi’s face to later elevate Sidhu cannot be ruled out, reducing the former to a deputy, it would come at a great political cost at the national level. For now, Channi is the best damage-control exercise Congress can opt for.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!