How acceptable will Charanjit Singh Channi be as the chief minister of Punjab? This question may not be of much consequence as far as the state’s politics goes but it is very important for the Dalits of the state. That is because if Channi is named the chief minister, he would be the first Dalit to be elected to the top post for a full term in the state. Channi’s 111-day tenure (up to the formal announcement of Vidhan Sabha elections) as the chief minister may not have been spectacular but his performance was not poor either. Amid the hurdles routinely created by the state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, the way Channi ran the government not only displayed his competence as an administrator but also his capacity to deal with his rivals.
Sidhu had played a key role in deposing strongman Captain Amarinder Singh from the chief minister’s post. Channi, of course, could not match the aura of Sidhu but he continued with his work, ignoring the latter’s shenanigans. Channi displayed his skills in political maneuvering as well as the passion to rise higher.
The way Channi tackled the row kicked up during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Punjab and dealt with Modi’s harsh attacks on him, added a few inches to his stature. The “godi media” did haul Channi over the coals, even accusing him of a conspiracy over what transpired during the prime minister’s visit but the people of Punjab did not take these allegations seriously. Channi’s role was praised on social media. The incident doesn’t seem to have dented Channi’s image.
If the Congress wins the Punjab elections, will Channi be the party’s pick for chief minister? The answer to this million-dollar question is not straightforward. Sidhu has amply indicated that he will do whatever it takes to grab the top position. He is flaunting his ‘Punjab model’, asserting that the people of Punjab, and not the Congress high command, will decide the next chief minister. He has also made it clear that he will not compromise on this issue. Sidhu is out to project himself as the next chief minister. He is unlikely to back out of the race. Sidhu has become a headache not only for the Congress high command but also for Channi. He is Channi’s closest rival and seems to be sullying the image of the Congress party in the state.
In Punjab, being a Jat and a Sikh has been an essential qualification for occupying the chief ministerial chair. The Dalits are in the same situation in the state as they are in the rest of the country. The Congress has had many Dalit leaders but the chief minister’s position has always eluded them. For the Dalits, the Congress was a party which they supported without any qualms. It was Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India (RPI) that first managed to dent a Dalit’s loyalty to the Congress. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was next. The Communist parties have also been able to undermine the Dalit’s unshakeable support for the Congress.
Currently, there are three claimants to the Dalit votes in Punjab. The Dalit-Sikhs of Malwa mainly support the Akali Dal. The Dalits of the Doab region backed the BSP once upon a time but now are with the Congress. The BSP, however, hopes that at least its cadre will vote for it. Given this situation, it seems unlikely that the Dalit voters will help Channi in his pursuit of the top post. Of course, Channi’s becoming chief minister will help send out a message that the Congress still cares for the Dalits.
To sum up, Channi is not a leader the Congress can bank on for winning the assembly election. That is why the Congress has not projected him as its chief ministerial candidate. This is unlike the last assembly elections when the party had made it clear that in the event of its victory, Captain Amarinder Singh would be chief minister. But the Congress knows very well that if the Dalits, who form around 30 per cent of the state’s population, back it wholeheartedly, no one can stop it from emerging as the victor. But the problem is that Punjab’s Dalits are a house divided.
Jat-Sikhs still think think twice before voting for a Dalit. Sidhu is also a thorn in the flesh for the Congress party. The growing popularity of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the leadership of the farmers’ movement floating its own political outfit are also major hurdles in Channi’s path.
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)