Taking everyone — including bickering leaders of his party’s Punjab unit — by surprise, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, on Thursday, announced that his party will soon declare its chief ministerial candidate for the poll-bound State.
Rahul’s statement, made at a virtual poll rally in Jalandhar, signalled that the party has finally decided to give the State’s electorate a choice between sitting Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu before they cast their vote for a new government, on February 20.
The announcement comes at a time when Channi and Sidhu have both been goading their party high command to declare a CM face, with the former even declaring recently that whenever the Congress has shied away from projecting a CM candidate, “it has lost” the polls.
Congress insiders say that the scales are decisively tipped in favour of Channi for a variety of reasons. The party has created a huge hype over giving the top post to Channi, making him Punjab’s first-ever Dalit Sikh CM — a caste identity that is of huge electoral significance to the over 32% Dalit electorate of Punjab and also the substantial vote bank that Dalits constitute in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Rahul has famously narrated that Channi was moved to tears when he was informed that he was chosen as the CM. The former Congress chief had said that Channi’s outpouring of emotions was because he came from the Dalit community and that no other Congress CM, including backward caste members Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, had ever reacted this way when told that they were set to become the CM.
By denying Channi, who has spent a little over 110 days as CM, a continuation in office, if the party is voted back to power, the Congress runs the risk of alienating the Dalit vote bank in Punjab and beyond. The party’s rivals, the BJP in particular, will also get a handle to accuse the Gandhis and the Congress of using the Dalit card to gain goodwill in the aftermath of the criticism they received for the mess created in Punjab during the anti-Amarinder Singh coup.
Congress insiders also claim that in the short span that Channi has been CM, he has managed to earn the trust of the Gandhis and proven himself to be a shrewd politician who knows how to respond to his rivals — both within the party (read Sidhu) and outside it.
“His Dalit Sikh identity is the biggest draw but he has also shown great skill in handling challenges from Sidhu, the AAP, Amarinder Singh and even Narendra Modi,” a senior Congress leader and former Union minister from Punjab told The Federal. “He has also managed to win over many of Sidhu’s loyalists who were getting tired of Sidhu’s daily antics and outbursts. By claiming that a final decision on the CM face will be taken after consultation with party workers, I think Rahul has made it quite clear that Channi will be our choice because no one wants an unpredictable Sidhu who may be with us one day and revolt against us the other.”
A rarity for the Congress
The Congress rarely declares its CM face in the run-up to Assembly polls. The decision to nominate the CM is usually left to the party’s national president through a one-line resolution passed by the newly elected Congress MLAs, if the party wins the mandate.
A rare occasion when the Congress did break this convention was during the 2017 Punjab polls when, days before polling, Rahul had announced Captain Amarinder Singh as his party’s choice for CM. Though party insiders maintain that the decision was taken in the wake of pressure from Amarinder, who had also threatened to quit the party earlier that year, Rahul’s announcement, it is widely believed, had helped consolidate the party’s massive victory in that election.
Five years on, Amarinder, dumped by the Congress last year following a rebellion led by Sidhu, has gone on to form his own party — the Punjab Lok Congress — that is fighting the upcoming polls in alliance with the BJP and a breakaway faction of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).
However, the question of projecting a CM face has continued to haunt the Congress leadership, with Sidhu routinely undermining Channi and the CM too responding with calculated snipes.
Wary eye on Sidhu
The choice between Channi, a third-term MLA from the erstwhile Akali Dal bastion of Chamkaur Sahib in Ropar district, and the garrulous Sidhu may seem a very simple one. However, the Congress is wary of how, if denied the CM post, the Pradesh Congress Committee chief will react during the poll campaign that still has another 24 days before voting day.
Yet, Channi and Sidhu remain the two key contenders for the party’s CM face in Punjab. Rahul, too, while announcing the decision to declare a CM face, spoke only of the two leaders and said that a final call on the matter will be taken after discussions with party workers.
Whoever the party chooses for the task will be pitted against Sukhbir Singh Badal and Bhagwant Mann, the CM candidates for the Akali Dal and the Aam Aadmi Party, respectively. It is still unclear who will be the chief ministerial candidate for the BJP-Punjab Lok Congress alliance given that though Amarinder is its most prominent face, his party is only contesting 37 of Punjab’s 117 Assembly seats while the BJP will field candidates on 65 seats, its highest ever in the State.
CM faces for other States
The announcement could invite another challenge for the Congress — that of similarly declaring its CM nominees in other poll-bound States of UP, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur. Party sources say though these could be handled using the argument that in 2017, too, the party had declared its CM face only for Punjab, several party leaders remain unsure of how such a justification would be received by the party’s stakeholders in the other four States.
Congress veteran Harish Rawat, who is leading the party’s campaign in Uttarakhand and was the party’s CM when the 2017 Assembly polls were held in the State, has been demanding that the high command declare him as the CM face now. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has been relentlessly asked whether Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is leading the poll campaign, will be the party’s CM candidate.
Congress sources say the declaration of its CM face for Punjab may come as early as next week when Rahul returns to the State for another leg of campaigning. The former Congress chief may have decided to take the calculated risk, hoping that the campaign would be too far gone by then and either claimant — Channi or Sidhu — will have no option but to fall in line.
Given the Congress’ history of implosions triggered by personal ambition, however, the surprisingly bold move isn’t without its inherent pitfalls.