The Congress party’s bold move to anoint 58-year-old Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab’s chief minister, after the unceremonious exit of Captain Amarinder Singh (79), is being hailed by party members as a “revolutionary step”.
To many, it perhaps is. In Channi, who was sworn in earlier on Monday (September 20), Punjab got its first Dalit Sikh Chief Minister, breaking the hegemony of the Jat-Sikh community that had always seen the top executive’s post as its exclusive preserve. The fact that Channi comes from no political lineage in a state known for political dynasties, has also allowed the Congress to gloat over the elevation of an ‘aam aadmi’ (common man) to the hot seat of a CM.
With Punjab going to polls early next year along with the all-important Uttar Pradesh and neighbouring Uttarakhand – all state’s with a high Dalit population – it is expected of the electorally atrophying Congress to go all out, marketing its central leadership’s patronage of Channi.
Within Punjab, which has the country’s highest proportion of the Dalit population in any state at a formidable 32 per cent, Channi’s elevation comes at a time when Congress’s key rivals – Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party and Sukhbir Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), in alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), have been promising a deputy CM from the community if voted to power. The BJP, rendered almost electorally irrelevant in Punjab in the wake of the farmer protests against the Centre’s three controversial farm laws, had also been promising the state a Dalit CM.
For the Congress, Channi’s appointment evidently serves multiple purposes and helps the Grand Old Party project a new political savvy after its despicable handling of the factional feud between Amarinder Singh and his detractors, the most prominent being Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu. But with elections in Punjab due in February 2021, Channi has just four months in office to deliver on the Congress’s litany of unfulfilled poll promises and to reverse the high anti-incumbency that was cited as the key reason for the disaffection among Congress MLAs and their all-out rebellion against Amarinder Singh. Channi , a third-term legislator from Chamkaur Sahib constituency, has hit the ground running, promising a slew of populist measures within an hour of taking office.
Yet, there are questions that only Punjab’s electorate can answer when it votes for a new assembly. Is Channi’s appointment and the Congress’s marketing of the move as a long due debt repaid to the Dalit community enough to help the party retain power in one of only three states where it currently leads the government? Does the Congress’s aggressive advertising of its Dalit CM run the risk of being counter-productive if it upsets the state’s 20 per cent strong Jat Sikh population or, worse, deepens the existing, albeit subtle, faultlines within the Dalit community that has several sub-castes within its umbrella Scheduled Caste identity? And, if the Congress indeed returns to power, will it de-throne its highly publicised Dalit CM to return the reins of power to a Jat Sikh – namely, Navjot Singh Sidhu, whose mutiny against Channi’s predecessor was purportedly triggered by his personal ambition to sit in the hot seat of power?
The so-called advantages of pivoting a Channi to the CM’s chair aren’t all that simple. Through the acrimonious drama that played out within Punjab Congress before Amarinder Singh’s ouster, Congress insiders maintained that there was massive public anger against the Punjab government. Party sources said as many as three independent surveys conducted by external agencies for the party in the state had red-flagged heavy anti-incumbency. Among the causes of anger were unfulfilled poll promises such as speedy prosecution in the 2015 sacrilege cases, crackdown on the drug and sand mafia, scrapping of the Power Purchase Agreements signed by the erstwhile SAD-BJP government that had allegedly led to high electricity bills and arrears for the common Punjabi and farm loan waivers. Channi has indicated that he plans to fast track each of these and will ensure that all poll promises that had been unfulfilled for the past four and a half years will be delivered within the next four months. Whether he can really do so is now Channi’s immediate challenge.
The question of navigating the caste faultlines is a more complicated one. To those outside Punjab, describing Channi as a Dalit may suffice but within the state, his sub-caste – Ramdasia Sikh – assumes a greater significance, particularly during elections. The Dalits in Punjab, like anywhere else in the country, aren’t a monolithic community. In Punjab, their identity can be further broken down into Ramdasias (whose ancestors were Hindus working as leather tanners but embraced Sikhism), Mazhabis (Hindu Valmikis who converted to Sikhism), Ravidasias (followers of Sant Ravidas), the Hindu Valkimis, and so on. Though Sikhism preaches a casteless society, the caste fault-lines within are clear. The Jat Sikhs, Ramdasias and Mazhabis have separate gurudwaras. The economic divisions are clear too with Jat Sikhs being the dominant landholding farmers and the landless farm labour largely coming from the Dalit Sikhs – a distinction that is important given the ongoing farmer agitation.
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The Ramdasias and Mazhabis comprise roughly the same percentage of population – little over 10 per cent – within Punjab. In the state’s 34 assembly constituencies reserved for scheduled castes, a chunk of them is in Punjab’s Doaba region (districts that fall between the Sutlej and Beas rivers). Political parties typically weigh in on the proportion of the dominant Dalit sub-caste in the constituency before fielding their candidates. As such, the Dalits do not vote en bloc for any political party in Punjab and their loyalties have traditionally been divided between the Akalis and the Congress.
While Channi’s appointment may please the Ramdasias and warm them up to the Congress, it is uncertain whether the Mazhabis or Hindu Dalits will also react similarly. Besides, it is difficult to predict the impact of promoting a Dalit Sikh as the CM on upper caste Hindus and the Jat-Sikh community, which has given Punjab 13 CMs since the state was created in 1966.
Finally, the Congress also needs to figure out how it will tackle Sidhu’s ambitions and, if it indeed replaces Channi with him in the event of a poll victory next year, what explanation will the party offer to the Dalit community? Congress insiders who were privy to the party’s internal deliberations that preceded the change of guard in Punjab, say Channi wasn’t the party’s first choice to be made the CM. The party had initially and inexplicably offered the CM’s chair to veteran leader Ambika Soni, who has never won an election in over four decades of her political innings. Soni not only declined but also publicly declared that the state must have a Sikh CM.
Sources say Congress leader Rahul Gandhi then pushed for the candidature of Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa – a Jat Sikh and now the state’s newly sworn-in deputy chief minister along with OP Soni, a Hindu – and that the suggestion was supported by most party leaders. However, while Randhawa had begun to receive congratulatory messages and bouquets from his supporters in Chandigarh, sources say Sidhu stridently objected to his elevation even though the Punjab Congress chief and Randhawa were united in their fight against Amarinder Singh till just 24 hours ago. Sidhu, those close to him say, was wary of letting another senior Jat Sikh be made the CM and believed that in the event of a poll victory, Randhawa may be unwilling to vacate the high chair.
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Sources say it was Sidhu who then pushed for Channi’s claim and argued that the move can be milked politically by projecting Chamkaur Sahib MLA’s Dalit Sikh identity. Rahul, who knows Channi personally over the years and had played a part in the party making him the Leader of Opposition in the state assembly for a year in 2015, agreed and an official announcement was made. However, a glimpse of the potential internal friction that lies ahead came in shortly when Harish Rawat, the party’s in-charge of Punjab, told reporters that the Congress will fight next year’s assembly polls under Sidhu’s leadership. Sunil Jakhar, the plain-speaking former Punjab Congress chief who some party leaders had projected as a possible contender for the CM’s job, made his displeasure known at Rawat’s comment saying that it undermines the authority of the new CM.
The Congress’s media cell chief, Randeep Surjewala, was forced to step in and clarify that the party will fight the assembly polls under “joint leadership” of Channi and Sidhu.
The Congress’s blitzkrieg over appointing Punjab’s first Dalit CM may serve well for now and even mask the fact that Channi was essentially a compromise candidate named to prevent another bout of protestations from the loquacious Sidhu. But the Congress’s – and Channi’s – political and electoral challenges in Punjab are far from over.