In line of fire over alleged breach of security protocols that forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to abort his Ferozepur rally, Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi showed remarkable restraint and political savvy while responding to his critics. Channi refused to get drawn into the political slugfest triggered by the BJP. At one point during his media interaction, on January 5, Channi even said he would shed his own blood before any harm came to the prime minister on Punjab’s soil. Of course, he also craftily hinted that by alluding to a “threat to the life of the prime minister” on his Ferozepur visit, the BJP was insulting three crore Punjabis; painting them as “Khalistani terrorists, militants and violent people”.
CM left to fend for himself
The Channi government has now set-up a two member panel of former high court judge, Justice Mehtab Gill and Anurag Verma, principal secretary (home), to probe the incident and submit its report within three days. This even as the chief minister insisted that there was no breach of security protocol as the change in Modi’s travel plans – he was initially scheduled to leave Bathinda for Ferozepur in a helicopter but chose an over 110 km road journey instead due to inclement weather – was intimated to the state government at the last minute, thus leading to a “minor delay” in clearing up the route where farmers had “suddenly gathered” to protest.
Yet, there’s much happening not just within the Punjab Congress but also in the state government and on the ground in Punjab that betrays the perception that Channi, through his cool composure at Wednesday’s press conference, sought to canvass of a man in control. As if there was need of any more proof, the Ferozepur episode has, once again, exposed growing schisms within the Punjab Congress less than two months ahead of the state assembly polls.
It escaped none that Congress state unit chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, otherwise voluble and Twitter-happy even on the dullest of days, took over 24 hours to utter a word of rebuttal against the BJP. Sidhu spoke on the incident only a day later, on January 6, while addressing a public meeting in Barnala where he mocked Modi for making the “excuse of security breach” to escape the embarrassment of addressing “just 500 people” who had gathered at the rally venue in Ferozepur’s Hussainiwala. Sidhu’s Barnala event, ironically, was organised despite the Congress high command instructing party units in all five poll-bound states – Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa – earlier this week to cancel any mass campaign plans in light of the steadily increasing COVID-19 cases across the country.
It wasn’t just Sidhu who left Channi to fend for himself on a day when the BJP and other Congress rivals from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) were lambasting the chief minister for deteriorating law and order and demanding imposition of President’s Rule in the poll-bound state. Congress’s Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa, who heads the party’s election manifesto committee, made no effort to defend the state government. Party veteran Sunil Jakhar, who heads the Congress’ campaign committee for the Punjab polls and has been repeatedly taking potshots at both Sidhu and Channi, put the chief minister in a tight corner by tweeting that the Ferozepur incident was “against Punjabiyat”, “just not acceptable” and that “a secure passage for the Prime Minister of India to address BJP’s political rally in Ferozepur should have been ensured. That’s how democracy works.”
“In a fortnight or so, the Election Commission is likely to announce the poll schedule for Punjab and other states. This is a time when the party should speak in one voice on every issue and give no quarter to our rivals but some of our own leaders are working like our Opposition. There is absolutely nothing on which our chief minister, PCC chief and some other leaders in important positions speak in one voice. Is this how we hope to retain power?” a party veteran and former Union minister told The Federal, on condition of anonymity.
Governance, protests and the ‘Sidhu conundrum’
Days before the Ferozepur hullabaloo, a group of cabinet ministers in the Channi government and Congress MP Amar Singh had met the party’s national general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal and requested that Sidhu be “reined in or removed as PCC chief”. Sidhu, who was instrumental in precipitating the crisis in September last that led to the unceremonious exit of Amarinder Singh as chief minister, has continued on the warpath against Channi despite repeated efforts for a truce by central party leaders. As elections draw closer, the garrulous former cricketer has been dropping threats of not campaigning for the Congress if it does not go into the polls with him as the chief minister face. Party sources say the high command is in no mood to concede Sidhu’s demand. After all, dumping its highly publicised Dalit chief minister will augur poorly for the Congress in poll bound UP and Uttarakhand, which, like Punjab, have substantial Dalit voters.
But it isn’t just these machinations within the crisis-ridden Congress that are proving difficult for Channi to navigate. Though the chief minister has been in office for less than four months, his administrative performance has been, at best, lacklustre despite the party publicising his long working hours, austere lifestyle, welfare initiatives and easy accessibility – all things that stand in stark contrast against his predecessor Amarinder Singh.
“There is no difference between Amarinder Singh’s administration and Channi’s… not one issue that they (the Congress) had raised while forcing Captain out has been resolved till date. The beadbi (sacrilege) case probe has made no headway; drugs and sand mafia are operating like before, issue of filling various vacancies in government jobs haven’t been addressed and the unemployed Punjabis are on the street protesting every second day while the government is trying to crush their voice,” Bhagwant Mann, AAP MP and the party’s likely chief ministerial face for the upcoming elections, told The Federal.
Protests by various groups against Channi and his government have been a recurring feature of the chief minister’s brief tenure. As elections approach, these have only increased. Farmers, university professors, contractual employees, transporters and truck drivers, and health care workers affiliated with the National Health Mission (NHM) have all been up in arms against the state government on different issues. Last month, the Channi government issued an order directing the Punjab Police to play the Gurbani and other religious hymns at venues where the chief minister was scheduled to address the public. The move was meant to drown any dissent at the venue by protestors likely to arrive at the chief minister’s functions. After an uproar by the Opposition and a stern rebuke from the Congress’s own Sunil Jakhar who dubbed the order as being “sacrilegious and a mockery of democracy”, the directive was withdrawn.
Incidentally, a day after the Congress tried to reject the brouhaha over Modi’s Ferozepur episode, Channi’s cavalcade, on live television, crossed paths with a group of protestors demanding to meet the chief minister for redressal of their grievances. There is ample video and photographic evidence to showcase how such instances of protestors agitating against the chief minister in the recent past were invariably met with brute force of the Punjab Police. However, on January 6, perhaps wiser after the BJP’s backlash over Modi nearly running into protesting farmers, Channi tried to use the situation to his advantage. He told the crew of the television channel that was streaming his live interview to halt; walked out of his car and met the protestors, told them that they had a scheduled appointment with him at 11 AM the following day and then walked back to his car mouthing platitudes about the importance of dissent in a democracy.
The live telecast of Channi’s brush with protestors and the contrast that the Congress immediately sought to draw with Modi’s refusal to meet agitating farmers may give the chief minister some immediate good press. However, it can’t wish away the fact that large sections of Punjab’s population are in protest mode against the Channi administration even if anger of farmers against the BJP dominates the headlines.
‘Playing cool won’t help CM’
With COVID cases surging again, Punjab, a state with an already poor rate of vaccinating its eligible population against the virus (about 45 percent as of December 30, 2021 against the national average of 64 percent), has an ominous challenge ahead. Over 10000 NHM workers in the state have been on an indefinite strike since November demanding regularization of their services and better pay.
Similarly, university teachers across the state have been protesting against the state government since December 1 demanding that their salaries be revised as per current University Grants Commission pay scale. There have also been over two dozen instances of lathi charge against protesting unemployed school teachers in recent months. These teachers have been waiting for regular jobs in government schools – another unfulfilled Congress promise – for the past few years. Protests by contractual employees of different government departments have been a recurring phenomenon too but their demand for regularization of services are yet to be fulfilled by the Channi administration even as imposition of the election Model Code of Conduct, which would prevent the government from taking such decisions, is expected within a fortnight.
During his live television interview mentioned above, Channi had conceded that various people were protesting against his government but claimed that these agitations were happening now “because elections are near and they want to extract the maximum assurances from me right now”. While this may be true, it also shows that public anger against the state government is, perhaps, at an all-time high and by merely playing calm at media conferences, the chief minister won’t win over disgruntled voters.
A Congress Lok Sabha MP from Punjab told The Federal that his party was “poised to win the upcoming elections not because of our performance but because our Opposition was practically invisible… with elections due in a month, this has changed… AAP is trying to woo different sections through populist promises, the SAD, Captain (Amarinder Singh who has floated his own outfit, the Punjab Lok Congress, and allied with the BJP) will be doing the same and now we have this new challenge of farm unions declaring their plan to contest the polls”. The MP added, “what are we doing… we have a PCC chief who throws a fresh tantrum every day and leaves no chance to undermine the chief minister, our chief minister is busy fending off more attacks from Sidhu than our actual rivals and has no time to address issues of governance… we are slipping and slipping fast, there is no cogent poll narrative we have offered so far; if we still manage to win the election it will be not for our achievements but because the Opposition woke up too late.”
Channi’s immediate response to the political uproar over the alleged breach in Modi’s security protocol may have been to play it cool. By invoking Punjabiyat and asserting that he would not allow the image of the state and its people to be tarnished for political gains, he may have even earned some new fans. Yet the ride ahead for him and the Congress, as they move towards the poll, is only getting bumpier and a calm composure alone won’t win them the election.