When Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann told a news channel on July 30 in a rare interview that his predecessor had “fled abroad”, it was for the first time in a long time that someone remembered Charanjit Singh Channi.
The 59-year-old Channi, who caught the nation’s imagination just 10 months ago when the Congress leadership chose him over several contenders as successor to Captain Amarinder Singh, has been missing in action ever since, under his leadership, his party suffered a resounding defeat in the Punjab polls earlier this year.
Curiously, the former three-term MLA from Chamkaur Sahib also seems content being out of the spotlight at a time when brickbats have come thick and fast for the Mann-led AAP government that had abruptly ended Channi’s chief ministerial tenure this March. What has been even more surprising is the complete silence from Channi over the political challenges faced by the Congress these last four months.
If Mann is to be believed, Channi had fled to “somewhere in Canada” as “several objectionable decisions” taken by the Punjab government during his brief six-month stint as chief minister were now “under the scanner” of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government.
There are many reasons to be astounded by Channi’s vanishing act and equally by the Congress’ nonchalance over being abandoned by a leader who the Gandhis, at least until the Punjab debacle five months back, were stridently projecting as a rising social justice and Dalit poster boy.
In the months since it rejected the Congress and Akali Dal to vote for the AAP with a historic mandate, Punjab has witnessed massive tumult. With the AAP government stumbling from one controversy to another while Punjab struggles with its crumbling law and order, ministerial and bureaucratic high-handedness and the resurgence of a separatist rhetoric in its politics, Channi had an opportunity to revive his political image.
When the Congress, particularly Rahul Gandhi, handpicked him to be Punjab’s new chief minister – the first Dalit Sikh to ever hold the post – the party had assiduously projected Channi as a beacon of hope for a people who were desperate to break away from established power centres of the past few decades.
Highlights of Channi’s tenure
To be fair, despite the unbridled ambitions of another Gandhi favourite of the time – Navjot Singh Sidhu – proving to be a constant irritant, Channi did live up to expectations for a while. He was an unconventional chief minister who could flaunt his bhangra moves on live television, saunter about on the streets of Chandigarh late at night – always with some cameramen in tow – conducting surprise inspections, give children a joyride in the state helicopter and dial up his emotional quotient by reminiscing his humble beginnings as the son of a tentwala who didn’t have a pucca house while growing up.
The highlight of Channi’s brief tenure, of course, came in January when he held his ground against the combined might of the BJP after his government was accused of allowing a breach in the security protocol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was forced to cancel a scheduled public meeting in Ferozepur due to protesting farmers blocking the route of his cavalcade.
But as Punjab polls drew closer, things began to fall apart for Channi faster than he or his party would have imagined. The unstinted support he got from Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi made no difference to the dissidence Channi faced from Sidhu and former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar (now in the BJP). Even more damaging were the allegations made against him and his close aides of involvement in illegal mining – Channi’s nephew was arrested weeks before polling in Punjab – swiftly eroding the ‘common man’ image that the Congress had tried to project of its CM face.
As the AAP steadily gained ground riding on the back of a carefully crafted campaign that stood in stark contrast to the muddle that the Congress remained stuck in, Channi struggled to stay afloat. Ultimately, the Congress was wiped out – reduced to just 18 seats in a 117-member assembly against the 77 seats it had won under Amarinder Singh back in 2017 – and Channi faced a humiliating defeat from Chamkaur Sahib and Bhadaur, the two seats he had simultaneously contested the polls from.
Keeping out of public eye
But it is the absence of any political activity by Channi ever since his poll defeat and the Congress’ rout in Punjab that is most intriguing. In the months since the AAP stormed to power, Channi has largely stayed out of the public eye. His only notable outing in this period has been his presence at the Congress office in Chandigarh when Amarinder Singh Raja Warring took over as the party’s new state unit chief in April, and an earlier visit to Delhi during which he complained to Rahul Gandhi about controversial remarks Sunil Jakhar had allegedly made against Dalits.
Since March 10, when the Punjab poll results were announced, Channi has also largely stayed away from Twitter – he has tweeted just 11 times; mostly greetings on occasions such as Holi, Hola Mohalla, BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary or perfunctory ones like congratulating the new office bearers of Punjab Congress and condoling the demise of budding party leader and Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala, who was gunned down by a gang in Mansa this May.
Significantly, even major blunders by the Mann government in these four months have failed to trigger any reaction from Channi. The former chief minister hasn’t uttered a word of protest or criticism against the Mann government’s abject failure in maintaining law and order in the border state (except when he tweeted about Moosewala’s murder and said “This is not the Badlav people of Punjab wanted”).
Missing in action
He was also missing in action when Punjab Congress leaders came together in a show of strength and solidarity after their colleague from Delhi, Alka Lamba, was asked to appear before the Punjab Police on a complaint over her critical remarks against Arvind Kejriwal.
The former chief minister was also absent from the party’s campaign for the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll held in June even though he had unsuccessfully contested the assembly polls from Bhadaur, an assembly segment under the Sangrur parliamentary constituency. The Congress came a distant third in the Sangrur bypoll that saw separatist leader Simranjit Singh Mann wrest the seat from the AAP after a high-pitched campaign.
Significantly, while several Congress leaders, including the party’s then media cell chief Randeep Singh Surjewala, termed the pro-Khalistan Simranjit Mann’s victory as a cause of concern for Punjab, Channi congratulated the newly elected Sangrur MP on Twitter.
Channi was also missing from the Chintan Shivir of the Congress that was convened in Udaipur in May to discuss the future course for the party after its latest round of electoral defeats – including in Punjab. Interestingly, a big thrust of the Chintan Shivir was on the need for the Congress to reclaim its politics of social justice; a plank that was widely referred to when Rahul chose Channi as Punjab’s new chief minister last September.
Most notably, Channi stayed away from the massive protests that the Congress staged in Delhi when Rahul Gandhi and then Sonia Gandhi were summoned by the ED for questioning. Interestingly, Channi’s own nephew, Bhupinder Singh is facing an ED probe and is presently out on bail. Channi himself had been questioned by the ED on April 13 in connection with an illegal mining case. On July 18, a fresh FIR was filed against Bhupinder Singh and his aide Kudratdeep Singh by the Punjab Police for carrying out illegal mining in Malikpur back in 2017, but this too failed to elicit any reaction from Channi.
Channi in Canada
Sources close to Channi told The Federal that he, in fact, left the country soon after he was questioned by the ED in April, and has not returned since. While Channi’s relatives confirmed that he was in Canada, accounts of what he had been doing there these past three months, or why he had to go on such a prolonged trip when the political atmosphere in his home state was so volatile, vary vastly. While some say the former chief minister is in Canada for “neurological treatment”, others like senior Congress leader Captain Sandeep Sandhu claim Channi had “gone for an eye surgery and will be back soon”.
AAP MLA Dr Charanjit Singh, who defeated Channi in Chamkaur Sahib, told The Federal that the former CM had “fled the country fearing that if he stays here, he will be arrested” for his corruption and other questionable decisions as chief minister. Charanjit Singh claimed that there were also rumours that Channi was selling his properties in Kharar and other parts of the state.
“Several wrongdoings of his tenure as chief minister are under investigation by the present AAP government… he distributed grants worth over Rs 80 crore in his constituency against rules; unregistered youth clubs were given grants worth lakhs in order to get votes (in Channi’s favour),” the Chamkaur Sahib MLA said.
Cong says personal visit
Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring refused to comment on Channi’s whereabouts or whether the party felt let down at being deserted by a leader that the high command had chosen to be made the Punjab chief minister and defended every step of the way in the six months that he held the state’s top executive’s chair. “I think he is on a personal visit and we should refrain from commenting on what people do in their personal life,” Warring told The Federal.
Though Channi could not be reached for a comment, his brother, Dr Manohar Singh confirmed to The Federal, “Channi saab is in Canada on a personal visit”. Manohar asserted there was “no truth in the propaganda being spread by AAP” about his brother having fled the country or hastily selling his properties.
Manohar’s explanation for why Channi hadn’t been active in Punjab despite all the controversial moves by the new AAP government or the challenges before the Congress nationally, is also a telling comment on a lot of what ails the Congress party and its high command’s pick of leaders in various states. The elections concluded just a few months ago, Manohar said and added, “there will be plenty of time to be active again.” Evidently, even on his sabbatical, Channi hasn’t abandoned Congress’s characteristic inertia.
(The writer is a journalist based in Chandigarh. He tweets at @journoviv)