Will Charanjit Singh Channi, the 'masterstroke' of Congress as the first Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab in place of Captain Amarinder Singh, prove to be the party’s trump card in the 2022 assembly elections? It's hard to say.
With Congress making Channi the Chief Minister, the game of caste equations of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) has been disturbed.
Channi, who comes from a poor family, has been on a massive outreach program towards the poor sections of the state. In fact in the first 50 days he has personally met more people from the disadvantaged sections than perhaps any other CM has over the same period.
Channi is also trying to undercut the poll sops offered by AAP and SAD. For instance, against the election promises of Aam Aadmi Party and Shiromani Akali Dal - to provide 300 to 400 units of free electricity, Channi has slashed the electricity tariff by Rs 3 per unit for 69 lakh out of 71.75 lakh domestic electricity consumers of the State.
He has extended 11% dearness allowance (DA) to 7.5 lakh employees and pensioners of the state. On the day of Diwali, he handed over the keys of homes to more than 8000 poor families previously living in urban slums. With only about 50 days left in the implementation of the election code of conduct, Channi is trying to pitch himself as the Chief Minister of the common person.
According to senior journalist Baljit Singh Balli, a political analyst who has been tracking Punjab politics for the past four decades believes that the Congress could have faced an anti-incumbency wave in the 2022 assembly elections under Amarinder Singh as the CM.
However, things are moving differently for the party with Channi at the helm of affairs. The party is also hoping that with Channi as the CM, it gets support from the Dalit community on the 37 seats where the community holds sway in the Doaba and Majha region.
Since the separation of Haryana from Punjab in 1966, except Giani Zail Singh(OBC), all Chief Ministers of Punjab Pratap Singh Kairon, Parkash Singh Badal, Darbara Singh, Beant Singh, Harcharan Singh Brar, Rajinder Kaur Bhathal and Captain Amarinder Singh have come from the Jatt Sikh community. But with Channi’s elevation as the CM, many Jatt Sikh leaders inside and outside Congress are apparently unable to accept Channi as their leader.
On this big change in the politics of Punjab, former Punjab Congress President HS Hanspal says, is the transformation of the government of Punjab “from a luxury farmhouse to a modest tent house”. Even today, many old people of Kharar (Mohali) remember how Charanjit Singh Channi helped put up canopies in their families marriages functions.
Sharing many moments of his life, Charanjit Singh Channi, in his first press conference after being sworn in as the Chief Minister, got emotional as he remembered how, as a child, he used to go door-to-door carrying awnings, chairs and rickshaws from his father's tent house. There would hardly have been any such house left of Kharar that had not helped in times of need. He was able to meet the cost of the year's studies from the fireworks he sold outside the same awning shop on the occasion of Diwali.
Channi's challenges within and outside the party in the next 50 days are considerable. Punjab Congress President Navjot Singh Sidhu, who dreams of becoming the next Chief Minister of Punjab in 2022, is currently not ready to back down from the role as a Super CM. Sidhu, who questioned the first 50-day tenure of the Channi government on the issue of intoxication and sacrilege of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, which is pending before the High Court, said, “The Channi government has failed to properly defend the sacrilege issue in the Punjab Haryana High Court.”
Sidhu has targeted Channi’s appointments in the form of Advocate General of the state APS Deol and Iqbal Preet Singh Sahota, Acting Director-General of Police. Sidhu, who cried out for the interests of Punjab, has though withdrawn his resignation from the post of chief of the party’s state unit.
Former Punjab Congress President Sunil Jakhar, who described Charanjit Channi as the masterstroke of Rahul Gandhi, has also changed his tone. Jakhar said, “While other parties are busy preparing for the 2022 elections, there is an atmosphere of anarchy in the Congress of Punjab. The party president is hitting his own party's government. Congress leaders are targeting their government more than any opposition party.”
Punjab Congress is in a state of disarray after the removal of Captain Amarinder Singh from the post of CM. And Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu's aspiration to become the Chief Minister is not hidden. In the face of escalating confrontation between Channi and Sidhu, Congress MLAs are worried about their assembly election tickets and the party's prospects.
How Channi assures them about his leadership in conflict situations and neutralizes the influence of Captain's Punjab Lok Congress, will determine the electoral future of Channi and the Congress.