With Channi as Punjab CM Face, Will Congress Consolidate the Votes it Is Hoping For?

The party is hoping to both divert attention from the 4.5 years under Amarinder Singh and consolidate the state's considerable Dalit population.

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Chandigarh: Hinging its poll prospects on Punjab’s 33% Dalit population (the highest in the country), the Congress on Sunday picked Dalit leader and incumbent chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi to lead the party for the upcoming state polls. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi made this announcement at his Ludhiana rally.

Gandhi said, “This is Punjab’s decision, not mine. We need a chief minister who understands poverty, who is the voice of the poor. It was a tough decision but the people of Punjab made it easy by preferring Channi as the party’s chief ministerial face.”

While Gandhi said Channi was picked to focus on empowerment of the poor, and will usher in a new era of development, many see it an attempt to shift the focus of the Punjab elections to caste and identity politics, to beat anti-incumbency.

The Congress hopes that the latest gamble on Channi will consolidate the state’s decisive Dalit votes and help the party form government again. Punjab’s Dalits have the capacity to influence the outcome in 40-45 seats of the 117 assembly segments, and can help any party get closer to the magic number of 59 seats.

The Congress also hopes that choosing Channi will send a positive message to Dalits in other poll-bound states, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where too the party wants a win in order to project itself as a serious challenger to the BJP at the national level before the 2024 polls.

Elated, Channi said that his nomination could only happen in the Congress party, which gave such a huge responsibility to a person from a poor family. “Our battle is long. It is a big task. Other parties are trying to fool voters. It is a crucial time to save Punjab and I promise that I will not disappoint people.”

Major setback for Sidhu

The Congress’s decision comes as a huge setback for Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.

He has been trying to portray for the last few months that he has a better agenda than Channi, one that would dismantle the state’s mafia .

While the party might retain his agenda in its poll manifesto, the recent mess that he created with his ‘my way or the highway’ attitude did not go down well with Delhi leaders. It even made him unpopular with local leaders and cadres. This became evident when the party declared on Sunday that the majority of party workers and cadres chose Channi as the party’s chief ministerial pick in its internal surveys.

Although Sidhu assured Gandhi that he would abide by the party’s choice, it remains to be seen how Sidhu behaves in his public address, given that he continues to embarrass the party with his veiled remarks.  Just on Friday, he said that the people at the top wanted only a “weak chief minister who dances to their tunes”.

Also read: Amarinder Singh Is at a Crossroads. Will the People of Patiala Still Back Their ‘Maharaja’?

In his Sunday address too, Sidhu did not mince the word when he said that he left the BJP because they used him only to get votes. Pointing to Gandhi, he said he should not be reduced to a darshani ghora (show piece) in the Congress too.

Sunil Jakhar too recently stirred the pot by claiming that he was ignored for the chief ministerial post in September because he was a Hindu.

Gandhi tried to play a balancing act when he said that both Sidhu and Jakhar were important jewels of the party and their contribution was unparalleled for Punjab. Even Channi said that he would ensure that Sidhu’s model is implemented once the party forms the government. How much unity they show in the run up to the February 20 polls will decide the fate of the Congress, many believe.

Smart politics or compulsion?

There are several immediate takeaways from this decision. First, Congress propelled Dalits to the centrestage of Punjab politics in order to take the spotlight away from anti-incumbency against Amarinder Singh’s rule.

He was blamed for doing nothing over key Punjab issues – be it sacrilege or the drugs menace – before he was forced to resign last September.

The party hopes that Channi’s 111-day stint as chief minister, in which he grew in both popularity and political stature, will help it win the state again. Keeping Channi in the leadership role too had become a compulsion for the party, many believe.

Without Channi, it thought it may lose whatever Dalit support the party gained in 2017, when it swept the polls with two-third seats. More so because the SAD-BSP alliance was better placed to sweep Dalit votes in case the Congress had picked someone else over Channi.

That probably made the party ignore the recent controversy over Channi’s nephew’s arrest.

The Congress was earlier not keen to declare a chief ministerial face, as it announced it would fight elections on a collective leadership. But Sidhu’s aggressive behaviour and AAP’s announcement of a chief ministerial face (Bhagwant Mann) prompted the Congress to recalibrate its strategy. The party hopes that the clarity in leadership will convince voters to vote for it again.

By announcing Channi, Congress also neutralised rivals’ propaganda that the party would never make him its chief ministerial face and its earlier move to make him the chief minister in September was merely a stop-gap appointment to fool Dalit voters.

Can Dalits be consolidated? 

Congress’s pick appears to be a radical change in its poll strategy. Influential Jat Sikh leaders like former chief ministers Harcharan Singh Brar and Amarinder Singh have remained at the centre of the party’s politics for long. Even the rich Badals of the Akali Dal symbolised a similar kind of politics.

While Channi is not poor – he recently declared Rs 10 crore assets in his election affidavit –  for Congress, Channi still represents the idea of a common man who, unlike Amarinder Singh or the Badal family, has not come from landlord families.

His father did odd jobs before he was able to comfortably support his family.

But many see a political risk involved in picking a Dalit face in a state where there has been a hegemony of Jat Sikhs for a long time, with the support of ‘upper’-caste Hindus. Of the 16 chief ministers of Punjab, 14 have been Jat Sikhs.

Political analyst Ashutosh Kumar told The Wire that possibility that Jat Sikh and Hindus may feel alienated can’t be ruled out. “Both these voters made the party win in 2017. But the decision on Channi appears to be a last-ditch effort to stay relevant in the coming election,” he said.

Further, consolidating Dalits in Punjab is also a big task, given that they have remained politically fragmented in the past. In 2017, they even voted for AAP.

Poll analyst Pramod Kumar, in his recent article in the Indian Express, stated that Dalit consolidation did not happen in the past in Punjab and will not happen this time either, since there are fewer caste contradictions in Punjab compared to other states. Moreover, caste has been weakened at the behavioural level due to the impact of Sikhism.

Further, a major chunk of the Dalit population is meshed with different deras who will continue to barter their support in elections, said Kumar.

But there are others who think the political situation is very different in Punjab this time.

Punjab is heading for a multi-cornered fight, with AAP, SAD-BSP and Congress as the main fronts, with the addition of the BJP and Amarinder Singh’s party as well as the farmers’ front. Therefore, the possibility of divisions within upper-caste Jat Sikh and Hindu votes among all the parties can’t be ruled out.

Also read: BJP Fields Two National Panel Chiefs in Punjab Despite State Law Disallowing it

In that situation, the Congress thinks if it is able to consolidate Dalits, there is a chance it will win enough seats to form the government or inch closer to the magic number of 59 seats.

The party has also fielded Channi from a second seat, Bhadaur, which is in the heart of Punjab’s Malwa region, comprising 69 out of 117 seats, in order to further woo the Dalits.

Channi comes from Ravidassia community, which has major influence in the Doaba region of Punjab comprising a total of 25 seats. On the other hand, the party thinks that it has enough big leaders in Punjab’s last and third Majha region that can help it win over its 23 seats.

Channi’s journey

Channi’s family became one of the early beneficiaries of Dalit migration abroad when his father found work in Malaysia. Because of Harsa Singh’s income from there, the family was able to move out of their ancestral village Bhajauli in Mohali district to Kharar, a town near Chandigarh.

This ensured that Channi and his two brothers were able to access a good education. He was well off, with interests in the real estate business in Kharar, before he won his first MLA election from the nearby Chamkaur Sahib in 2007 as an independent.

Since then, he has seen a meteoric rise in politics. Before becoming an ‘accidental chief minister’, he was a cabinet minister in Amarinder’s government. In his last term as MLA, he was the Congress’s leader of opposition.

The Congress thinks Channi can make Dalits rally behind him as he appears to be an accessible and likeable face. He also gained popularity through a slew of popular moves. His political stature also grew after he locked horns directly with the prime minister after the BJP’s allegations of a security breach during Modi’s rally last month.

While announcing Channi’s name, Gandhi said, “Did you see any arrogance in Channi when he was chief minister recently? He carried everyone along. He understands poverty and that is why people including party cadre, youth want him to continue as chief minister.”