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Chandigarh: At a time when Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi takes centre stage in Congress’s poll planning and is expected to be announced party’s chief ministerial face on Sunday, February 6, the Enforcement Directorate in the early hours on Friday, February 4, arrested his nephew in an alleged illegal sand mining case.
Only a few days ago, Punjab governor Banwari Lal Purohit also courted a major controversy by directing state DGP (director general of police) to conduct a high-level inquiry into Aam Aadmi Party’s allegations seeking FIR (first information report) against Channi in a similar mining case.
These developments come two days ahead of the proposed visit of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Sunday and the expected announcement of the chief minister’s face by the party.
Channi, who rose to prominence as the state’s first Dalit chief minister when he replaced Captain Amarinder Singh last September, is the frontrunner to be the party’s chief minister’s face.
Interacting with The Wire, Punjab Congress spokesperson Dr. Raj Kumar Veraka reacts sharply and says it has become a fashion for the BJP to target its political rivals with ED or CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) raids.
“But this will not deter the [Congress] party as the public will respond to the BJP, not us,” he adds.
He has also hit out at the Punjab governor for “meddling” in the election. “Using the governor’s office for political benefits is nothing new for the BJP.”
Look at what the West Bengal governor had done in the run-up to the state polls, but still, that could not prevent BJP’s defeat there.
He says involving ED and the governor’s office in the Punjab election shows BJP’s desperation while adding it has also exposed that AAP is “in cahoots” with the BJP in an attempt to damage Channi’s image.
For its part, AAP has claimed, in its representation to the governor, ED raids on Channi’s nephew confirmed that the sand mafia in the state is purportedly operating owing to the freehand given by Channi.
It has also claimed Raghav Chadha, AAP leader and party’s Punjab co-incharge, visited one of the “illegal” sand mining sites at Jindpur village in Channi’s constituency, Chamkauer Sahib, on December 4 and “exposed” unabated “illegal” mining allegedly by the sand mafia in collusion with Channi.
AAP has also alleged when area forest officer Rajvansh Singh lodged a written complaint with SHO (station house officer) and tehsildar, he was transferred the very next day. This, Chadha claims, “palpably set out the unerring inference of the manifest patronage provided by the state administration purportedly at the behest of CM Channi”.
Quoting former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, from his recent interview, AAP, in its representation, alleges that there are specific inputs that Channi has a share in the sand mafia along with several other Congress MLAs and leaders.
But, Congress doesn’t seem to be unnerved by these allegations, brushing them aside as AAP’s “insecurity” in the run-up to high-stakes Punjab polls, which are being fought on multiple fronts for the first time.
Congress leader Veraka says AAP has been rattled ever since the party nominated Channi to fight in AAP’s stronghold in Baranala’s Bhadaur seat – the second seat Channi will be fighting after Chamkaur Sahib.
Given the political mood, according to political observers in the state, parties seem to realise that growing popularity for Channi may cost them dear, prompting them to drag him into controversies.
Only recently, Shiromani Akali Dal came up with an election slogan “Honey, Money and Channi” – Honey being Channi’s nephew.
As per the media reports, Channi’s nephew Bhupinder Singh ‘Honey’ is expected to be produced in ED court in Mohali.
He was arrested after he was summoned on Thursday, February 3, to question him on last month’s ED raids in which the agency claimed to have recovered Rs 10 crore cash from Honey’s residence.
ED action was based on a three-year-old FIR (first information report) that was filed in Nawanshahr police station in 2018 on the orders of the then chief minister Amarinder Singh who now is in alliance with BJP.
Why Channi is important for Congress
Channi, the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab, has shot into the political limelight after he replaced Amarinder Singh last September.
Channi, who has been chief minister now for 111 days, has gained popularity among the masses, especially among Punjab’s one-third Dalits, who can swing the election in nearly 40 to 45 assembly seats in the 117-member Punjab assembly, through his slew of populist measures.
He has also grown in stature after he locked horns directly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the alleged latter’s security breach during his visit to Punjab last month.
Despite the fact that Sidhu has been hitting out at Channi openly in public, claiming that he has a better “development model” than the latter, Channi still continues to enjoy support from the party cadres.
Fielding Channi from the second seat from Bhadaur in the heart of the Malwa – Punjab’s largest region in terms of seats – is a clear indication that Congress is banking heavily upon him to win the election again.
The party feels that Channi can consolidate the Dalit vote bank – which otherwise remains politically fragmented – to help Congress regain power.
According to sources within Congress, the party is carrying out an exercise using an app called, Shakti app, to reach out to its workers for feedback on the party’s chief minister’s pick. It has emerged that the majority of them are backing Channi over Sidhu.
The strategy of AAP, SAD and BJP, therefore, to target Channi over the illegal mining issue is not surprising. After the arrest of Channi’s nephew, another round of political slugfest is expected, as Congress rivals hope that Congress drops its plan to nominate Channi as the chief ministerial face.
In the event of Congress not dropping Channi as the chief ministerial candidate, Congress rivals may go on full throttle attacking him politically, going by the way AAP top brass has been targeting him lately.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal recently took a dig at both Congress and Akali Dal that Punjab needed an honest and dedicated chief minister and not a leader who is accused of “selling sand” or “drugs”.
Kejriwal was linking SAD whose leaders are facing drug allegations, and linking Channi with sand mining.
After losing badly in the 2017 elections, stakes are high for AAP this time around, as it has been desperately eying to register its first win outside Delhi.
Punjab, according to AAP, is within its reach among all five-poll bound states, which will go for polls in a phased manner starting from February 10. Punjab will vote on February 20.
Sidhu flexes muscles
As Channi appears to have pipped Sidhu for the top post, the latter took an indirect swipe at Congress high command while addressing a public meeting in his constituency in Amritsar on Friday ,February 3, and said that people at the top wanted only a “weak CM who dances to the tunes”.
He drive his point he referred to a Hindu Song “maach meri bulbul ki paisa milega, kaha kadardan hame aisa milenga (dance my nightingale, you will get money, where would you get such a great spectator)”.
Sidhu even hit out at Channi indirectly and said, “If a new Punjab has to be made, it is in the hands of the chief minister. You [voters] have to choose the CM this time. People at the top want a weak CM who can dance to their tunes. Do you want such a CM?”
In an interview to a news channel, Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu also declared that one of them might consider retirement if Sidhu is not projected CM face.
Last week when Rahul Gandhi was here in Punjab, Sidhu declared from the stage that he would accept part’s chief minister’s choice, but he, at the same time, put a rider that he should not be reduced to a “darshani ghora (showpiece)”.