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Dalit CM takes charge in Punjab: Masterstroke or Damage Control

Manoj Varghese Manoj Varghese
27 Sep 2021

The recent appointment of Charanjit Singh Channi as the first Dalit Chief Minister of Punjab seems to be a damage control exercise within the State and a masterstroke by the Congress. At a time when the Akali Dal-BSP combo, the BJP and the AAP have proclaimed to install a Dalit Deputy Chief Minister in the state or give them a lion's share in the Ministry, Congress has played its trump card. The decision will have its repercussions not only in Punjab with 32 % Dalits but also in other states going to the polls like U.P. with 21.5 % Dalits.
In India, the Dalit votes are not consolidated, and they have no inclination towards one particular political party. In the recent times, OBC (Other Backward Classes) votes have been a crucial game-changer, overtaking religious vote banks. But with the Dalit card introduced, several political parties known for its association with the marginalized community, like that of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bhim Army, Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, and Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India are in a fix.
Governor Banwarilal Purohit administered the oath of office and secrecy to Channi, along with Sukhjinder Randhawa and O P Soni as Deputy Chief Ministers. Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu attended the ceremony, while Captain Amarinder Singh skipped the event. Captain was dead against Sidhu becoming Chief Minster, but has welcomed Channi’s appointment.
Channi was unanimously elected leader of the Congress Legislature Party of Punjab after Amarinder's resignation. The Congress infighting in Punjab has been almost perpetual, and it intensified ever since Sidhu took over as the PPCC chief. Amarinder after submitting his resignation said that he faced 'humiliation' within the party and lashed out at Sidhu saying he would be a destroyer for Punjab. He said, “Gandhi siblings are inexperienced”, as Channi is learnt to be the choice of Rahul Gandhi.
Channi in his first Cabinet meeting directed government officers, employees at state, district, tehsil, and block levels to reach their offices by 9 am and be available for the public till the office hours in the evening. Also, to mark the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the Cabinet has decided to launch pro-poor initiatives from October 2. Regarding the electricity and water supply, the Cabinet decided to waive the pending electricity bill of tube wells working under rural water supply schemes and to provide free water supply to villagers. Also, a special campaign will be launched by the rural development and panchayats department to finalise the allotment of plots to the eligible beneficiaries within two months. 
The outgoing Chief Minister, almost 80 years, has not disclosed his next move. He may join BJP and serve as a Governor, or play a spoilsport within the Party. Meanwhile, a poster is doing rounds saying ‘Captain 2022’. When Captain was asked about it, he said, “I am still in Congress. I will field a strong candidate against Sidhu”. The connotation is that he will sabotage Congress. Similarly, before 2017, he had blackmailed the party threatening to join BJP when Bajwa’s name was floated as Chief Ministerial candidate.
According to sources, Captain was in touch with Modi and Shah before tendering his resignation, and might play a key role in the possible withdrawal of farmers’ agitation. In all likelihood, he will advocate repeal of the farm laws and help build the image of BJP. If the farm laws are withdrawn, the BJP will get a face-saver in Punjab, Haryana, U.P. and Uttarakhand. 
Is Congress preparing to fight the Punjab elections in the name of Channi or Sidhu? Once established, it will be difficult to remove Channi from CM’s post. At the same time, it will be difficult to control Sidhu. If the party is able to procure the 32 % Dalit votes onto their side, they will not hesitate to show the exit door to Sidhu. Some political experts opine that the Congress high command wanted to replace Captain, and Sidhu was just a tool. Congress has given a new hope for its comeback in Punjab, and this decision will go a long way helping the party indirectly to gain momentum in UP and Uttarakhand also.
Kanshiram started his Bahujan campaign in 1984 from Punjab, but had to move to UP due to various compulsions. Sikh community dominates in Punjab with the Jat-Sikh comprising around 61 % votes. In the 117 seats of Punjab Assembly, 34 seats are reserved for Dalits. It’s a matter of time to know if the Congress will be benefitted. But for sure, Congress has put other parties in trouble by this move. Congress had no other option but to project a Dalit leader and save the face of the party. 
Immediately after the announcement, Channi was defamed in the social media for his involvement in a ‘Me too’ case. During his tenure as a minister, he was accused of sending an "inappropriate" text to a woman IAS officer in October 2018. However, he had later apologised and the matter was sorted out.  
It may be a revolutionary decision to have a Dalit Chief Minister, but will he be able to do much to change the fate of Dalits is a hundred million question. Prior to becoming the CM, the three-time MLA from Chamkaur Sahib was the state's Technical Education and Industrial Training, Employment Generation and Science and Technology minister. 
Channi was born in Punjab's Bhajauli village near Kurali in 1963. The 58-year-old leader has come up from the ranks, and he believes his strength lies in his connect with the masses. He is known to drive his car often himself and pay the toll tax. So, there was no surprise seeing him on a motorcycle driven by Sunil Jakhar, former PPCC chief, on their way to Punjab Bhawan. He has beaten the likes of Sidhu, Sunil Jakhar and Ambika Soni to take charge of the top post.
Channi continued to rally support against Amarinder and was one of the signatories to the letter calling for a CLP meeting that precipitated the former CM’s exit. In 2007, he was elected to the state Assembly for the first time. Prior to this, he served as the president of the municipal council in Kharar for two terms. He was also the leader of opposition in the Assembly in 2015-16. In March 2017, he was appointed as a minister in the Amarinder Singh-led government. 
Once in the Assembly, Sukhbir Singh Badal dared Channi to list one achievement of the 2002-07 Congress regime, to which an excitable Channi replied, “patchwork on all the roads of Punjab”. When Channi was the Technical Education Minister, two lecturers wanted to be posted to the same polytechnic but there was just one post. Channi tossed a coin, and decided the fate of the lecturer and the polytechnic at one go.
As the only serving Dalit Chief Minister in the country Channi represents something much bigger than himself. And that’s not just some stroke of luck. Initially, the move could have been a patchwork, but looking at the aftermath and the magnitude of wooing Dalit votes, Channi is going to stay for long. It reminds us of the elevation of Giani Zail Singh or Bhuta Singh in the Congress. The surprise factor has become a part of the move in the political circles these days, be it the appointment of Bhupinder Patel in Gujarat or Charanjit Singh Channi in Punjab.

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