Channi as Cong’s CM face: a safe bet or gamble?

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s announcement of Charanjit Singh Channi as the Congress’ CM face for the February 20 state assembly polls is a move to effectively garner Dalit votes en bloc for his party. However, it is also being seen as a gamble which could backfire, reports Rajesh Moudgil

Crossing the rubicon, the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has announced the three-time Dalit legislator Charanjit Singh Channi, who was hitherto seen as only a stopgap chief minister, as the party’s CM face a few days ahead of assembly election in Punjab.

The move understandably aims at swinging 32% Dalit votes in Punjab, which is the highest in the country, en bloc in Congress’ favour as well as cutting into the emerging Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) citadel in the Malwa region where the Congress sees a scope of ample improvement.

A few days ago, Channi was also asked by the party high command to contest from Bhadaur (reserved) seat in the Malwa belt which is beside his original seat Chamkaur Sahib (reserved) in district Rupnagar in Doaba region which has the biggest Dalit vote bank. This was, many poll observers agree, was the first indication of the party’s faith in him for bigger responsibilities.

Chamkaur Sahib seat is Channi’s home turf from where he has been a legislator three times in a row.

Punjab has 34 reserved seats. The Doaba region with 23 assembly seats including eight reserved seats, has a Scheduled Caste (SC) population ranging from 25% to 75%. The Malwa, which is the biggest region, has a total of 69 assembly seats, including 19 reserved constituencies, while the third region, Majha, has 25 seats including seven reserved seats.

By naming Channi as the CM face, the Congress high command also aims at countering AAP’s posturing by projecting (Channi) as a leader who is from among the poor and the common people as he comes from a humble background.

By asking him to fight from the Bhadaur seat as well, earlier, aimed at using him to cut into AAP stronghold as well as to ensure the party did not want to lose him for bigger tasks if he failed to make it from Chamkaur Sahib seat.

Also, through him the Congress also aimed at the same time, checkmating the Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) which has an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for the first time in the state.

And that is why Rahul made it a point to send a clear, loud and direct message at his February 6 virtual address in Ludhiana that he was told by party workers, leaders and candidates that people wanted a chief ministerial candidate who understood the plight of the poor.

He then elaborated upon Channi’s humble background and his struggle in life and said that he (Channi) knew the problems the poor faced and also how can that be addressed. Hence the decision, he said.

Though Punjab’s top leaders, namely, state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Jat Sikh and tall Hindu leader Sunil Jakhar promised wholehearted support to Channi in the upcoming elections, doubts remain about their future actions, especially of an ambitious Sidhu.

Rose from humble background

The political journey of Channi from hitherto an indistinct seat Chamkaur Sahib (reserved) has been slow, but steady. He was just one of the many detractors – led by firebrand Navjot Singh Sidhu – of former chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh till September last year when he was named by the Congress high command for the CM’s post ahead of the state polls. This had come as a surprise amid bitter bickering in the party which led to the unceremonious exit of Capt Amarinder Singh from the post and the party.

Considered to be a mild-manner legislator and a stopgap chief minister till recently, Channi has, but, been steady and focussed. Saddled in a new position he did not wait and quickly got to action making numerous populist announcements during his 111-day stint and remaining in the spotlight and prominence among the Dalit population for being the state’s first Dalit CM.

He also earned the party’s confidence and support in adverse situations – security breach during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Punjab in January because of farmers’ protest and also enforcement directorate raids at the premises of his nephew in connection with illegal sand business later last month.

Born in Bhajauli village near Kurali, Channi, 58, entered politics at a young age and became a councillor in 1992. He was elected as the president of the Kharar municipal council in 2003. Denied a ticket by Congress in 2007 assembly polls, he fought as an independent candidate and won. He won the next two polls and was also made a minister, besides leader of opposition (LoP) during the Parkash Singh Badal-led Akali-BJP government.

Move could backfire

Even though it was seen as Congress’ well-calculated move to field Channi as the face of the Dalit and the poor, political observers opined that it could also evoke counter-productive results.

Dr Ronki Ram, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Chair Professor in political science, Panjab University, agreed that choosing Channi as the CM face in the upcoming assembly polls has the potential to swing Dalits vote bank in Congress’ favour.

Elaborating further, Dr Ronki Ram said that Channi’s being a Scheduled Caste may motivate many of SC communities to rally behind the Congress party. “The SCs in Punjab are not a homogeneous category. They are scattered into 39 castes, four mainstream religions and a large number of sects and faiths. That means, there is one larger, overarching SC identity, which is also an administrative and constitutional identity’’, he said.

Stating that there are many smaller SC identities within the larger SC identity, he said that all of these smaller SC identities are distinctively formed around their caste or religious ties and also influenced by varied ideological viewpoints as well as affiliated with different political parties’’.

It is in this context that the announcement by Rahul Gandhi of Charanjit Channi as the chief ministerial candidate of the Congress party is expected to forge unity among the varied SC sub-castes as far as their political bent of mind is concerned, he added.

To the question as to whether Channi’s chief ministerial face will fetch SC votes or not from across all the 39 SC sub-castes, Dr Ronki Ram opined that there is a common impression that it will lead to counter consolidation among the upper and dominant castes in Punjab against the expected SC vote consolidation.