With Channi as Punjab CM, Cong explores Dalit dynamics

Congress explores Dalit dynamics by appointing Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab chief minister

Questions remain whether the Congress high command handled the issue deftly

New Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi takes charge of the office, in Chandigarh, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

Congress has taken a bold gamble by appointing Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab chief minister, and the echo of the gamble could be heard even in Uttar Pradesh, where Dalits are politically more assertive and drifted away from Congress to BSP long ago.

However, whether Channi, the first Dalit CM in Punjab after its reorganisation in 1966, could be a sure shot passport for Congress in Punjab is a million-dollar question, despite the state having 33 per cent Dalit population, the highest in the country, owing to the divided nature of Dalit voting pattern there and the highly hierarchical nature of politics in Punjab, where most of the Chief Ministers so far have been from the dominant Jat Sikh community.

Prominent Dalit leader Kanshi Ram hailed from Punjab, but his Dalit empowerment politics worked more in Uttar Pradesh than in his home state. 

Read more: #MeToo shadow over Punjab CM-designate Charanjit Singh Channi

Shiromani Akali Dal and BSP have forged an alliance in Punjab after a gap of 27 years for the 2022 Assembly polls. Mayawati's party will fight 20 of the 117 Assembly seats in Punjab, leaving the rest for SAD. The SAD-BSP alliance had contested the 1996 Lok Sabha polls together and won 11 out of 13 seats in Punjab. The partnership ended after the former allied with Congress.

While Congress leaders in Punjab merely repeated one after another that they are fine with the decision taken by the high command, the last-minute change from Jat Sikh leader Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa to Channi, who started his political career from the post of a councillor has baffled many.

Proximity to Sidhu and perception of not being a long term challenger seems to have worked for Channi. Party sources said Sidhu was not keen on Randhawa's appointment even as the latter was a strong critic of the outgoing Chief Minister. Captain Amarinder Singh, Sidhu and Randhawa all belong to the dominant Jat Sikh community and clearly having a senior leader from the same community as CM four months before the polls must not have been a very palatable idea to Sidhu, whose sustained campaign led to the exit of the Singh on Saturday.

After the announcement, a visibly startled Randhawa said that the high command has taken a decision and anyone's name can come. 

"I thank the MLAs for supporting me. Those who have never seen power are the ones who get disappointed. I have seen absolute power during my father's tenure. I have been the most powerful minister and I still am," he said, calling Channi his "younger brother" and welcoming the high command's decision.

While doubts persist whether Channi, belonging to the Ramdasia Sikh community and a three-term MLA, will be able to salvage the Congress party at this time of crisis, the party may use his elevation to burnish its pro-Dalit credentials beyond Punjab and project the transition of power in the state from a Maharaja (Captain Amarinder Singh) to a low profile Dalit leader with a humble origin.

In UP, the Congress is trying to revive its Dalit-Brahmin-Muslim alliance and Rahul Gandhi's 'Dine with Dalit' programmes in 2010-11 were a big attempt in wooing back Dalits.

"The decision proves who is more pro Dalit," said Punjab Congress leader Manpreet Singh Badal.

Amarinder Singh, who after his resignation had made a pitch for strong leadership in Punjab and slammed Sidhu for his alleged "links with Pakistan", tweeted "My best wishes to Charanjit Singh Channi. I hope he’s able to keep the border state of Punjab safe and protect our people from the growing security threat from across the border."

After Singh's "anti-national" allegation against Sidhu, BJP on Sunday dared Congress leadership to take cognizance of the allegations and take action.

BJP's IT cell chief Amit Malviya tweeted, "Congress’s CM pick Charanjit Channi faces action in a 3-year-old #MeToo case. He had allegedly sent an inappropriate text to a woman IAS officer in 2018. It was covered up but the case resurfaced when Punjab Women's Commission sent notice. Well done, Rahul."

More controversy is likely to unfold in the run-up to assembly polls, while questions remain whether the Congress high command handled the issue deftly as the change has left Amarinder Singh angry and looking for options, while the role of the chief minister has gone to someone who has never been in the limelight of state politics.

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