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Punjab: Caught off guard, back to drawing board for Opposition for polls next year

Political observers feel that the Congress stands to gain a lot by appointing Charanjit Singh Channi as the Chief Minister and that it will offset, to a great degree, the potential advantage that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had sought by entering into a pre-poll alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and announcing a Dalit deputy CM.

Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi with Navjot Singh Sidhu (File)

The Congress move to appoint a Dalit as chief minister in Punjab has sent the Opposition parties in the state back to the drawing boards to re-calibrate their strategy ahead of the Assembly polls in 2022. None of the parties had factored in a Dalit CM in their calculations for now or for the next year’s polls.

Political observers feel that the Congress stands to gain a lot by appointing Charanjit Singh Channi as the Chief Minister and that it will offset, to a great degree, the potential advantage that the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had sought by entering into a pre-poll alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and announcing a Dalit deputy CM.

Even though Channi emerged as a compromise candidate for the post of CM after an impasse over other names in the Congress, there is an opinion among a section of political watchers that the benefits which accrue from appointing a Dalit to lead the state will be considerable.

Also, the appointment of a Jat Sikh and a Hindu as two deputy CMs is expected to offset any backlash from these two communities over the appointment of a Dalit as the CM. It is, however, not known yet how the Jat Sikh belt of Punjab and the Hindu voters in the urban areas, both critical components of any party’s electoral success, will respond to the recent developments.

Professor Ronki Ram, an expert on Dalit politics in Punjab said that Channi’s appointment as CM will definitely help Congress increase its electoral reach among the Dalit communities. “It is often said that the Dalits themselves are divided among various sects like Ravidasia, and Adi-Dharmi. This move by Congress will consolidate the sub-identities of all these various sects and will lead to a creation of social capital for the Dalits in Punjab,” he said.

Prof Ram added that till now political parties had only been making promises of appointing a Dalit as a deputy CM. But the Congress went a strap ahead and the benefits of such a move cannot be denied to the party.

The BJP leadership had made a comment in April this year that it would appoint a Dalit CM if they came to power next year. That comment had come in response to the Akalis announcing deputy CM’s post for a Dalit if voted to power in 2022. However, since then there has not been any concrete follow-up statements by any state BJP leader and with the vehement protests that the party is facing in Punjab over the three contentious new farm laws, there is a scant possibility of it coming to power.

BJP national general secretary Tarun Chugh and the state party president Ashwani Sharma have already reacted to Channi’s appointment by dubbing him as the ‘nightwatchman’ who would be expected to keep the CM’s chair warm for state Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu. “This is an insult to the Dalits that even before the CM was sworn in, the Congress leadership was portraying Sidhu as the CM face of the 2022 Assembly polls,” both Chugh and Sharma said. Chugh said that Dalits cannot be just expected to be ‘chowkidars’ in state politics, while the actual ‘raj’ would be done by others.

However, with BJP’s marginalised role in the 2022 polls, largely due to the backlash over the new farm laws, the other major parties in the fray – the AAP, the SAD, and the BSP – will now have to figure out a way to deal with the fallout of a Dalit Congress CM.

The AAP has already announced that a Sikh will be its chief ministerial candidate. While the party had announced a Dalit deputy CM in the run-up to the 2017 polls, it has not made any such statements this time around. The party also has never once so far hesitated in pointing out that the Leader of Opposition, Harpal Singh Cheema, and deputy Leader of Opposition, Sarvjit Kaur Manuke, are both from the Dalit community.

Harpal Cheema said his party’s chances for the 2022 polls would not b e affected by the Congress move. “We are a secular party and we take all sections of the society with us. We are focused on doing good work for the people on the lines of the work being done in Delhi by the Arvind Kejriwal government. Our strategy is very simple,” he said.

The bravado showed by the AAP leadership notwithstanding, the appointment of Channi along with that of OP Soni and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa as deputy CMs have already become a cause concern to their strategists. Both Soni and Randhawa are from the Majha belt of Punjab where AAP has been focussing a lot this time around and was expecting a good response.

The de facto CM face of SAD, Sukhbir Singh Badal, has put out a tweet congratulating Channi on his appointment and said that it was expected that he would fulfill the promises made by the Congress that have remained unfulfilled in the past four and a half years. Pawan Kumar Tinu, a Dalit MLA of SAD, said that even though Channi was a compromise candidate he should seize the opportunity and right all the wrongs done to the Dalits under the Congress government so far.

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