A lawyer, management graduate, lifelong student, and saviour of the Dalits. A self-made politician, the new chief minister of Punjab is a man of many parts.
Once a student leader, Charanjit Singh Channi, 58, has grown from the ranks, and believes his strength lies in his connect with the masses. Much before Congress legislators began to brew a revolt against chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh, Channi, who hails from the Ramdasia community, had been seeking a greater representation of Dalits in the Punjab Cabinet given their high percentage in the party.
A Minister of Technical Educational and Industrial Training in the Punjab government, Channi was known to often drive his car himself, and pay the toll tax. So it came as no surprise today when he came to the Punjab Bhawan, riding pillion on a motorcycle driven by Sunil Jakhar, former PPCC chief.
Channi was an active participant in the revolt against the chief minister that gathered pace this April after the High Court quashed investigations into a case related to sacrilege.
Last fortnight, he was among the four ministers who went to meet Punjab in charge Harish Rawat in Dehradun. But unlike the others, he had chosen to participate in the virtual Cabinet meet a day later, and even thanked the CM for a step taken for the SC students, fuelling speculation that he may be taking a step back. But Channi continued to rally support against Amarinder, and was one of the signatories to the letter calling for a CLP meet that precipitated Amarinder’s exit.
Ironically, it was Amarinder who had paved the way for his return to the party in December 2010, three years after he had rebelled against Congress nominee for Chamkaur Sahib in 2007. He fought and won the seat as an independent, and went on to become an associate member of the Shiromani Akali Dal in the Assembly. At one point, he was considered close to PPP’s Manpreet Badal, a minister in Amarinder cabinet.
After his return to Congress, he reportedly made efforts to get in touch with Rahul Gandhi through senior Congress leader CP Joshi.
For a long time, Channi minded his own business, taking care not to get mired in party infighting. He stayed neutral when Amarinder fought a battle to oust Partap Singh Bajwa from the post of PPCC chief in 2015.
It’s perhaps due to his non-aligned stance that he was made leader of the opposition from 2015 to 2016 during the SAD-BJP regime.
Cloud over Channi
Channi’s present tenure as a minister had its share of controversy when a woman IAS officer accused him of sending her an “inappropriate” text in October 2018. Amarinder later confirmed the development by saying he minister had apologised and the matter had been sorted.
The state women panel chairperson Manisha Gulati had refused to take suo motu cognisance of newspaper reports on the alleged incident, saying that neither the commission nor the police had received any complaint.
Later, when Channi rebelled against Amarinder, the government had tried to reopen the case against him in May this year. The Punjab women panel chief Gulati threatened to go on a hunger strike if the state government failed to apprise her within a week of its stand on an “inappropriate text” message. She claimed that she took up the over two-year-old matter after some IAS officers questioned her about its status, and accused her of supporting the minister.
Gulati also said she had written to Chief Secretary Vini Mahajan, seeking the government’s action taken report. But once again, the matter died down after Amarinder’s intervention.
Earlier, soon after taking over as a minister in 2017, Channi ran foul of the UT administration when he changed the entry of his government house due to astrological considerations.
Channi had his first brush with politics when he was doing matriculation from Khalsa Senior Secondary School, Kharar, and was elected president of the students’ union. “I got 472 out of 1,000 votes,” says Channi, who has a photographic memory and remembers the exact number of votes polled by his two rivals.
He continued to dabble in student politics when he enrolled for graduation at Sri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh, where he was elected general secretary of the students’ union.
Unending pursuit of knowledge
A trained lawyer with two postgraduate degrees, one in business administration and another in political science, Channi is fond of academics.
It was during his stint as a councillor that he graduated in law from Panjab University. When he was first elected a legislator from Chamkaur Sahib, he made time to pursue MBA from Punjab Technical University. “I thought it was a good subject,” he says.
It was while serving as the leader of Congress Legislature Party (CLP) in 2016 that he completed his post-graduation in political science from PU. It wasn’t easy, he recounts, telling you how he took lessons from a professor of political science in Delhi.
“I study for the love of education, not qualification,” he says. Last heard, he wanted to enrol for a Ph.D on the Indian National Congress in the political science department of Panjab University.
Channi says he gets his love for education from his father Harsa Singh who worked in Malaysia for a while, and relocated his family from their ancestral village to Kharar to ensure good education for his children.
Channi’s wife Kamaljeet is a doctor, and the couple has two children. His elder son Navjeet Singh, who’s passed out from PEC University of Technology, is now pursuing law, like his father.
Channi says he got his inspiration to do well in both education and political career from his elder brother Manmohan Singh, who started as an overseer but retired as a chief engineer. Channi recounts how Manmohan was a diploma holder when he joined the government service, but did graduation, B Tech, and law while in service.
Besides politics and studies, Channi also excelled at bhangra and handball, representing PU thrice in handball.
(With inputs by Kanchan Vasdev)