CHARANJIT SINGH Channi, who will be the next Chief Minister of Punjab, was neither the Congress high command’s first choice nor the unanimous choice of the Congress Legislature Party. His elevation, as the state’s first Dalit CM, capped a day of hectic and desperate lobbying by several senior leaders with an unusual Sikh versus Hindu CM narrative thrown into the mix.
After the decision was taken, however, several leaders told The Indian Express that the appointment of a Dalit in a state with nearly 32 per cent Dalit population was a “sound political decision” — given that all opposition parties have been wooing the community. While the Akali Dal has tied up with BSP and promised to make a Dalit the Deputy CM, AAP is banking heavily on this votebank. The BJP had also spoken about making a Dalit the Chief Minister if voted to power.
“It is a message that while all other parties are announcing that Dalits would be given important positions if they form the government in 2022, we have already done that,” a Congress leader in Punjab said.
With Channi’s elevation, the high command has also ensured that state Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu is kept under check while allowing him to emerge as the party’s Jat face. It hopes that the elevation of a Dalit leader will not be challenged by various factions and their leaders who were eyeing the top post.
And yet, the decision on Channi came after every Congress leader of some stature in Punjab had entered the fray through the day. Sources said Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s initial choice was former PPCC president Sunil Jakhar before the Sikh versus Hindu hurdle came up.
Sidhu was not agreeable either to giving Jakhar the top job, perhaps fearing that the veteran would emerge as a new power centre. Jakhar’s name was opposed strongly by veteran leader Ambika Soni, too. Sources said she had conveyed her objection on Friday itself to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
As a compromise formula, the leadership then turned to Soni who declined the offer. In fact, the 79-year-old Rajya Sabha MP, an old Gandhi family loyalist with sharp political acumen, sprang a surprise by going public. “I have said no. The party’s exercise (to find a new CLP leader) is on in Chandigarh. The general secretary is there. So are the two observers. They are talking to each and every MLA and seeking their opinion in writing,” Soni said after a meeting with Rahul Gandhi.
She said the Chief Minister should be a Sikh as Punjab is the only state where a person from the community can become the CM. And so, the wheels within wheels in the Congress started turning again.
The CLP meeting, which was to take place at 11 am, was cancelled even as Soni’s Sikh pitch set the cat among the pigeons. Some leaders claimed she was batting for Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa. Some disagreed. “In Congress politics, what is happening is not often what you see or hear. It is the opposite sometimes,” a veteran leader said, implying that Soni’s comments were calibrated to edge out Jakhar and set off a race among Sikh leaders.
Sidhu, it is learnt, opposed Randhawa’s elevation but told the high command that he would have no issues if a Dalit became the next CM. “Randhawa was objecting to Jakhar’s candidature, saying a Hindu should not be the CM of a Sikh-majority state. Channi became a compromise candidate,” a leader said.
Meanwhile, the Congress MPs from the state, who had in July opposed the elevation of Sidhu as PPCC president and closed ranks behind the then CM Amarinder Singh, also decided to oppose Jakhar. They held a meeting at former state chief Partap Singh Bajwa’s residence.
Asked about Bajwa as Chief Minister, one MP told The Indian Express that they did not have any problem. “If a Hindu is to be made the Chief Minister, then why not Manish Tewari, the MP from Anandpur Sahib,” another MP said.
Sources said opinion among MLAs was divided, too. One claimed that Jakhar got 38 votes, followed by Randhawa with 18 votes, and that Amarinder’s MP wife Preneet Kaur got 12 and Sidhu got five. As it became clear that the high command was looking at a Sikh candidate, Randhawa emerged as frontrunner. But then, sources said, Sidhu threw his hat in the ring.
With no consensus emerging and time running out — the party wanted the new CM to take charge before the “inauspicious Pitru Paksha’’ sets in — the high command turned to Channi.
However, several leaders told The Indian Express that they were not aware of who had proposed his name. During the day, one senior leader said: “Names are floated to ensure their elimination. It is a classic high command operation. There will be chaos and confusion and finally the Congress president will nominate someone.” Another leader said outgoing Finance Minister Manpreet Badal was the only leader backing Channi.
Sources said the name of Lok Sabha MP Amar Singh, a retired IAS officer who had been appointed by Sidhu as one of his advisors, was also proposed by his camp. Singh, the MP from Fatehgarh Sahib, is a Dalit.
Finally, Gandhi drove to the residence of Sonia Gandhi and took her approval for Channi’s elevation. He then met with AICC general secretary (organisation) K C Venugopal — and AICC general secretary Harish Rawat was told to announce the decision of Channi’s election as CLP leader.
Rawat told reporters that Channi was the “unanimous choice”. But sources said there was hectic lobbying till the last minute against Channi with several text messages sent to the high command from the Punjab unit.
(With Kanchan Vasdev in Chandigarh)