Updated: February 7, 2022 12:03:01 pm
As former Congress president Rahul Gandhi declared Charanjit Singh Channi the party’s CM face for the upcoming Punjab polls, the announcement did not come as surprise to anyone in the party or the state. After being entrusted the reins of the state after Capt Amarinder Singh’s ouster, Channi had hit the ground running and eventually left the party with no other option but to back him despite stiff competition from PPCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu. Despite Sidhu being considered an honest politician with an agenda for Punjab to get the debt-ridden state out of the financial mess, Channi defeated Sidhu in the perception battle.
A few months back, Channi was just considered an accidental CM — a consequence of a war for the CM’s post between Sidhu and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa.
For the party, however, the choice was made simpler as Channi belongs to SC community, which has 32.5 per cent population in the state.
Party leaders and workers at the rally venue too said that it would have been a ‘political suicide’ had Sidhu’s name been announced. And seeing the ‘circumstances’ in the party and ‘mood of the people on the ground’, they knew beforehand whom the party would pick and preparations were started for it almost a week back.
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“Who changes the horse in the middle of a battle? If you do so, you draw the plan for your own defeat. Party had no other way out but to play Channi’s Dalit and gareeb ghar card. Announcing Sidhu’s name would have been a political suicide. The major reason for it was that Sidhu lost supporters within the party because there was hardly anyone left against whom he did not speak. He just always focused on ‘I’ not us,” said a senior Congress leader, who was present at Gandhi’s virtual rally ‘Aawaz Punjab di’, Sunday.
Even the Congress MLAs and other leaders who supported Sidhu till a few months back said that the mood on the ground suggested that Channi was people’s choice.
“We have been campaigning for a month now in villages and whenever we would ask people for feedback on a CM’s name, they would say Channi, Channi.. not a single person would take Sidhu’s name. Not a single woman or a youth said Sidhu should be their CM in the villages where I have campaigned. This came as a shock for us too but then it is not possible to go ahead if you remain stuck on ‘I and myself’. Politics and elections are about collective leadership but he always focused on ‘I, me, myself.’ He was deserted within the party just like Captain Amarinder Singh,” said an MLA from Ludhiana.
He added: “Gauging the mood of the people, Channi’s name did not come as a surprise at all because we already knew what people were saying on the ground. It would have been a surprise had it been the other way round.”
“No doubt that Amarinder Singh is no longer a part of Congress but he is a senior politician who led Congress to victory in 2017 and then if you use words such as ‘fooka hua kartoos’ for him, not everyone appreciates such language and attitude,” said the MLA.
He was referring to Sidhu’s belligerent attack on Capt Amarinder Singh today where he called him a spent force.
However with Channi now in saddle, the Congress has targeted not only the SCs, but also given a ‘common man’ CM face to counter the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is posing a threat to the Congress in the state.
A number of Congress leaders, however, argue that the Congress did not have a choice. A senior leader has been stating that by making a Dalit the CM, the party had got on to a tiger, and it did not know how to get off it.
He stated, “The party has now reserved the seat for Channi for a few years to come. If they choose someone else over Channi, they run the risk of 32.5 per cent population turning away in the state and also drawing flak from opposition parties from across the country. Channi is the only choice left. It was very naive of Sidhu to think he stood a chance. Nobody else stood a chance.”
Others leaders in the party argue that knowing his caste advantage, Channi did not waste a single day and started building on his image as a “gareeb aadmi” and a common man, who would squat on the ground to savour saag and makki di roti at a humble house, cross the security cordon to dance to the tunes of bhangra along with the students.
“He was a novelty as a CM, who was from among the people. That is why Rahul Gandhi also announced from the stage on Sunday that when he got a survey done, people said they wanted a gareeb aadmi,” said a party leader.
Channi criss-crossed the state and was seen as “so much different” from his predecessor, who ran the government virtually from his farm house. The social media was abuzz with his videos, in which he came across as a common man. His memes also flooded the social media but party leaders say, “Even those memes made him popular. Though the opposition may have made those to mock at Channi.”
Within a few days of him becoming CM, most of the MLAs rallied behind Channi. Even those, who were earlier with Sidhu, jumped sides and started pressing the high command to name Channi as the CM candidate.
Besides his popularity, ‘common man’ image, his SC status, the party chose not to name Sidhu, a Jat Sikh, as there are 18 per cent Jat Sikhs in the state and this vote bank is considered to divided betwee AAP, Shiromani Akali Dal and lately Amarinder’s Punjab Lok Congress and the farmers’ outfit. “Rahul ji may have said that it was a difficult choice for him to decide from among the ‘diamonds of Congress’ but it is for anyone to see that it was not a difficult choice at all. He was the natural choice. Surveys have also been favouring him,” said a leader.
He added that the recent raids and arrest of his nephew by Enforcement Directorate (ED) was a dampener, but the action came close to the elections.
“It would not stick. Opposition parties may be saying he is corrupt but it is not a part of the narrative among the people. They say that the Centre was trying to pull him down as he was an SC and a Congressman.” Interestingly, the Congress party had earlier decided not to name any CM candidate for 2022 Assembly election on the plea that it was not the party tradition to name the CM face. It was stated that they would fight the election on the collective leadership. But Sidhu built the narrative around CM candidate, and started pressing the party to declare the “bridegroom” stating if the party failed to do so, it would have to pay up like AAP did last time.
Under Channi’s leadership, however, Congress faces many a challenges. The biggest one would be to keep Sidhu on Channi’s side. If he rebels against him now, it could be detrimental for the party ahead of elections.
Also, the party reckons that by having an SC at the helm of affairs, it may not annoy the Hindus, who comprise 38.49 per cent in the state. “This is from where Rahul Gandhi was coming today. He got former PPCC chief Sunil Jakhar to drive the vehicle in which he, Channi and Sidhu travelled from Halwara airport to a Ludhiana hotel and finally to the virtual
rally venue. That was a message that Jakhar was like the ‘saarthi’ from the epic Mahabharata,” a party leader said about Rahul’s visit.
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