Till hours before counting of votes began in Punjab, Congress still hoped that the ‘Channi factor’ — naming Charanjit Singh Channi as the party’s CM face — would do the trick in a keenly contested Assembly poll. The result day, however, saw the ruling party decimated to less than 20 seats in the state that gave it 77 MLAs in 2017.
What was seen as Congress’s masterstroke in naming Channi, an SC leader, first as the CM and later as party’s CM candidate in a bid to polarise SC votes did not have the impact the incumbent party desired.
Sources said that while SC votes — the state has 32.5 per cent Dalit population, did not consolidate in Congress’s favour, the party did end up losing Hindu and Jat Sikh votes that now appear to have gone to AAP’s kitty.
In Ludhiana West, which has a sizeable population of Hindu voters, sitting Congress MLA Bharat Bhushan Ashu lost despite being seen as sure-shot bet for the party given his grip on the constituency. Sources added that his loss was a sign of Hindu voters drifting away from the party.
Part of the Channi gambit was also eating into AAP’s space in a state yearning for ‘change’. Congress tried projecting Channi as the “real aam aadmi” and the face of “badlaav” after Capt Amarinder Singh’s ouster. But the narrative did not clearly hit home, despite Channi trying to hardsell his 111-day track record as CM and openly mingling with the voters. What it did instead was cement the ‘change’ narrative in the voters’ mind with AAP presenting itself as a credible claimant for bringing about that change.
“The Congress cemented the narrative of badlaav that was already resonating in Punjab since 2017, but Channi could not prove to be a face of badlaav. The voters then turned to the AAP,” a political observer said.
He added that the voters turned to AAP especially after Enforcement Directorate raids on Channi’s nephew, recovery of Rs 10 crore and a perception gaining ground that his family also had income associated with sand mafia.
“This strengthened the resolve of the people to bring about a big change this time,” he added.
At the end of it all, far from steering the party to victory, Channi could not ensure his own victory from either of the two seats he contested. He was defeated by AAP candidates from both Chamkaur Sahib and Bhadaur segments.
Channi’s rule was also marred by serious infighting within the Congress. PPCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu on many occasions openly took on Channi. The talk of infighting overpowered party promises that Channi’s government claimed to be delivering upon.
Party insiders said that the perception of two power centres in Congress did its damage before party tried to project a united front. They added party either needed to replace Sunil Jakhar as PPCC chief or Amarinder as CM — not both.
The Congress, in the end, was not seen as a cohesive force against opponents. Rejected MLAs contested as Independents. Channi’s brother, Dr Manohar Singh, contested as an Independent against the party nominee, while Cabinet Minister Rana Gurjeet Singh’s son contested as an Independent.
Every candidate appeared to have been left on his own. Sidhu, who was a star campaigner of party in 2017 elections, did not campaign for anyone. He lost to AAP volunteer, Dr Jivan Jyot Kaur, in a humiliating defeat. He was pinned down in his Amritsar East after SAD leader Bikram Singh Majithia threw his hat in the ring from there.
Channi, however, worked like a tireless campaigner, and criss-crossed the state while campaigning for all party candidates. There was no central management of campaign and there was no effective war room.
Battling anti-incumbency, the Congress knew that it needed to replace sitting MLAs in ticket distribution, but with Amarinder threatening to take their rejected candidates, the party stuck with the sitting MLAs at most places. This also did not go well for the party.
Also, the incumbent government was seen reluctant in taking credit for works done during Amarinder’s run as CM fearing that it would end up benefiting the ousted leader.