It makes for quite a composition. A Christian-Dalit-Sikh, just months old Congress chief minister (and CM candidate) Charanjit Singh Channi, atop a red tractor. And a Congress High Command nominee, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, of mixed parentage, perched to his side and slightly behind.
Channi calls Priyanka Vadra a ‘Punjaban’. This, despite Priyanka being half-Italian plus a mixture of ancestors from other regions, none of them from Punjab. Channi thinks she is a Punjaban, only by virtue of her marriage to an Anglo-Indian Punjabi combo from (originally) Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.
Channi declares from atop the tractor that “UP, Bihar ke bhaiya” should leave Punjab. At the time, the televised photo opportunity gets a quota of claps and wolf-whistles from the faithful before the duo. Vadra herself claps and grins her delight, displays her dimples, her much mentioned Indira Gandhi nose.
Channi’s inexperience in high politics shines through as he explains after a substantial backlash from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Channi says, to make matters worse, that he meant the Aam Aadmi Party leaders such as Durgesh Pathak, Sanjay Singh and Arvind Kejriwal. The AAP are seen as the front-runners to form the next government in Punjab by the findings of several opinion polls.
Prime Minister Modi, taking Channi at his word, pointed out that Guru Gobind Singh was born in Patna Sahib in Bihar. Guru Ravidas, a Dalit icon, said the prime minister, whose birth anniversary was just celebrated, was born in Uttar Pradesh.
In Patna, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said he was “stunned” by the comments. He continued, “Do they know what is the contribution of the people of Bihar in Punjab and how many are living and serving there?”
Channi then fell over himself to course-correct. He said, “Those who come from UP, Bihar and Rajasthan and work in Punjab — Punjab belongs to them as much as it does to us.”
Vadra chimed in with “All that Chief Minister Charanjit Channi said was that Punjab should be run by Punjabis”. Yes, but she may find that the people of Punjab choose the so-called outsider AAP instead this time.
Besides, there could be darker motives in the Congress. The Khalistan movement is beginning to revive. The storming of the Red Fort had one of its proponents, Deep Sidhu, making no secret of it. His recent death in a car crash and the subsequent funeral where slogans for Khalistan rent the air are sobering realities. The Canadian Sikh/Khalistani financial and physical contributions to the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA stir and the farmer protests thereafter are threats to India’s internal security well recognised by the government at the Centre.
Some Punjabi Sikh politicians like Navjot Singh Sidhu have precipitated foreign policy embarrassments by going to Pakistan and embracing General Qamar Javed Bajwa, their Army Chief. Another stalwart of the Pakistan loving brigade, Mani Shankar Aiyar’s photograph was plastered all over Congress promotion material recently. Since he hasn’t said a word lately, a rumour started that he had probably died. However, happily, he is very much amongst us, but Congress probably wanted to remind the public of his sympathies.
Of late there has also been an upsurge in evangelical conversions of Sikhs to Christianity and the establishment of scores of new churches. Charanjit Singh Channi, a product of this process, and possibly the Congress High Command led by Sonia Gandhi, are apparently in favour. What this implies in terms of national security in this, a border state, is not clear, unless it leads to greater Western influence.
There is a massive drug problem in the state as a result of a nexus between elements on both sides of the India-Pakistan international border, some associated with the Akali Dal. Drones have also been regularly dropping arms and ammunition on our side, along with drugs, to finance the anti-national activity.
The Congress government in Punjab, particularly after the exit of Captain Amarinder Singh as chief minister, have raised strident objections to the extended patrolling of the border area by the BSF at the instance of the Centre. West Bengal, where the same action has been taken simultaneously, is also vehemently opposed to the BSF presence along the border with Bangladesh.
This trend of parochialism and localism has been on display in a number of other states going to elections, most recently in West Bengal where Mamata Banerjee and the TMC scored big by portraying the BJP as predatory outsiders.
It has also been on display at other times, as in the move to reserve government and private sector jobs for the people of the state elsewhere. But most recently, Haryana was disallowed by its High Court to reserve 75 per cent of the jobs for locals. These are trends with far-reaching consequences, as the best people for various jobs may be disbarred just for not belonging to a given state. In addition to reservations for weaker sections that are rife already, this additional populism may soon become unworkable.
Nevertheless, there are a number of election-time pledges to reserve jobs for Punjabis from different political parties. Ditto in other states, which have gone, or are still going through the various phases of the polls.
The fissiparous tendencies, being fanned by the Congress, seem to be in line with the vision of Pakistan and China. In his speech in Parliament, Rahul Gandhi called India a ‘union of states’ rather than a nation. He suggested that states had every right to formulate their own policies to suit themselves. Rahul Gandhi also left out the entire North East of India in a recent tweet on the extent of India. He placed himself as opposed to the idea of a centralisation of power, and the Prime Minister acting like a ‘king’.
Here seems to be a plan afoot with the Congress and those others unable to secure gains in electoral politics, to try and challenge the law and order situation on the street instead. The latest hijab agitation, which it backs along with some Islamic organisations, is yet another example of this strategy.
But at the same time, it is creeping up as an overall Opposition strategy to bring down the NDA. So what if it loosens the bolts of national unity in the process?
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed are personal.