Why Charanjit Singh Channi as Congress’ CM face is a double-edged sword in Punjab

Given the hype surrounding the Congress naming its chief ministerial face for the upcoming Assembly elections in Punjab, one can be forgiven...

Given the hype surrounding the Congress naming its chief ministerial face for the upcoming Assembly elections in Punjab, one can be forgiven for assuming that the party has already won, and current chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit, will continue in the chair. And, given the euphoria among the state’s significant Dalit population at Rahul Gandhi’s announcement on Monday, the Congress has cemented its reach-out to these communities like never before.

In many ways choosing Channi over Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Pradesh Congress president, was a foregone conclusion, considering the electoral advantage that the party stands to gain with this decision. Letting Channi down at this juncture, just days before the state goes to polls on 20 February, would have been suicidal for the Congress. While it is true that Punjab’s 31.5 percent Dalit population has never put its weight behind any one party as this has largely been a fractured vote-bank, when Channi was elevated to the chief minister’s chair in September last, Dalit communities of all shades and religions — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists — rallied around him.

File image of Charanjit Singh Channi and Navjot Singh Sidhu. News18

Dalit dilemma: AAP or Congress?

Data from the CSDS-Lokniti survey shows that Dalits have mostly supported the Congress in Punjab over its rivals like the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the BJP, irrespective of who won the election. Almost 51 percent of Dalit Sikhs and 37 percent Dalit Hindus voted for the party in 2012, even though it lost the election to the Akali Dal. When the Aam Admi Party (AAP) entered the contest for the first time in 2017, it cornered an impressive 21 percent and 19 percent of the Dalit Hindu and Dalit Sikh votes respectively. Most of these votes, especially from Dalit Sikhs were sliced off from the Congress’ share that came down to 41 per cent. In this election too, the AAP has generated huge interest among Dalit voters with its promise to bring in the Delhi model of governance. Its focus on education and health in particular appeals to the marginalised sections of society who are hopelessly dependent on the abysmal state infrastructure in these two areas.

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It is common knowledge that Punjab’s government schools are peopled mainly by children of Scheduled Castes and these communities are rooting for the AAP in the hope that their children will get a better future. By backing Channi as its chief ministerial face, the Congress leadership will not just stem this erosion, but is also aiming for a clear majority on the strength of support from Dalit communities.

For one, it has given clarity over the question that was bothering Punjabi Dalits the most: Whether Channi is just a stop-gap arrangement to win them over during elections.

With Sidhu snapping at his heels, many assumed that post-election, if the Congress won, Sidhu, a Jat Sikh from the dominant community, would get the top job. Now that the air has cleared, these floating, undecided voters will definitely move towards the Congress. The buzz from within Dalit circles is that even educated Dalits such as employees, teachers and businessmen who usually don’t turn up to vote on the polling day are going to vote for Channi with enthusiasm.

Interestingly, even though a section of Dalits are critical of chief minister Channi’s -month rule, as they feel that he has not demonstrated that Dalit issues are his priority, even this opposition is whittling down as the “craze for Channi” overwhelms them. On 24 January, the National Scheduled Castes Alliance led by Paramjit Kainth met the Governor to demand a CBI inquiry into the decision of the Channi government not to collect penalties from colleges guilty of the post-matric scholarship for SC students scam. Kainth also alleged that the relief to the guilty institutions was provided in exchange for hefty election funds to the Congress.

“Channi has not unveiled any agenda for the Dalits so far. Why is he shy of talking about the issues that 32 percent of the population faces? Issues like social discrimination and violence,” said Kainth. But voices like Kainth’s are fast getting drowned amidst the surge of enthusiasm to see someone from “apna samaj” (one of our own) up there. Advocate SL Virdi, a prominent Dalit thinker from Phagwara, told this writer that Channi’s elevation has infused untold confidence and self-esteem among Dalits, oppressed for centuries. “I can easily see the Congress vote share increasing by at least 5 per cent as a result. The shift in Dalit votes will damage the AAP the most,” he says.

Channi’s appeal stretches over into Punjab’s backward castes, engaged in occupations such as tailoring, carpenters, ironsmiths in villages, the dhobis and other small tradesmen, who are also marginalised and have begun to feel that if Channi can be made a chief minister, then why not one from among them in future?

The question however is, whether this burst of elation takes the Congress towards an absolute majority or not. Punjab’s huge Dalit population is politically fragmented and has never voted comprehensively for any one party. One reason is that the community is divided into at least 39 sub-castes with each fighting for benefits within the SC pie. They have also sought the patronage of different political parties over time and do not subscribe to a common ideology. Their loyalties towards the SAD and now the AAP will matter. It also needs to be pointed out that, the Bahujan Samaj Party that germinated in Punjab could never get the consolidated support of this segment for the same reasons.

For the Congress, the surge of Dalit support will be negated by the upper caste Hindus and Jat Sikhs who will most certainly desert the party in large numbers. Ever since Channi was elevated in September last, upper-caste Punjab was smarting at the humiliation of being governed by a SC chief minister. Many consoled themselves with the thought that perhaps the Congress will use him to woo Dalit votes and change horses if the party wins the election. This is not to be. Sidhu, a Jat Sikh, was made the PCC president to prevent alienation of Jat Sikhs who comprise some 20 percent of the population and have dominated the politics and economy of the state for decades.

File image of Navjot Singh Sidhu. PTI

Now, Sidhu himself is marginalised after the Monday show in Ludhiana by Rahul Gandhi where the latter gave a sermon on how it takes years for a leader to develop. The reference being towards Sidhu, viewed as an upstart within the Congress, having joined the party in 2017 after leaving the BJP. The man himself put up a graceful front at the event where he hugged Channi, but is widely expected to make known his angst in the days to come. Remember how just two days ago, he took a potshot at the Gandhis when it became obvious that they would choose Channi. “The people at the top want a weak chief minister who can dance to their tunes,” he said at a public meeting. He has also said on numerous occasions that he does not wish to be a show piece in the Congress. Given the man’s mercurial nature and characteristic hot-headedness, the coming days leading up to the elections will clarify which direction Sidhu will take.

The author is a journalist and author. Views expressed are personal.

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