Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and state Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu in Amritsar, September 22 (Photo: AFP)
THE ELEVATION OF Charanjit Singh Channi, replacing Amarinder Singh as chief minister, has inspired claims of a Dalit finally getting his due in Punjab’s upper caste-dominated politics. In a state that accounts for the largest number of Dalits of all states as a percentage of the total population—at 32 per cent—such a move is sure to draw cheer. But the apparently gratuitous nature of the announcement was not lost on anyone because shortly after what has been called by Congress state chief Navjot Singh Sidhu a creation of ‘history’ by his leader Rahul Gandhi, Harish Rawat, party general secretary in charge of the state, stated that Sidhu would be the chief ministerial face in the upcoming Assembly election. The pronouncement added confusion to chaos in the faction-ridden state Congress.
The suggestion that Channi would be a mere stopgap arrangement was just posturing, whether it was to please a vocal leader like Sidhu or otherwise—and the consequences could be dire if Congress ended up attracting Dalit disaffection. Which was why Congress communications head Randeep Singh Surjewala immediately came out with a clarification: that Sidhu heads the party and Channi the government and that both leaders along with all Congress workers will be the face of the party in the polls due early next year.
It was a timely clarification, but not an assertion that a Dalit would be Congress’ next chief ministerial candidate in Punjab.
In Punjab, where the numerically preponderant Dalits have always been at the mercy of the upper castes who dominated through feudalistic means down the centuries, there was still enough, and more, scepticism about Congress’ commitment to championing the cause of a Dalit.
The response to Channi’s anointment cuts both ways among those who have closely watched the social realities of the state. Says Ravinder Kaur, author and associate professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, “If we look at this appointment through the limited logic of the upcoming elections, then we risk missing the larger point: it is a long overdue step, one that builds upon the old anti-caste traditions that have flourished in Punjab for centuries. Regardless of the immediate electoral outcome, it is bound to have far-reaching effects in Punjab’s social-political landscape.”
Meanwhile, a historian well-versed with the caste equations and social disequilibrium in the state says: “Mayawati becoming the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was a significant move”, implying that Channi is not being treated by his own party as a competent Dalit, but a mere Dalit. “It appears like they are making certain gestures to capture the votes of Dalits, but are not serious about empowering them. After all, if Channi is just an interim chief minister to pave the way for Sidhu to anoint the position after a successful election, then this action means nothing.”
“Rather than history, it is a farce,” says a Delhi-based senior Congress leader who has been critical of the first family, the Nehru-Gandhi-led high command, which he contends makes arbitrary and farcical decisions and in the utmost secrecy of their homes. “There is a lack of collective leadership even in this upbeat mood of having a Dalit as Punjab chief minister, a first,” adds another Congress leader who suspects that the “siblings” (Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra) seem to have no big plan in Punjab and are unwise to encourage a vocally ‘reckless’ Sidhu in calling the shots.
The lack of cohesion and transparency in the handling of the crisis in Punjab emanating from the Sidhu-Amarinder tussle was evident from the start. While there is no quibble that Singh had become unpopular over his style of functioning and the inordinate delays over the 2015 sacrilege case, the dithering over managing factionalism was left to inexperienced low weights like KC Venugopal, a Man Friday of the Gandhi siblings, whose ineptitude is part of Congress folklore. The sacrilege incidents involved theft and desecration of the holy Guru Granth Sahib from a Gurdwara in Burj Jawahar Singh Wala, Faridkot, all of which was designed to stir up calls to the effect that “Sikhism is under threat”. The events sparked widespread outrage.
Channi’s name cropped up in the last-minute overruling of a proposal by Congress legislators that Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, former Singh loyalist and cabinet colleague who later turned his bitter critic, be made the next chief minister. Randhawa was at the forefront of the criticism of Shiromani Akali Dal leaders, accusing them of allegedly ‘manufacturing’ the sacrilege to swing votes in their favour in the run-up to the 2017 polls and to retain power. Akali Dal lost that election, and it was expected that Amarinder would bring those guilty of instigating the sacrilege to justice.
Randeep Singh Surjewala’s clarification that both Sidhu and Channi would be the face of the party in the polls early next year was timely. But it was not an assertion that a Dalit would be Congress’ next chief ministerial candidate
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Later, Randhawa got disenchanted with the chief minister and shifted to the rival camp of Sidhu, alleging that Singh was being soft towards Akali Dal and its leaders, the Badals, especially Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Randhawa had also played the crucial role of troubleshooter when Sikh religious organisations planned a protest over the “slow handling” of the 2015 sacrilege cases in 2018 ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. He managed to get them to postpone the protests. Randhawa was the minister in charge of jails and co-operation in Amarinder Singh’s government at the time.
When senior Congress leaders, such as Ambika Soni and Venugopal, discussed the issue of replacing Amarinder Singh, Randhawa’s name topped the list. According to Congress leaders close to the matter, it was Sidhu who brought up the name of Channi and argued vehemently for him over 62-year-old Randhawa, a strong contender. Channi, 58, was leader of the opposition in the Punjab Legislative Assembly from 2015 to 2016. Sunil Jhakar’s name was also doing the rounds ahead of the final decision.
Ironically, just when muddled thinking on organisational matters appeared to be over, there were more hints to the contrary from the Congress high command. With the months-long wrangling between Amarinder Singh and Sidhu resulting in the sacking of the former and the creation of a new ministry, there were expectations of less disarray. Yet, following an apparent end to infighting, the people most conspicuous by their absence were the Gandhis in the deliberations that followed, including efforts to form the new ministry. As if it were a trifle left best to the likes of Sidhu to manage, Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, Congress’ interim president, headed for holidays within hours of the nomination of Channi on September 19th, a day after Singh tendered his resignation. Their destination was Priyanka Gandhi’s cottage in Shimla. The level of insouciance was inescapable amidst crucial discussions in a pivotal state.
Amarinder Singh’s fall was, of course, thanks to a raft of errors and inaction. In a state where religion can trigger a storm, especially in the wake of the re-emergence of figures who talked secessionism, the former chief minister was found to be soft on the Badals whose ‘mischief’ he had promised to uncover after he took the oath of office in 2017. Singh’s dispensation was equally sloppy in the probe into the October 2015 Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura police firing on peaceful protesters. It is no coincidence that Channi visited the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, within days of coming to the helm and declared that he would intensify the probe into the sacrilege cases and ensure justice.
The betrayal of that faith combined with Amarinder Singh’s style of working, which involved an overdependence on bureaucracy, besides his aloof nature that made him inaccessible to even his cabinet colleagues, contributed to his decline and fall. At the same time, the Akalis continued to retain their clout thanks to their proximity to the officials, much to the anguish of local Congress workers. Their cocktail of mistakes was too big to be ignored, especially when Singh’s detractors were ready to pounce. Sidhu managed to get massive support in the Congress Legislature Party. That Singh had not acted on the letter submitted to him by 33 of his MLAs as early as 2017 seeking a probe into the alleged role of a former Akali Dal minister, Bikram Singh Majithia, in a drugs case had got the legislators’ goat. A series of such cold responses to requests from MLAs followed. Sidhu clearly had reasons to rebel against the chief minister. In the first place, his entry in the Congress fold from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of the 2017 elections was opposed by Singh. Singh later eased him out of his local bodies’ portfolio in a reshuffle after the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, prompting the cricketer-turned-politician to quit the cabinet.
On October 14th, 2015, more than 6,000 protesters gathered in Kotkapura when police used water cannons and later fired some rounds. Two protesters died in the firing. Sidhu sensed an opportunity and became active again after the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed the investigation into the Kotkapura firing and directed the government to create a new special investigation team in April this year. The government’s indifference to probe the matter seriously became a rallying point for the pro-Sidhu camp who accused Amarinder Singh of trying to protect the Badals who were in power at the time. In an earlier interview, Pramod Kumar, director at the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh, had said that factionalism in the state was the outcome of non-performance.
Amarinder Singh knew his time was up and that a plethora of mistakes had led to a groundswell against him. He also misread the fears of MLAs who loathed visiting their constituencies for fear of being targeted by angry locals
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Amarinder Singh had faced a similar threat to his position as chief minister in a previous stint. He had survived back then, but was unlucky this time round. Before he quit, he had shot off a letter to Sonia Gandhi stating that he was anguished at the political events over the past five months. “I hope this will not cause any damage to the hard-earned peace and development in the State, and that the efforts I have been focusing [on] during the last few years would continue unabated, ensuring justice to one and all,” he wrote. He had often accused Sidhu of aligning with secessionist forces and those inimical to the country’s interests.
His national security concerns are shared by at least a handful of Congress leaders in Chandigarh too. “Being a border state, Punjab cannot afford to be seen as promoting certain ideologies and activities that will attract the attention of our enemies across the border. We cannot go back to those times when insurgency was the order of the day. We have lived through that and have learnt lessons from it. We don’t want to go back there. I may not be a great admirer of Captain Amarinder Singh in all respects, but we cannot have any politician rub shoulders with people with different ideas that affect the integrity of this nation,” one of them said.
It is a foregone conclusion that as a regional satrap and political heavyweight in the state, Singh knew his time was up and that a plethora of mistakes had led to a groundswell of protests against him. He also misread the fears of various MLAs who were loath to visit their constituencies for fear of being targeted by local people angry at the sacrilege and firings. He refused to see the anger in his party’s ranks at the impunity that the Badals seemed to enjoy due to their links with the bureaucracy. Now, with Sunil Jhakar stating categorically in an interview that it is high time the erring leaders were held accountable, the priorities of the new dispensation would be to go after political rivals. Singh’s position will further diminish if they are punished soon and not on his watch.
Yet, the shoddy way the change of guard was handled by the Nehru-Gandhi family in a stronghold is proof of amateurism and the propensity to be blasé about the dangers of giving carte blanche to anyone who challenges a regional heavyweight. Again, the repercussions of a contrived outreach to marginalised groups could be worse than one would expect.