Friday, 28 January, 2022
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Congress got the messaging right in Punjab but the Gandhis and Sidhu can’t celebrate yet

If Channi succeeds in doing what Amarinder couldn’t do in over four years, it would be difficult for the Gandhis to boot him out. That will trouble Sidhu.

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Congress party’s surprise pick of a Dalit Sikh, Charanjit Singh Channi, as the next chief minister of Punjab is a politically smart move, on the face of it. A dalit Sikh as CM and a Jat Sikh, Navjot Singh Sidhu, as state Congress president make a strong combination in a Sikh-majority state. Channi is a Ramdasia Sikh, the same community Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, belonged to. With this, the Congress may hope to neutralise the alliance between the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the BSP. The SAD and the Aam Admi Party (AAP), too, have been trying to woo the community with the promise of a Dalit deputy CM.

In terms of social engineering, the Congress high command has sought to do in Punjab what Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah did in Gujarat by appointing Bhupendra Patel the CM, the first Kadva Patel to occupy that post. Whether these messages will hit home will be known only after elections in these states next year.

But for the high commands of the two parties, the shake-ups in Punjab and Gujarat have produced different results. For the BJP, the stakes were different. The idea was to beat anti-incumbency by offering a ‘new government’ to the electorate and an olive branch to the Patidars. So they shunted out CM Vijay Rupani and his entire council of ministers were packed off lock, stock, and barrel. You can blame Modi-Shah for running the Gujarat government by proxy — through a set of bureaucrats—but it’s Modi the people vote for and he has changed the regents who failed to perform. There was nothing personal at stake. It was about the BJP’s interest in Gujarat and to that extent, the party high command was successful, no matter what happens in next year’s elections.

The objectives were, however, different for the Congress high command. It was more personal- the inviolability of the Gandhi family writ. It’s about the Gandhis’ discretionary powers- to reward or sack whosoever they wished at a time of their choosing. Captain Amarinder Singh was expected to act as a mere regent, not as a sovereign. So if the Gandhis wanted Singh to make way for Sidhu, he had better comply. Captain was expected to act like Vijay Rupani who read out from a given text, with bowed head, the reasons for his resignation. A Congress CM looking the high command in the eye was an affront. He had to go.

Also read: As Charanjit Channi takes oath as Punjab’s 1st Dalit Sikh CM, a look at past Dalit CMs of India

Captain out but Sidhu still waiting

But has the Congress high command achieved the desired objective? Just as everyone was praising the Congress for delivering a masterstroke by picking up a Dalit CM, Harish Rawat, the party in-charge of Punjab, made it a point to clarify that the next elections would be fought “with the CM’s Cabinet under Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, whose chief is Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is very popular.” It was quite a convoluted statement– almost a veiled apology to the cricketer-turned-politician for the high command’s inability to install him as the CM immediately and an assurance that Channi is there to keep the seat warm for Sidhu.

A Dalit CM may happen to be a politically astute move but he symbolises the compromise the top leadership had to make. It had to be a stopgap arrangement, approved by Sidhu. So he vetoed Sunil Jakhar’s candidature. The Gandhis then proposed Ambika Soni’s name. In fact, that gave out the entire gameplan- that Captain’s ouster was to secure Sidhu’s future and establishing the high command’s supremacy. Nothing more, nothing less.  Soni is just eight months younger to Singh. So, the Gandhis’ move was not about a generational change, obviously. Soni had given up her position as general secretary in charge of different states due to her inability to travel much at this age. The Gandhis wanting her as Singh’s replacement, therefore, wasn’t about governance either. Soni, a Gandhi family loyalist, would be a perfect stopgap arrangement as she—unlike Jakhar or Sukhjinder Randhawa– would willingly make way for Sidhu in the event of the Congress winning the polls in 2022. She declined the offer. She deserves praise for this, of course. How many would decline a chief ministerial chair even if it’s for six months only? Sidhu wouldn’t accept Randhawa, another Jat Sikh, even as a stop-gap arrangement. An accomplished cricketer that Sidhu was, he was aware even a night watchman can end up playing a much longer innings.

That’s how a Dalit CM got Sidhu’s approval as a compromise candidate, no matter how much Congress leaders gush over the new social engineering formula in Punjab.

The Congress high command might have dug itself into a hole though. If Channi cannot deliver on unfulfilled promises in the next five months, what Amarinder Singh couldn’t do in four-and-a-half years, voters may not take kindly to it. But if Channi succeeds, it would be difficult for the high command to boot him out. Mind you, Congress leaders were going gaga on Twitter how installation of a Dalit CM in Punjab would send a message across the country. Well, shunting him out would also send a message across India. And Channi certainly has better credentials than a night watchman.

Sidhu must be conscious of it. He has supported Channi thus far watch out for his next move. Success or failure, Channi will be in Sidhu’s crosshairs, sooner than later.

Also read: Picking Channi as Punjab CM has restored political canniness back into Congress game

Captain’s options

As for Amarinder Singh’s successful ouster establishing the high command’s writ, these are early days. To say that the Captain didn’t see the writing on the wall and so was stumped by Sidhu-Gandhis’s sudden move would be presumptuous. He has been one of the shrewdest politicians around. He must have a plan. If he was so stumped, he could very well do what then Karnataka CM Veerendra Patil had done in 1989. Rajiv Gandhi had suddenly announced that Patil would be replaced in four days and the Congress Legislature Party would meet to elect a new leader. Patil put his foot down. He, as CLP leader, refused to convene the CLP meeting and then Karnataka governor, Bhanu Pratap Singh, said he wouldn’t validate the CLP’s choice without the CM being part of the exercise. Amid this Constitutional impasse, how the Centre had to impose the President’s rule and put the Assembly under suspended animation before Patil had to go is all history.

Mind you, Punjab has a governor appointed by Modi-Shah. What if Amarinder Singh sought to repeat history! He chose not to, of course. For someone who was Rajiv Gandhi’s friend from school days and who would visit the latter’s children in their schools to take them out for meals, it must have been heart-breaking to be humiliated by them like that.

The Congress high command, with its supremacy ostensibly established through the Punjab experiment, is now expected to follow suit in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Amarinder Singh might not have the stamina or will to fight at 79 although he may still spring a surprise. Ashok Gehlot is 70 and Bhupesh Baghel 60. The Gandhis would be more circumspect in dealing with them. There are also Bhupinder Hoodas, Siddaramaiahs and Oommen Chandys who may choose to jump into the fray to perish or survive together if they feel being preyed on one by one.

Modi-Shah could do with party CMs what they did because of their credentials as leaders who can deliver electoral victories to their party. The Gandhis still have to prove their mettle as leaders who can get votes for the Congress. Until they prove it, enforcing their writ will always be a challenge.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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