New Delhi: Charanjit Singh Channi will be the chief minister candidate from the Congress for the upcoming 2022 Punjab legislative assembly polls, announced the party at its rally held in Ludhiana Sunday.
“CM candidate of Punjab will be Charanjit Singh Channi”, said Rahul Gandhi, at the end of his speech.
“I asked the people, working committee members, our candidates and the youth, I am announcing their mandate…. People of Punjab have said we want a CM from a poor family, we want someone who understands poverty, hunger, the insecurities of the poor, because Punjab needs a person like that”.
Given that Channi, the incumbent chief minister, comes from a Dalit family who rose from poverty and that a third of Punjab’s population belongs to the Scheduled Castes, the odds were already in favour of Channi. His work in the last three months as CM, too, made him a popular name among people.
The formal decision has come just two weeks before the state goes for polls on 20 February.
The party, which had been leading the campaign without a CM candidate, has finally settled the debate on the chief ministerial candidate between Sidhu and Channi, which had made the infighting in the party quite visible.
‘Will accept the party’s decision’: Sidhu
In an emotional speech at the rally, Sidhu said that he already agrees with Rahul Gandhi’s decision, even before Channi was declared as the CM candidate.
“Aitki Sidhu dasvi ghoda nahin, race jittan wala arabi ghoda banuga (This time Sidhu will not be the last horse in the race, rather he’d be the winning Arabian horse),” Sidhu said.
“In the end, I have already accepted the decision of Rahul Gandhi,” he added, minutes before Rahul Gandhi delivered his speech.
Sidhu also said that he would cooperate with the leader decided by the party and that the party’s fight is with its rivals, not with itself.
“If I am given the decisive power, the mafia will end, every person’s life in Punjab would be better. If not, I promise I will walk shoulder to shoulder with whoever leads the state. Our fight is with others and not with ourselves,” Sidhu said, while concluding his speech.
Channi, who had also said that he would welcome the party’s decision, thanked the party leadership for trusting him, “the poor man” .
“I don’t have money or courage to contest an election this big. I can only win this election over people’s support. People of Punjab will fight, only then it will be a success. Will never let any dirt come near me, will not do anything wrong, won’t make illicit money, I give you my word,” he said.
Nudge to declare CM candidate
On 18 September last year, Captain Amarinder Singh resigned as chief minister of Punjab, two days after which Charanjit Singh Channi, MLA from Chamkaur Sahib, was made the CM.
The move to appoint Channi, Punjab’s first Dalit chief minsiter, was seen as an adroit move by the Congress, taking into account the caste realities in the state. Punjab has the highest share of Dalit population in India.
Three months after Amarinder Singh’s resignation from the CM’s post, he also quit the party to form his own party, the Punjab Lok Congress, which is contesting the state elections in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
But for the Congress, not everything has been running smoothly post the Captain’s exit. By the time Channi was celebrating 100 days of his governance in January this year, several protests had erupted in the state — by National Health Mission workers, contractual teachers and even bus employees.
On the top of this, the already divided Congress party in Punjab further descended into fractiousness when its two top leaders — Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and CM Channi differed on the issue of the party’s CM candidate for the assembly polls.
Sidhu, who joined the INC in 2017 — after being a BJP parliamentarian for more than a decade — has been a visible face in the party’s politics and is fighting both for his Amrtisar East seat against Shiromani Akali Dal’s Bikram Singh Majithia and the candidature as the Congress Party’s CM face.
Both Channi and Sidhu has constantly been nudging the Congress to declare its chief ministerial candidate, though not explicitly declaring themselves as the face. Both the leaders had stated that they would “’follow what the party commands”.
The INC’s rivals in the state have already announced their CM candidates. The Aam Aadmi Party is fielding comedian turned politician Bhagwant Mann as their CM candidate whereas the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance has declared former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal as their CM candidate.
Opinion of workers and leaders
The divide vis-a-vis the CM face grew so much that both these leaders had put Congress leader and former party president Rahul Gandhi on notice over the issue in January this year, when Rahul Gandhi started his Punjab campaign. To allay the infighting, the Congress leadership decided to take party workers’ and leaders’ opinion before announcing the CM candidate.
“Normally we do not do this, but if Punjab wants, the party wants and our workers want, we will give Punjab a chief minister face. Once the name is announced, we will work as a team”, he had told the press on 28 January.
The party opted for an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) poll where Sidhu, Channi or no CM face were given as options.
According to the newswire agency Asian News International, the poll, in which Congress MPs, candidates and party workers took part, showed that by 3 February, Channi had been leading it.
What will Sidhu do now?
Time and again, Sidhu, with his fierce oratorical skills at his disposal, has shown that he does not follow the high command’s decisions that often, especially when his will hasn’t been followed. Which is why, no party has been willing to offer him what he sought.
Even during his days in the BJP-SAD alliance, Sidhu’s defiance had made him unpopular among the Akalis, who said that handling Sidhu outside the BJP was easier than handling him when he was in power.
In 2014, when the party decided to field former (late) Finance Minister Arun Jaitley from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat, Sidhu had said that he would follow the party’s decision, but did not campaign for the party. Though Sidhu was offered the West Delhi seat, he was determined to contest from Amritsar. Ultimately, Jaitley lost to Amarinder Singh in Amritsar.
Then, in 2016, right after his resignation from the BJP, Arvind Kejriwal had admitted that Sidhu had wanted the CM candidate ticket, but at most they were willing to offer him a Deputy CM position. In the end, Sidhu went to the Congress and remained a cabinet minister in Amarinder Singh’s tenure.
Even within the INC, it was Sidhu who led the detractors and, with support from the Gandhi siblings, ousted Captain Amarinder Singh from the chief ministership.
With barely two weeks left for elections in Punjab, Congress party leaders have their fingers crossed on Sidhu’s next move.