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Why Channi is new Punjab CM — Congress eyeing large Dalit vote bank, peace between factions

Punjab has the largest share of Dalit population of any state in the country. And Charanjit Singh Channi is the first CM of the state from the community.

Punjab's new CM-designate Charanjit Singh Channi (centre) flanked by state Congress chief Navjot Sidhu (left) and other leaders after meeting Governor Banwarilal Purohit Sunday | Photo: ANI
Punjab's new CM-designate Charanjit Singh Channi (centre) flanked by state Congress chief Navjot Sidhu (left) and other leaders after meeting Governor Banwarilal Purohit Sunday | Photo: ANI

Chandigarh: Charanjit Singh Channi might not have been the Congress high command’s first choice as the new chief minister of Punjab, but now, the party is expecting a major fillip to its prospects in Dalit belts in the run-up to the assembly elections early next year.

Punjab has the largest share of Dalit population in India (32 per cent), and while most of it was traditionally a Congress vote bank, it has gradually got fragmented. In the 2017 assembly elections, a substantial share of the Dalit vote went to the Aam Aadmi Party.

This time too, the Dalit vote bank is expected to be divided between the AAP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which has tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party following its split from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BSP’s own hold over the Dalit vote in Punjab is low — from 7.67 per cent in the 2004 parliamentary polls, it went down to 1.9 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and then even lower to 1.5 per cent in the 2017 Punjab assembly polls. However, in the 2019 parliamentary elections, the figure went up to 3.52 per cent.

Consolidating the divided Dalit vote into a single bloc is a difficult task, but the Congress is hoping that this historic move of giving the state its first Dalit CM will help shift the scales in its favour in the 34 reserved seats in the 117-seat assembly.

The move is also expected to counter the BJP’s announcement that it would appoint a Dalit CM in the state, though in the wake of the farmers’ protests against the Narendra Modi government’s three new laws on agriculture, the party’s poll prospects look dim.

The SAD, meanwhile, has announced that a Dalit will be deputy CM if it comes to power.

However, Prof. Ronki Ram of the Panjab University, Chandigarh, an expert on Punjab’s Dalits, said while the other parties were holding out promises, the Congress had gone ahead and done it. “It’s the real thing. The move will definitely lead to reviving the old ties that Dalits had with the Congress; not just in Punjab, but across the country,” he said.

Also read: Who is Charanjit Singh Channi, the man who is set to be Punjab’s first Dalit Sikh CM

Balancing Dalit and Jatt Sikhs

But the Congress has covered its bases when it comes to the Dalit vote. “BJP thinks that only the upper caste Jatt Sikhs are part of the farmers’ agitation, and if it woos the Dalits who are landless labourers, it will have some chance in Punjab. But this too has been undone today,” said a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named.

With Channi as CM, the Congress is also intending to balance the caste equations, especially since Jatt Sikh Navjot Singh Sidhu is the state Congress chief. Sikhs make up around 60 per cent of the electorate of Punjab, of which one-third are Jatts. But this community has traditionally dominated Punjab politics mainly due to cultural, economic and social clout.

However, some experts say while there will be some incidental benefit to the party naming Channi as CM, the electoral politics in Punjab is too inclusive to fit into any caste-based calculations.

“These are calculations which work in UP or other states, not in Punjab. Here, various groups in society are enmeshed too intricately for any political party to woo individually. Political parties fall for these superimposed calculations,” said Dr Pramod Kumar, director of the Institute of Development Studies, Chandigarh.

“If anything, there is a possibility of the Jatt Sikh vote bank getting alienated from the Congress because they have a Dalit Sikh CM. Having a Jatt Sikh party chief is no gesture, as he does not wield real power which will be held by the CM. Also, ignoring Hindus for the CM’s seat is not going to go down well with the Hindu vote bank, which along with the Dalit vote bank, is the key to Punjab polls,” added Kumar, referring to the fact that 38 per cent of the state’s voters are Hindus.

New CM the peacemaker?

Internally, the Congress is hoping Channi would act as the much-needed buffer between warring groups. While Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa has been made the deputy CM, Sunil Jakhar, who was an early frontrunner for the CM’s post after Captain Amarinder Singh resigned, has been completely ignored.

Fresh bitterness has erupted between these leaders and state Congress president Sidhu, who is seen to be behind the move to appoint Channi as CM.

With barely five months to go to the elections and bushfires of revolt expected during the finalisation of election tickets, Channi is expected to play peacenik.

“Others may fight, but no one will speak against a Dalit CM,” said Prof. Jatinder Singh of the department of political science, Punjabi University, Patiala.

He added that the Congress has merely played the Dalit card on the eve of elections.

“Punjab might have got its first Dalit CM, but this is not the result of Dalit assertion. Not the kind that happened in UP,” Prof. Singh said.

“Dalits are a big and important constituency in Punjab, and every party is trying to woo them. But how many endow Dalits with real power even when they are part of the government? Making a Dalit a CM is only an attempt by the Congress to tide over a difficult internal situation,” he opined.

(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)

Also read: ‘Humiliated thrice in last 2 months’ — Amarinder hands in resignation as Punjab CM