Chandigarh: It was in September this year that Charanjit Singh Channi was appointed the chief minister of Punjab by the Congress. With three months in office till now and barely a few months away from assembly elections, Channi had to showcase his form of governance and bid for power again.
However, Channi, Punjab’s first Dalit chief minister, who took over the reins from Captain Amarinder Singh, has barely managed to drag the rickety Congress into a fighting stance. Here are the five reasons why Channi is losing the plot in Punjab.
Undoing Amarinder’s legacy
To begin with, Channi had to deal with the legacy of Captain Amarinder Singh, whose four and a half years in power were marked with inactivity.
Amarinder’s government failed to deliver on many important issues the former CM had raised before the last assembly polls. The promises he made ahead of the 2017 assembly elections — ending the problem of drugs, reducing power bills, giving five Marla plots to SCs, loan waiver to farmers, a job in every household, and justice for desecration incidents — either remained only on paper or were fulfilled with riders.
Amarinder’s own party men, including some of his close aides, revolted against him over these issues. They also found he was inaccessible and surrounded by powerful bureaucrats who would not allow them to meet him.
However, after Amarinder’s resignation, Channi rushed in to take a series of populist decisions, to bring Congress back into the reckoning.
He also ensured that the police question Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in the 2015 sacrilege cases. The sacrilege incidents had become a major election issue during the 2017 polls. The dera chief who is serving multiple sentences of murder and rape commands a huge following in the Malwa belt of Punjab and all politicians generally try to keep him in good humor because the Dera has been an important vote bank for parties.
Channi’s government on 21 December also booked Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia for his alleged involvement in a drug case. Though the Akalis have called it vendetta, Amarinder’s detractors in the party had alleged that he was in cohorts with the Badals because of which no action was being taken against Majithia.
Channi’s ministers have also taken on the Badals for running a public transport company in the state that allegedly harms the government’s interest. The business had flourished when the Akalis were in power but nothing was done to set things right.
Similarly, Channi has also moved in to undo the power purchase agreements signed by the SAD with private power plants that led the state purchasing expensive power.
Channi has also ensured that the cabinet meets at least once every week, and has cut down on his security.
But whatever Channi gained with these decisions was lost this past week that saw two lynchings over alleged sacrilege attempts in Amritsar and Kapurthala, and a bomb blast in Ludhiana.
The three incidents laid bare the need for a strong and experienced leader to head the border state. Apart from Amarinder Singh, no other politician in the state criticised the lynching incidents.
While Channi chose to maintain a strict silence on the lynching incidents, Sidhu said that anyone who indulged in sacrilege should be hanged publicly.
While the state police claimed to have cracked the Ludhiana bomb blast case in 24 hours tracing it to a disgruntled former cop who had links with Khalistani militants based in Pakistan, the blast was a grim reminder of what Captain Amarinder had been warning about.
Amarinder has been raising the matter of Pakistan sending in bombs from across the border using drones with central agencies for the past one year.
Sidhu, however, makes no bones about his closeness with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. Early this month, both Channi and Sidhu suggested opening Attari border for trade between the two countries.
Navjot Singh Sidhu
Another reason for Channi government’s poor performance is the state Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu. Sidhu was in the race for the post of the chief minister but after Channi’s appointment, Sidhu has turned to be his biggest critic.
Sidhu was also upset over Channi’s choice of DGP and Advocate General, two key posts in the state. He resigned as the party chief and gave in only after his choice of officers were appointed in these positions.
His constant interference in the working of the government is also obvious from the fact that he publicly sets the agenda for Channi to follow through his speeches and tweets. He also threatened fast unto death his party’s government fails to make public the report on the drug menace submitted to the high court by a special task force (STF).
The party high command has also rewarded Sidhu with key positions ahead of the elections. Most of the ministers and MLAs have started flocking to Sidhu for tickets, reducing Channi’s hold over his party men.
With multiple centres of power at the top, several leaders of the party are also engaged in vicious battles, making it an uphill task for Channi to keep his flock together.
Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and cabinet minister Rana Gurjeet Singh are at loggerheads over the former supporting Rana Gurjeet’s bete noire Navtej Singh Cheema, the Congress MLA from Sultanpur Lodhi. Rana Gurjeet is eyeing a ticket for his son Rana Inder Partap Singh from Sultanpur Lodhi which is Cheema’s constituency.
Rana Gurjeet also faces opposition from at least half a dozen Congress leaders from Doaba.
Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa and his brother Fateh Jang Singh Bajwa who is the sitting MLA from Qadian too have become hostile to one another. Fateh Jang had opposed Sukhjinder Randhawa for appointing his son-in-law in the advocate general’s office.
Earlier, Fateh Jang had taken on another Congress leader Balwinder Singh Kotlabama for the latter’s appointment as Chairman of Punjab Genco, a public sector unit. Balwinder Singh is considered close to cabinet minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, MLA from Fatehgarh Churian.
Ashwani Sekhri, a former MLA from Batala is also opposed to Tript Bajwa. Last month he alleged that Tript Bajwa was hand in glove with the Shiromani Akali Dal.
Lack of funds
Channi’s gravy train announcements which he made in the first month of his becoming chief minister has already made a huge dent on the state treasury. His decision to reduce power bills, petrol and diesel prices, giving out five Malra plots to SCs, and reducing water service charges in urban and rural areas have cost the state exchequer Rs 10,000 crore.
Now the state finance department has stopped giving its concurrence to many of the announcements he wishes to make.
Sources in the state finance department say Channi wishes to regulate almost two lakh employees but the state government cannot afford it. Similarly he wants to announce some other freebies for women, students and the elderly but his plans have been scuttled on the grounds that the state is simply not in a financial position to carry through with these promises if the Congress government comes back to power, senior party leaders say.
Channi government has failed to combat corruption in the state.
Apart from a handful of ministers who were removed after Amarinder’s resignation, Channi’s cabinet has almost the same set of ministers, many of whom are facing charges of corruption.
“With the removal of one Captain Amrinder Singh the anti-incumbency across the state cannot be absorbed. For the public the MLAs and the ministers remain the same and there is no denying the fact that many of them are disliked by the public,” added a senior leader of the party.