Why Charanjit Singh Channi as CM face of Congress is a double edged sword in Punjab
For the Congress, the wave of Dalit support will be canceled out by upper caste Hindus and Jat Sikhs who will most likely desert the party in large numbers.
Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi, Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and Punjab Congress Leader Navjot Singh Sidhu during a virtual rally for the upcoming Punjab Assembly elections in Ludhiana on Sunday. Image Courtesy: @INCIndia/Twitter
Given the hype around Congress naming its main ministerial face for the upcoming assembly elections in Punjab, one can be forgiven for assuming that the party has already won, and current Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit, will continue to hold the presidency. And, given the euphoria among the state’s large Dalit population at Rahul Gandhi’s announcement on Monday, Congress has cemented its action with these communities like never before.
In many ways, choosing Channi over Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Speaker of the Pradesh Congress, was a foregone conclusion, considering the electoral advantage the party stands to gain with this decision. To drop Channi at this point, just days before the state goes to the polls on Feb. 20, would have been suicidal for Congress. While it is true that the 31.5% Dalit population of Punjab never put their weight behind a party, as it was largely a fractured vote bank, when Channi was elevated to the post of As Chief Minister last September, Dalit communities of all shades and religions — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists — rallied behind him.
Dalit Dilemma: AAP or Congress?
CSDS-Lokniti survey data shows that Dalits mostly supported the Punjab Congress over rivals like the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the BJP, regardless of who won the elections. Nearly 51% of Dalit Sikhs and 37% of Dalit Hindus voted for the party in 2012, even though it lost the election to the Akali Dal. When the Aam Admi Party (AAP) first entered the contest in 2017, it took 21% and 19% of the Dalit Hindu and Dalit Sikh votes respectively. Most of these votes, especially those of the Dalit Sikhs, were slashed from the Congress share which fell to 41%. Also in this election, the AAP has generated huge interest among Dalit voters with its promise to introduce the Delhi model of governance. The focus on education and health in particular attracts marginalized sections of society who desperately depend on the abysmal state infrastructure in these two areas.
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It is common knowledge that public schools in Punjab are populated mainly by Scheduled Caste children and these communities support the AAP in the hope that their children will have a better future. By backing Channi as its main ministerial face, the Congress leadership will not only stem this erosion, but will also aim for a clear majority through the support of Dalit communities.
On the one hand, it clarified the question that bothered the Dalits of Punjab the most: whether Channi is only a temporary arrangement to convince them during the elections.
With Sidhu hot on his heels, many assumed that after the election, if Congress won, Sidhu, a Jat Sikh from the mainstream community, would get the top job. Now that the air has cleared, these wavering, undecided voters are definitely headed to Congress. The buzz in Dalit circles is that even educated Dalits such as employees, teachers and businessmen who usually do not show up to vote on polling day will vote for Channi enthusiastically.
Interestingly, even though some of the Dalits criticize the rule of Chief Minister Channi for not demonstrating that Dalit issues are his priority, even this opposition is waning as “the enthusiasm for Channi” overwhelms them. On January 24, the National Scheduled Castes Alliance led by Paramjit Kainth met with the governor to demand a CBI investigation into the Channi government’s decision not to collect penalties from colleges guilty of the post-matric scholarship scam for young people. SC students. Kainth also alleged that relief from offending institutions was provided in exchange for large campaign funds for Congress.
“Channi has not disclosed any program for Dalits so far. Why is he reluctant to talk about the problems facing 32% of the population? Issues like social discrimination and violence,” Kainth said. But voices like Kainth’s quickly drown out amid the wave of excitement to see someone from ‘apna samaj’ (one of us) up there. Advocate SL Virdi, a prominent Dalit thinker from Phagwara, told this writer that Channi’s elevation has instilled untold confidence and self-esteem among Dalits who have been oppressed for centuries. “I can easily see Congress’ vote share going up at least 5% as a result. The change in Dalit votes will damage the AAP the most,” he said.
Channi’s appeal extends to the backward castes of Punjab, engaged in professions such as tailoring, carpenters, blacksmiths in villages, dhobis and other petty traders, who are also marginalized and have begun to feel that if Channi can be made chief minister then why not one among them in the future?
The question, however, is whether or not this burst of joy leads Congress to an absolute majority. Punjab’s huge Dalit population is politically fragmented and has never voted globally for any particular party. One reason is that the community is divided into at least 39 sub-castes, each vying for advantages within the SC pie. They have also sought patronage from different political parties over time and do not subscribe to a common ideology. Their loyalty to the SAD and now the AAP will count. It should also be pointed out that the Bahujan Samaj party which sprouted in Punjab could never gain the consolidated support of this segment for the same reasons.
For the Congress, the wave of Dalit support will be canceled out by upper-caste Hindus and Jat Sikhs who will almost certainly desert the party in large numbers. Ever since Channi was elevated last September, Punjab’s upper caste have been angry at the humiliation of being ruled by an SC chief minister. Many consoled themselves with the thought that maybe the Congress will use it to attract Dalit votes and change horses if the party wins the elections. This is not the case. Sidhu, a Jat Sikh, was appointed chairman of the CCP to prevent the alienation of Jat Sikhs who make up around 20% of the population and have dominated state politics and economics for decades.
Now Sidhu himself is marginalized after Rahul Gandhi’s Ludhiana Monday show where the latter gave a sermon on how it takes years for a leader to develop. The reference being to Sidhu, considered an upstart in Congress, having joined the party in 2017 after leaving the BJP. The man himself put on a gracious facade at the event where he hugged Channi, but is expected to make his angst known in the coming days. Remember that just two days ago he shot the Gandhis when it became clear that they would go for Channi. “People at the top want a weak chief minister who can dance to their tunes,” he told a town hall meeting. He has also said many times that he does not want to be a congressional showpiece. Given the man’s changeable nature and characteristic feistiness, the coming days leading up to the election will clarify the direction Sidhu will take.
The author is a journalist and author. The opinions expressed are personal.
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