Punjab Congress president Navot Singh Sindhu (L) with Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi (R)) during a virtual election rally for the Punjab Assembly elections in Ludhiana on Sunday, February 6,2022.  (IANS/Twitter)

Punjab Congress president Navot Singh Sindhu (L) with Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi (R)) during a virtual election rally for the Punjab Assembly elections in Ludhiana on Sunday, February 6,2022.  (IANS/Twitter)

Congress choice of Channi on expected lines, vital for Sidhu now to retain his Amritsar East seat

New Delhi, February 6, 2022

The announcement of Dalit face Charanjit Singh Channi as the Punjab Congress' chief ministerial candidate was on expected lines.

But what was not expected was that Navjot Singh Sidhu would accept the decision without any demur. He had raised the temperature within the party in the run-up to today's announcement. From saying that the Congress high command wants a weak face who can dance to its tunes to claiming that the people of Punjab would not accept a "mafia protector-in-chief" as their chief minister, Sidhu had said it all. And there are no guesses about whom he was alluding to.

Sidhu was convinced that this is his last chance to become the chief minister and that it would be impossible to dethrone Channi once he establishes himself.

That is why former Congress president Rahul Gandhi while making the announcement insisted that it was a very difficult decision to make.

Gandhi deliberately put it on the people of Punjab and Congress workers to convey to Sidhu that it was not the high command's decision.

No doubt Gandhi had a tough task at hand to pacify the warring party leaders in Punjab. He also sought to project a united front ahead of the announcement by asking party's campaign committee chairman Sunil Jakhar to drive the vehicle in which he took the front seat while both Sidhu and Channi sat in the back.

The Congress high command was in a dilemma -- to annoy the Dalits by naming Sidhu or push Jat Sikhs away by going with Channi.

Punjab accounts for highest Dalit population in the country. According to 2011 census, Dalits account for 32% of the state's approximately 3 crore population while Jat Sikhs constitute 20-25%.

Despite Sidhu having upped the ante, the Congress leadership had limited options. Any move to ignore Channi would have backfired not only in Punjab but across the country.

Channi had so far successfully projected himself as the "aam aadmi's (common people's) chief minister and his appointment was seen a refreshing change in Punjab that had witnessed decades of the VIP culture.

The first indication of the Congress party relying on Channi came when he was allowed to contest from two constituencies - Chamkaur Sahib and Bhadaur, a move which his rivals claimed was triggered by the assessment that he might lose from his traditional seat.

However, it has not been a smooth ride for him so far. The allegations of corruption reached his doorsteps after the Enforcement Directorate arrested his nephew in the alleged 2018 sand mining case.

The Congress had dubbed it "witch-hunting and vendetta politics" and accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of defaming a Dalit chief minister.

In fact, Channi's naming as the chief ministerial face of the Congress was a foregone conclusion after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) announced Lok Sabha member from Sangrur Bhagwant Mann as its candidate.

Mann is very popular in the state and has a clean image, too, but he was not the first choice of AAP convenor and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal who ultimately had to bow before the demand from the state unit.

The details of what prompted Sidhu to toe the Congress high command's line will emerge in some time but it is very important for him to retain his Amritsar East seat where he has been cornered by all parties, including Shiromani Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia.

A win in the elections is crucial for him to stay relevant in Punjab politics.


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