Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi is expected to announce the party’s chief ministerial face on Sunday at a virtual rally. So far, all indications suggest that it is going to be current chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi unless the Congress high command decides to score a self goal.
After taking over from Captain Amarinder Singh in September, Channi has managed to bring the Congress back in the reckoning in the last five months.
He has to a certain degree negated the anti-incumbency against the Congress, but whether that would be enough to retain power will be known only on March 10 when votes will be taken up for counting.
Infighting among the Congress leadership
The ideal situation for the Congress leadership would have been to go to the elections under a collective leadership given that the state unit is witnessing massive infighting with many claimants to the chief minister’s post. Apart from Channi, Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu and his predecessor Sunil Jakhar are the other two leaders in the race.
Sidhu has been pushing the Congress high command to name the chief ministerial candidate ahead of the polls, and more aggressively after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) named Lok Sabha member from Sangrur, Bhagwant Mann, as its face in Punjab.
During his January 27 visit to Punjab, Gandhi had announced that Congress workers will decide the party’s chief ministerial candidate.
Sidhu may have been a popular leader among the Congress some months ago but that situation changed soon after Channi’s appointment.
Channi’s growing popularity
Channi’s popularity is growing due to some of his pro-people decisions and for shunning the VIP culture that has been a hallmark of Punjab politics for decades now.
The first indication of Channi being made the face of the party came when he was fielded on two seats – Chamkaur Sahib and Bhadaur – to send a strong signal in his favour.
Watch: Raisina Reports: Analysis of Punjab Assembly Elections 2022 with Pankaj Vohra, Aurangzeb Naqshbandi and Rajesh Ahuja
The Dalit factor
The Congress leadership cannot afford to sideline Channi now given that he is a Dalit Sikh and Punjab has the highest Dalit population in the country. According to the 2011 census, Dalits constitute around 32% of the state’s approximately 3 crore population.
Any contrary decision would hurt the Congress not only in Punjab but across the country.
His removal will send a wrong signal at a time when the Congress is trying to massively win back the support of Dalits, who were once its traditional voters.
Sidhu the maverick
Besides, Sidhu is a maverick and a loose cannon with a tendency to commit harakiri.
Being an outsider, he enjoys negligible support within the Congress and any move to anoint him could prove counter-productive and detrimental for the party.
He has also burnt bridges with leaders of other political parties to an extent that no one wants to touch him with a barge pole. Hence, he has limited options in case he decides to oppose Channi and the Congress party. He will have to swallow a bitter pill to stay relevant in Punjab politics.
But Sidhu won’t give up easily. He has upped the ante and made very strong statements in the past few days.
In a direct attack against the Congress high command, he said the people at the top want a weak chief minister who can dance to their tune.
Then he attacked Channi, saying said the party must choose someone “honest and with a clean track record”.
“A ‘mafia-type person’ cannot implement your programmes. A person who himself is mafia protector-in-chief, how can he crack down on the mafia?” Sidhu said soon after the Enforcement Directorate arrested Channi’s nephew Bhupinder Singh Honey in the 2018 illegal sand mining case.
All eyes on Congress’s Feb 6 rally
There is also a buzz that the Congress leadership might opt for rotational chief minister to bring about a truce in the party but that might further complicate matters.
Though Channi was not the first choice for the Congress, he managed to grab the coveted post after consensus was eluded on the names of other claimants, including Sidhu, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Ambika Soni and Sunil Jakhar.
By announcing Channi’s name, the Congress leadership will also try to postpone the ongoing battle for supremacy among its Jat Sikh leaders such as Sidhu, Randhawa, Partap Singh Bajwa, Ravneet Singh Bittu and others.
The move will be like the proverbial killing many birds with one stone. So, all eyes are now on Gandhi’s February 6 rally.