Congress made heavy weather effecting a change of guard in Punjab. In the last 24 hours, the party was first stumped by its outgoing Chief Minister Amarinder Singh by putting in his papers and attacking the party.
In jettisoning the Captain from the CM seat, the party demonstrated the writ of the High Command but was caught underprepared for the next course, as it scurried for a suitable replacement.
A trial balloon of the party experimenting with a Hindu Chief Minister kept floating till Ambika Soni, one of the leaders whose name according to reports was in the zone of consideration, pricked it, reminding the party that the Punjab CM has to be a Sikh.
The party finally zeroed in on Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit legislator who took up issues while remaining a member of the Amarinder Singh Council of Ministers.
It is a bold gamble the party undertook at a time when the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance promised a Dalit Deputy Chief Minister if voted to power in 2022 and the Aam Aadmi Party, the other serious contender to coming up with a similar formulation.
The Congress can flaunt its credentials as a party that advocates social equality by appointing a Chief Minister in the state from the scheduled caste community breaking the age-old practice of a legislature party leader from the Jat Sikh community.
Cold calculations show that Dalits constitute upto 30 percent of the population in a state where Jat Sikhs have dominated the political leadership space and the community equations on the social plane with the Dalits remain indifferent.
The dynamics of this move and how it plays out in the coming days could alter the political setting. Yet, bringing in a new person to lead the government so close to elections comes with a huge risk. A peep into history shows such a change of guard nearer elections does not always usher in favourable results for the incumbent party.
In 1998, the Bharatiya Janata Party experiment to put Sushma Swaraj as the Chief Minister in Delhi in place of Sahib Singh made little impact as Congress under Sheila Dikshit swept to power and retained the government for two more terms.
In Punjab too this is not the first time the Congress changed its leader so close to the elections. In 1996 Rajinder Kaur Bhattal was appointed as the Chief Minister who till date remains the only woman to hold the high office in Punjab. The party gave her the responsibility after she led dissidents against the then Chief Minister Harchand Singh Brar, who assumed office after the assassination of Beant Singh.
In the 1997 assembly polls, Congress managed to win just 14 seats in the 117-strong assembly with Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) under Parkash Singh Badal securing absolute majority. The Pradesh Congress then was under the command of Ambika Soni and Ghulam Nabi Azad was the AICC general secretary in-charge of the state affairs.
The new Chief Minister in the border state would face two immediate challenges, one on the political front and the other from the administration. The tenure of the current Punjab Assembly is till March 27, 2022 which means the next election in the state would have to be completed by it.
Between now and the constitution of the next assembly, the time available for the Congress government under a new leader in less than six months. In actual terms the pathway would be shorter since the government becomes a lame duck once the Election Commission of India announces the schedule and the Model Code of Conduct kicks in immediately.
On the administrative front the new Chief Minister has only so much time to implement all those promises that led to Pradesh Congress Chief Navjot Sidhu and his band of supporters picking up cudgels against Amarinder Singh’s government.
The promises according to dissenters which remain unfulfilled include bringing people involved in sacrilege cases and culprits behind police firings around it to justice, inability of the government to check the drug menace and illegal mining.
While the new CM and his administration may want to crack the whip to force the pace it is anybody’s guess how the bureaucracy would take it forward, especially when the state enters the home stretch in the run-up to elections.
The new CM comes in with some experience of running an administration but would require time to set up his own team, settle down and have a firm grip on the working of a Chief Minister’s Office.
The Congress Chief Minister may still have the ability to explain to the people that despite best efforts to deliver, time at hand was really short. The message would be to convey a sincere intent and hold promise of doing the best provided the life of the government is extended at the elections.
It is the political part of the bargain that would be the real quagmire and manage the contradictions within. From the day the new government assumes charge, the legislators expectations would soar high on two counts, resolving outstanding issues of the people upset with Amarinder Singh government and preparing grounds to secure a party ticket again.
It is the latter that becomes the glue for the legislators who would stick to the new head of the legislature party while working to make sure the state party chief is also kept in good humour. The duo should have a say when the party draws up a list of probable candidates amid the age-old Congress formula of ‘’sitting getting” juxtaposed with internal surveys that reflect anti-incumbency against current crop of legislators.
The new Chief Minister has to hit the road running straightaway.