By letting Capt Amarinder go, and bringing in Dalit face Charanjit Channi, the party has played a double masterstroke – a message to dissenters and a canny poll move
Concluding a shrilly crescendo that began with a ‘humiliated’ Captain Amarinder Singh stepping down as the chief minister of Punjab that ended almost 25 hours later with the poll-bound state getting its first-ever Dalit face at the helm, the Congress may have managed to put a band-aid on the whole fiasco, but the issues in the party are far from resolved.
With Channi in the chair, the party has played one of its biggest poll cards yet – pandering to the crucial Dalit vote bank which constitutes 32 per cent of the total vote share in the state. In 34 assembly seats of Punjab, Dalits decide the MLA.
Sunday moved forward with speculations of Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa becoming the next CM of Punjab. Senior Congress leader Ambika Soni had turned down the offer to be the CM citing that the post belonged to a Jat Sikh. But Punjab Congress President Navjot Singh Sidhu, who has been at loggerheads with Captain and been very vocal about it possibly leading the rebellion against him in the party, bitterly objected to Randhawa’s nomination and conveyed so to the Congress high command. Experts say, had a Jat Sikh become the chief minister, Sidhu’s future in politics could have suffered a major setback.
While congratulatory messages were pouring in for Randhawa and well-wishers bhangra-ed outside his home on sounds of celebratory dhols, within minutes it all stopped and there was an eerie silence. Sidhu had prevailed – once again.
Channi, a Sidhu man, was firmly in place.
Before zeroing in on Channi, the name of Sunil Jakhar, a Hindu face and former president of Punjab Congress, was at the forefront. From Rahul Gandhi to Sidhu, everyone agreed on Jakhar, but Sikh leaders from the Majha area of Punjab spoke to Priyanka Gandhi in Delhi and conveyed their resentment. They warned that Congress will lose the 2022 election if a Jat Sikh was not made the chief minister of Punjab.
With this, the Delhi High Command went into a huddle once again and hectic parleys resumed in Delhi. To find a way out, Ambika Soni, KC Venugopal met Rahul Gandhi and Congress President Sonia Gandhi and decided to choose someone who was neither a Jat Sikh nor a Hindu. In the end, Rahul made one of his most politically intuitive moves ever and making a Dalit the chief minister.
Behind the scenes drama
Earlier, the Congress had sent party general secretaries Ajay Maken and Harish Chaudhary as observers to Chandigarh fearing the revolt by Amarinder Singh. Sources say the deliberations and negotiations for his replacement had begun three days ago. The observers began meeting the MLAs to gauge their views.
On Saturday, a meeting of the Congress legislature party was scheduled for 5 pm and at least 45 MLAs were told to unanimously pass a resolution leaving the ultimate decision with Sonia on who will be their next leader. And this followed to the tee.
By giving Punjab a Dalit chief minister, the Congress may have tipped the political scale in its favour and delivered a body blow to the Aam Aadmi Party before the assembly elections. In Malwa, Kejriwal has benefited immensely due to a large Dalit vote; with Congress firmly in play now, Rahul has snatched away a large chunk of that vote share.
Earlier, despite opposition from MLAs, MPs and Captain himself, the Congress high command made Sidhu the PCC chief. Now, by removing the former and bringing in a Dalit face, the party’s message is clear – the high command is not weak, and that everyone will have to fall in line according to the party diktat.
The message has also gone straight to Jaipur, where cabinet expansion has been stuck for a long time.