Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Punjab Congress President Navjot Singh Sidhu, among other leaders, at the swearing-in of Charanjit Singh Channi as new Punjab chief minister on September 20. (Image : Congress media cell)
The Congress, on September 19, appointed Charanjit Singh Channi, 58, as the new chief minister of Punjab.
The announcement was made by Harish Rawat, the party's state in-charge in Punjab, a day after Captain Amarinder Singh resigned from the post after a prolonged fall-out with party leaders.
Channi, minister of technical educational and industrial training in the outgoing cabinet, took oath
as chief minister on September 20.
But why did Congress pick Channi as chief minister, springing a surprise on a state, which is going to the polls in less than six months?
Balancing caste equation
A three-time legislator from the Chamkaur Sahib Assembly Constituency in Rupnagar district, Channi will also be the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab, where this post had, so far, been occupied by Jat Sikhs.
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Punjab has a 32 percent Dalit population in the country, the highest in any state. Thus, with a Dalit chief minister, and a Jat Sikh, Navjot Singh Sidhu, as the state unit’s chief, the Congress has tried to balance the caste equation in the state, months ahead of polls.
Punjab is significant as it is one of the three states that Congress is ruling. The other two states are Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Although there are 20 Dalit MLAs of the Congress in the 117-member assembly, only three of them are in the cabinet. The final decision to pick Channi was taken by Rahul Gandhi, who has been in favour of a Dalit CM, according to sources. Clearly, the Congress is eyeing the strong Dalit vote bank. Gandhi later tweeted
Outmanoeuvring the opposition
The Shiromani Akali Dal, which has tied up with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have been promising a Dalit deputy chief minister if they come to power. The move by the Congress, it seems, is also aimed at countering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) announcement that it would appoint a Dalit chief minister in the state. By picking Channi, Congress has tried to outmanoeuvre the opposition.
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The Dalits have traditionally supported the Congress in Punjab, but the vote bank in the state has gradually got fragmented. In the 2017 assembly elections, a substantial share of the Dalit vote went to the AAP.
Acceptable leader in faction-ridden party
Not just a Dalit, Channi is also a Sikh face. Many senior Congress leaders, including member of parliament Ambika Soni, had expressed resentment on the proposal of choosing Sunil Kumar Jakhar, a Hindu, as chief minister.
Another senior leader, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, also considered a front-runner for the top post, was against a non-Sikh chief minister. Randhawa has been made the deputy chief minister.
Channi is said to be acceptable to both the factions of the Congress. He is close to the ministers who had started the rebellion against Captain Amarinder Singh. Navjot Singh Sidhu, the face of rebellion against the former chief minister, has already praised Channi’s appointment, calling the move 'historic'.