Congress picking first Dalit CM in Punjab Charanjit Singh Channi

staff Reporter

Punjab is scheduled to have its first Dalit chief minister with the Congress picking Charanjit Singh Channi on Sunday to replace Amarinder Singh in a surprise decision.Channi, 58, who was minister of technical education, culture and tourism in Amarinder’s government, is a three-time MLA and considered a confidant of Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu. Caste is expected to play a key role this election. The Scheduled Castes make up about a third of Punjab’s population but the state has never had a Dalit chief minister.

Jat Sikhs, barely 20 per cent of the population, have always dominated Punjab politics because of their financial and social clout. The largely uneducated and poor Dalits have remained on the margins, surviving mostly as farm labourers and sanitation workers 

While Sidhu himself wanted to be chief minister, the party high command decided to insure against any political backlash from Amarinder who has had a running feud with the state president.

Earlier, Sunil Jakhar and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa were being portrayed as front-runners since Saturday. The high command was keen on Jakhar but he lost his chance primarily because the dominant view favoured a Sikh leading the government. Jakhar is a Hindu Randhawa missed out because the party decided to tap the Dalit symbolism ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections — but not before the day witnessed the unseemly drama of supporters distributing sweets claiming he had been selected for the hot seat.

The high command had earlier sprung another surprise by offering the chief minister’s post to veteran Ambika Soni, who declined it citing health issues and her conviction that Punjab must be led by a Sikh. This seemed to have queered the pitch for Jakhar.

Central observers Ajay Maken and Harish Chowdhary and the general secretary in charge of the state, Harish Rawat, then began seeking the views of individual MLAs.

But state leaders like finance minister Manpreet Badal started quietly working with Rahul Gandhi to push Channi’s candidature. By evening, Randhawa, who had the support of the majority of party MLAs, had faded from the scene and Channi had emerged as the dark horse.

Channi, spotted by Amarinder a decade ago, had moved to the Sidhu camp a few months ago. There is speculation about his being a stop-gap arrangement till the February elections when the party can look at Sidhu’s claim if it retains power.

Apart from his caste advantage, Channi is a safe bet because he appears acceptable to the various party factions. The Congress leadership had been worried about the Dalit vote this time after the Akali Dal struck an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and promised a Dalit deputy chief minister. The Congress has sought to upstage the Akalis by giving the top post to a Dalit.

Besides, the Aam Aadmi Party has made deep inroads into the Dalit vote bank and was being seen as the main challenger this time.

Congress has taken care of this front as well by picking Channi. Punjab’s Dalits once saw the Congress as their natural choice but have in recent years begun looking at other parties. However, the BSP couldn’t spread its roots in Punjab despite Kanshi Ram being a native of the state.

Kanshi Ram, born into a Ramdasia Sikh family, had won his first Lok Sabha election from Hoshiarpur in Punjab. But while the BSP became a dominant force in Uttar Pradesh, the best it could do in Punjab was to win 9 of the 117 Assembly seats in 1992.

The BJP too had been working seriously on the Dalits in Punjab after the Jat Sikh farmers revolted against the party over the new farm laws. It appointed Vijay Sampla, a Dalit from the state, as chairperson of the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes, and he reached out to the community in a big way.

The Congress now hopes to turn the tide on this front too.It’s the Congress that had made Giani Zail Singh, an OBC from Punjab, the President of India. The Congress also gave India its first Muslim President (Zakir Husain), first Dalit President (K.R. Narayanan), first woman President (Pratibha Patil), first woman Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi), first woman chief minister (Sucheta Kripalani) and first Muslim woman chief minister (Anwara Taimur).

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