Third time is a charm in taking big political decisions. In India, the Gandhi family siblings — former Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have ensured the unceremonious ejection of Amarinder Singh, 80, Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab in concert with Navjot Singh Sidhu, cricketer-turned-politician and the state Congress chief.
On an action packed Sunday morning, they first chose Ambika Soni, 78, loyal aide of Sonia Gandhi, interim congress president, who has been in semi-retirement since 2014.
A panicked Soni publicly declined the offer citing her age and ill health and adding for good measure that she had told Rahul Gandhi that a Sikh should represent the Punjab state.
Not deterred by this public setback, which had many Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and commentators flummoxed, by the evening a new candidate emerged: Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, a Jat Sikh like Amarinder and Sidhu. As sweets and drum beats greeted the news in his village, the Congressman called off the celebrations, asking for time.
A political brinkmanship
Sidhu and Randhawa had jointly axed the candidature of Sunil Jhakar, senior Congress leader, saying a Hindu CM will not be acceptable at this time in Punjab. Sidhu then said he wanted the post for himself and would not support Randhawa throwing a tantrum, saying he was leaving for Delhi to quit as the state chief.
After many attempts at mollification, Charanjit Singh Channi, 58, emerged as the first Dalit CM of Punjab. Channi had rebelled against Amarinder Singh and is a lawyer.
Punjab has the highest numbers of Dalits in any state in India — nearly one third or 32 per cent of the state’s approximately 30 million population are Dalits.
The optics of the decision, after a botched up removal of Singh, seemed to work. But, a closer examination shows you exactly what is wrong with the Gandhi siblings decision making.
Assembly elections are due in Punjab in four months, so will Channi now be the face of the Congress in the elections and an automatic shoo-in for the CM’s post if the Congress wins? Sidhu has already claimed that job for himself and had his brinkmanship supported to the maximum by Priyanka Gandhi.
If Singh was told that he was deeply unpopular after winning all by-elections and his government was unable to perform, how will Channi do in four months or less after the electoral code of conduct kicks in?
Channi will have two deputy CMs to set the delicate caste in equilibrium but the manner in which Singh, a mass leader who has won the Congress many elections and withstood the Modi wave, will have an impact on the Jat Sikh voters. Singh is going nowhere and stays in active political play, only ruling out joining the Akali Dal.
His attack on Sidhu as an “antinational” with close links to Pakistan has left the Congress red-faced. Interestingly, this may not have much impact in Punjab where people shrug off such labels but, shows Singh is increasingly acting in concert with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Singh, after he resigned, said he had felt “humiliated” and conveyed that to Sonia Gandhi who apparently told him “I am very sorry Amarinder”.
Singh pointedly said he neither spoke to nor did he meet the Gandhi siblings. Pertinently, Singh had been drafted in to politics by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The two had been classmates at the prestigious Doon school.
A proper Dalit face
Punjab — because of the three farm laws which are being opposed tooth and nail by the farmers — seemed an easy victory for the Congress before these events.
The Akali Dal and the BJP were facing agrarian anger and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) seemed like a victim of its chief Arvind Kejriwal’s boundless ambition by not publicly embracing a public Sikh face as candidate for CM.
Last time around Kejriwal, who is from Haryana, had nearly said in public that he would move to Punjab as CM if his party was elected. The predictable outrage squelched that idea.
This time around the Akali Dal has promised a Dalit as Deputy CM and also done a tie up with Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) so all parties are catering to the Dalit vote which despite its size has never got its electoral due in Punjab.
But, if Channi is not the CM face and only a stopgap CM, will the Dalit voter not see through the tokenism of the Congress gesture? Even the irrepressible Sidhu, who joined the Congress five years ago, somersaulting from the BJP will face public ire if he wants to eject a Dalit from the top job.
Sidhu’s maximalist moves to remove Singh and take over as CM may backfire on him. He was itching to force a generational change in Punjab and be declared Singh’s successor.
Sidhu was supported to the hilt in this ‘project derail Singh’ by the Gandhi siblings but, while Channi is a good move, it still remains to be seen how it will pan out with Sidhu unlikely to step back from his declared ambition of being Punjab CM.
Channi is hugely superstitious and had the gate of his home changed to accommodate astrological advise. He also rode on an elephant in his ministerial lawns following the same astrological advice. Channi also faces a #Metoo case — a complaint by a woman civil servant on a late night text message he sent her.
Currently Channi, with his predilection for astrology, may feel his stars have aligned perfectly to catapult him to the job of Punjab CM. But for how long? With Sidhu as impatient as he is.