Charanjit Singh Channi
Charanjit Singh Channi, Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab, India Image Credit: ANI

There is that kind of a politician who becomes a popular mass leader purely by leading agitations, giving speeches, doing activism, such as Bhagwant Mann of the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab, or his boss Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi.

And then there is another kind of politician who doesn’t really earn high political office but is nominated to the post, or just gets lucky, but thereafter uses the post to become a big mass leader in his or her own right. Narendra Modi, for example, was no mass leader when he first became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. He was more of an organisational man. But once in office, he‘s never had to sit in opposition benches till date.

We are not comparing Charanjit Singh Channi, the current chief minister of Punjab, to Narendra Modi. For all we know, Channi could become history in two months, when the Punjab assembly elections are held. Even if his party, the Congress, wins the election, they may not make him chief minister.

‘It’s like 1947’

A journalist in Chandigarh tells me a Dalit voter described Charanjit Singh Channi’s elevation as chief minister as a moment akin to 15 August 1947, when India got freedom from British colonial rule.

There has been surprisingly little in the media about how Dalit voters in Punjab feel about Channi. Almost a third of Punjab’s population is Dalit, a percentage higher than any state in India. And yet, there has been an unwritten consensus in Punjab that only a Jatt Sikh (caste and religion both being important) can be the chief minister. Dalits, divided in many sub-castes, sects and religions, have never been able to use their numerical strength to capture power.

Charanjit Singh Channi as the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab is therefore in itself a moment of great historical significance. The very fact of him holding the CM’s office, even if it is just for a few months, will have long-term implications for politics in Punjab.

‘He is the Aam Aadmi’

Perhaps there isn’t much discussion about Dalit politics in Channi’s context because the CM has cleverly positioned himself in terms of class, not caste. He is playing the common man, the “Aam Aadmi”, with some very smart optics.

Channi meets children who dream of flying in a helicopter. He takes them on a helicopter. A soldier dies in a militant encounter in Jammu and Kashmir, Channi gives shoulder to the body for the cremation. Channi is travelling on the road and sees a wedding procession, he gets down and hugs the groom. Here he is having a meal with a farmer, there is he doing the Punjabi Bhangra dance.

All of this is so refreshing because it is a complete contrast from his predecessor, Captain Amarinder Singh, who was chief minister for four and a half years. An Indian Army veteran from an erstwhile princely family, still called “Maharaja” by some, the Captain was rarely ever seen in public. He developed the reputation of a chief minister who rarely stepped out of his house and only threw parties at his farm house. His own party colleagues complained he was never accessible.

Therefore, Channi playing the common man, one of us, makes it difficult for anyone to even call it gimmickry. So when Arvind Kejriwal calls Channi a “fake Kejriwal”, it is actually a compliment. It is an acknowledgement that Channi has neutralised the core appeal of the Aam Aadmi Party.

AAP stumbles upon Channi Googly

Voters in Punjab were looking for a change. They were unhappy not just with Captain Amarinder Singh but with the “establishment” as a whole — the political elites who concentrated power and its spoils among themselves. People wanted a leadership that came as a breath of fresh air and seemed to actually care about their issues. They thought they might have to wait till the elections to get a fresh face from the Aam Aadmi Party. But the Congress threw a Googly, and gave them a fresh face already.

Channi could still lose for many reasons — the Congress can be expected to make a mess of ticket distribution; Channi has been undermined a lot by Navjot Singh Sidhu, though lately Sidhu has been straightened up by the Gandhis; and above all, the anti-incumbency sentiment left by Amarinder Singh may be too deep for Channi to overcome in a few months.

Nevertheless, all political observers agree, and surveys indicate, that Channi has stemmed the decline of the Congress and made it tougher for the AAP. Kejriwal had a neat plan to win Punjab against an unpopular Captain. But he doesn’t know how to bat against the Channi Googly.

Channi versus who?

Five years ago, the Aam Aadmi Party lost Punjab partly because they arrogantly did not announce a chief ministerial face. A CM face sells trust. In the absence of one, voters became doubtful of AAP’s political and social intentions.

This time, the Aam Aadmi Party does not want to make last time’s mistakes (making new mistakes should be OK!) So they have been repeatedly saying they will announce a CM candidate. They could do it anytime now.

Except, the problem is, Charanjit Singh Channi is already such a rock star that voters will compare the AAP CM candidate with. Whether the CM candidate is a farmer leader or the in-house Bhagwant Singh Mann, the election campaign in January will look like an equal contest, at least giving the Congress a fighting chance.

Actually, AAP is still making the mistake it did 5 years ago. It is trying to win in Kejriwal’s name, wanting to announce a CM candidate at the fag end so he looks like a Kejriwal nominee.

Across Punjab, AAP posters as of now have Kejriwal’s face on them, the slogans are around Kejriwal. If Kejriwal can’t win in Kejriwal’s name, is it any use for AAP to win Punjab?