Bold gamble: On announcement of Channai as Punjab CM candidate

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The projection of Channi as CM candidate was forced on Congress, but is the right decision

If the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister in September 2021 was an accidental outcome of internal rivalries in the Congress, the party’s announcement that he would continue in the post if it wins the Assembly election is a bold gamble. The Congress has been reticent in projecting a singular leader in any State, and has often taken the plea that it believed in collective leadership. The announcement of a CM candidate, though not unprecedented, is rare for the Congress, and in this instance necessitated by the uniquely volatile social dynamic in Punjab at the moment. Entrenched social alignments in the State appear to be unravelling, and the Congress is trying to knit together a viable electoral majority, with a Dalit face as its axis. Punjab has close to 32% population of the Scheduled Caste community, while the Jat Sikh population is over 20%. But since 1977, the State has never seen a non-Jat Sikh Chief Minister — be it of the Congress party or the Shiromani Akali Dal, indicating the political dominance of the Jat Sikh community. Giani Zail Singh was the last non-Jat Sikh Chief Minister of Punjab between 1972-77.

The Congress has usually shied away from pronounced social justice politics, and in that sense, this is an audacious move which will have ripple effects in its strategy elsewhere too. Party leader Rahul Gandhi is driving a more accommodative caste politics, but the approach is evidently facing resistance from within the party and outside. Dalits in Punjab are not a homogeneous category. They are divided into 39 castes, clustered under different religions and sects locally called ‘Deras’. Mr. Channi belongs to the Ravidasia community of Dalits, which is a minuscule population of the total Dalits. Whether he can galvanise a larger politics of aspiration shared among all communities overlooked in the traditional power sharing models of the State remains an open question, but Mr. Channi does deserve the support he has found from the party. He has not been long enough in power to be judged for his track record as CM, but Mr. Channi is a good story teller and has a good story — which are essential ingredients for any successful politics. His prominence will in all likelihood set off reactions from Jat Sikhs and upper caste Hindus, considerable segments of whom have been with the Congress. Opponents of the Congress — the Shiromani Akali Dal-BSP alliance, the BJP-led alliance, and the Aam Aadmi Party — will all try to inflame the resentment among these communities to corner the Congress. The Congress is accused of playing caste politics by promoting a Dalit, and it is notable the rotation of power among the dominant Jat Sikhs for decades rarely caused such concerns. Perhaps that itself is proof that Mr. Channi deserved this chance.

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