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Punjab crisis: With Charanjit Singh Channi as CM, Can Congress write a different chapter this time?

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History both in Punjab and the country shows that such a change of leadership close to polls did not turn the tide in favour of the incumbent. In 1996, Congress appointed Rajinder Kaur Bhattal late in 1996 as Chief Minister. The party ended up with just 14 seats and Akalis secured an absolute majority.

Punjab crisis: With Charanjit Singh Channi as CM, Can Congress write a different chapter this time?
Politics is an unending cycle and last weekend was no different. In a sudden development, Indian National Congress ejected one of its senior-most Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab and installed a young leader Charanjit Singh Channi.
The replacement of Captain, who turns 80 next year, is twenty years younger and belongs to the Dalit community, which in terms of sheer electoral politics in the state comprises about 32 percent of the population.
In recent times, the Congress did not demonstrate its political acumen as it did in making this bold move that can alter the political matrix in the state, where deep societal community fault lines are pronounced. In effecting the change of guard, the Congress played a deep stakes card as never before did Punjab have a Chief Minister from the community.
It went against the conventional practice of the legislature party leader necessarily from the Jat Sikh Community. The only exception to this was in the early 1970s when Zail Singh, from the backward classes’ community, became Punjab Chief Minister.
The decision should be seen in the overall political context of the state where the Shiromani Akali Dal –Bahujan Samaj Party alliance announced to have a Deputy Chief Minister from the scheduled caste community. Revived after 25 years, the SAD-BSP partnership hopes to recapture the glory when the alliance won a majority of the 13 Lok Sabha seats with BSP winning three seats including its founder Kanshi Ram.
Now there can be several arguments cutting both ways whether the Congress move would alter the ground situation amid reports that Captain Amarinder Singh's popularity went declining steadily ever since he became the Chief Minister in 2017.
Channi, a three-term legislator including a stint as the leader of the Opposition in the 117-strong Punjab assembly, served as the Minister for Technical Education in Amarinder Singh’s team. He along with two other Ministers Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and Tript Bajwa were voices within the Council of Ministers joining the issue with the Chief Minister as Sidhu kept up the pressure from the outside.
The ascent of Channi to the chair of Chief Minister comes with several challenges. Right from the hour he assumes office, he has little time to lose. The tenure of the current assembly in the state ends on March 27, 2022, and in effect, the new administration has just six months to deliver.
In real times it will be less. The glide path becomes narrower since the Election Commission is expected to announce the schedule of next polls later this year bringing into force the Model Code of Conduct immediately and restricting the government functioning.
The legislators who have been at the receiving end from the constituents will be expecting the government to make effective interventions. The new administration would be under pressure to make good on some of the issues the dissidents were raising — bringing culprits behind sacrilege cases and police firing to justice and demonstrating firmness against the drug mafia.
The new Chief Minister comes in with exposure to the ways of bureaucracy and will have to work out an arrangement to get it going. How much of it can be done when elections are around the corner is anybody’s guess.
On the political front, the new Chief Minister will have to balance the interests of the legislators and demands of the party apparatus. As days progress, the pressure would grow on aspirants seeking party tickets in the face of expectations of the current set to secure re-nomination. The leader of the Legislature Party and the State Congress play a crucial role in such a selection.
The other challenge is a battle of perception in the state where the manner in which Amarinder Singh was sacked earned him sympathy. The veteran Congressman was one of the tallest party leaders with a pan-India image.
Complaints against Amarinder Singh’s style of functioning and remaining inaccessible are not new. Early in his first tenure as the Chief Minister (2002-07) legislators raised a banner of revolt requiring the intervention of Congress president Sonia Gandhi making the faction on the warpath, smoke the peace pipe.
This time around, the new generation central leadership under Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra decided to go for a compulsive surgery. There are valid arguments whether the entire episode could have been handled dexterously respecting the veteran’s contribution and providing an honourable exit.
On his part, the Captain went down, telling one and all of his feelings of humiliation and raising a shindig about the Congress state unit chief Navjot Singh Sidhu. On top of it, the veteran politician announced that he is not done yet. Whatever be the factors against Amarinder Singh it is his moderate image that helped the Congress and can turn to play the spoilsport.
Finally, history both in the State and the country shows that such a change of leadership close to polls did not turn the tide in favour of the incumbent. In 1996, Congress appointed Rajinder Kaur Bhattal late in 1996 as Chief Minister. The party ended up with just 14 seats and Akalis secured an absolute majority.
In 1998, the BJP handed over the reins of Delhi to Sushma Swaraj, the Congress under Sheila Dikshit was voted to power and went on to retain it for two more terms. Can Punjab write a different chapter this time?
— KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. The views expressed are personal.
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