Ludhiana, Feb 6: Just two weeks ahead of Assembly polls in the Congress-ruled Punjab, party leader Rahul Gandhi on Sunday ended months of suspense by announcing incumbent Charanjit Singh Channi as the party's Chief Ministerial face for the polls.
Accepting the decision, state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was in the race, hugged Channi on the stage as Gandhi announced his name after over 45 minutes of his speech, televised across the 117 Assembly seats.
Political observers believe the decision of the Congress to go to the polls in the state, which is witnessing a five-cornered contest, under the leadership of three-time legislator Channi, the state's first Dalit Chief Minister, is to woo the Dalit Sikh votes that constitutes 32 per cent Scheduled Caste population in the state, the country's largest.
"The people of Punjab have said, not me, the thought is theirs, not mine, that they want a person from a poor household as the CM. We want someone who understands poverty, hunger, and fears of the poor. Punjab's CM candidate is Charanjit Singh Channi Ji," said Gandhi during his address at the 'Aawaz Punjab Di' virtual rally.
He praised Channi for his humble background.
Lashing out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Gandhi said "he is not the PM but a king. Have you seen him helping anyone on the roadside".
Getting emotional on the announcement of his name, Channi said that he has always been honest, never took a penny from anyone, and will continue to work honestly.
"This is a big battle which I can't fight alone and I don't have the money, courage to fight it," he said, adding, "The people of Punjab will fight this battle."
Channi became the CM after the unceremonious exit of Amarinder Singh over allegations of being hand-in-glove with the Akalis for not fulfilling the 2017 prominent poll promises -- acting with an iron fist against the drug mafia and justice for the sacrilege of 2015 that led to protests and the deaths of two persons in the subsequent police firing.
The Congress announcement of the CM's face came after the AAP declared comedian-turned-politician Bhagwant Mann as its Chief Ministerial candidate on January 18.
Before the formal announcement by Gandhi, Sidhu said, "I have accepted Rahul Gandhi's decision...If I am given decision-making power, I will finish the mafia, improve people's lives. If not given power, I will walk with a smile with whomever you make the CM."
Responding to the Congress announcement, AAP Punjab co-incharge Raghav Chadha tweeted, "It is indeed sad that out of 3 crore Punjabis, the Congress party chose a person who is accused of illegal sand mining and transfer posting scam as their CM candidate."
Political observers told IANS that it was a tough task for the party high command to choose Channi, a Dalit Sikh, over Sidhu, a Jat Sikh, in a state with a population caste mix of roughly 32 per cent Dalits, 30 per cent Jat Sikhs and 40 per cent the rest.
"Most of the cabinet ministers and top leaders stood behind Channi owing to his soft approach, easy accessibility and the most important, being the biggest Dalit face. If the high command projected Sidhu as the chief minister's face, it could upset the party's Dalit vote bank," a senior Congress leader told IANS, requesting anonymity.
"After building an image of transferring power from the elite (Capt Amarinder Singh) to the poor, the party can't ignore Channi's claim at this stage," the Congress leader added.
In a bid to woo Dalit voters, Channi last month spent a night at Dera Sachkhand Ballan, a prominent Ravidassia community that has much influence in the Doaba region comprising Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala districts.
In his brief helm of 111 days, Channi built an image of the common man's Chief Minister by extensively touring the state, occasionally performing 'bhangra' on the beats of a 'dhol' at public functions, favouring tea at roadside eateries while narrating couplets to the masses, besides accepting 'siropas' (religious robes) enroute by stopping his cavalcade.
The key opponents in the state -- the AAP, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine and the BJP in alliance with Amarinder Singh's new party Punjab Lok Congress and the Samyukt Samaj Morcha, the fledging coalition of farm unions -- are making an issue out of the Congress CM's face.
Now the prominent faces for the parties are Channi (Congress), 58; Mann (AAP), 48; Sukhbir Singh Badal (SAD), 59; Amarinder Singh (BJP-led alliance), 80; and Balbir Singh Rajewal (Samyukt Samaj Morcha), 78.