Rahul Gandhi's recent handling of Punjab crisis might serve twin purposes. First, Congress high command’s decision to play the Dalit card by projecting Charanjit Singh Channi as party’s face in assembly elections has gone down well within the party, and party hopes to garner the support of scheduled castes in upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.
Second, Rahul Gandhi was able to pacify the mercurial Navjot Singh Sidhu and former state president, Sunil Jhakar and present a show of unity just when the situation seemed slipping out of hand. Infighting had peaked and party cadres were getting demoralised.
But at the same time, Sidhu’s unpredictable behaviour continues unabated and it has been compounded owing to controversial statements being issued by his wife against chief minister.
One thing seems to be certain that not much time is left for one phase polling on Feb 20 hence he may not be in a position to take any extreme step as his prestige is at stake in Amritsar assembly segment, especially in view of former chief minister, Amrinder Singh’s repeated threat to ensure the defeat of Punjab Congress chief.
On the issue of handling of Punjab imbroglio, Rahul had projected Channi at Ludhiana rally as a grassroots worker who overcame a humble family background to rise to the top with sheer hard work and commitment.
The move was also aimed at countering a resurgent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Malwa region which holds key to power in the state and it counts about 60 percent of total seats i.e. 69 seats in the house of 117 besides recapturing the Dalit vote bank before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
AAP had won most of its 20 seats in 2017 in Malwa and was hoping to significantly swell the numbers in the current electoral battle. Congress’ move could also help it checkmate the Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) possible alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Rahul Gandhi’s announcement at an impressive rally to project Channi over the most ambitious protégé and current state president of Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu should leave no one in doubt about who is the “Boss” in the Congress.
Acting president, Sonia Gandhi’s authorisation should facilitate his takeover as regular president in September/ October when the organisational elections that are already in progress are over.
Rahul might get a fillip in attaining the next ambition by playing a dominant role in settling this ticklish issue which is bothering party leaders and workers in the country.
He is actively involved in top-level decisions without holding any office in the party and is openly asserting authority to create confidence amongst the workers in the country.
With his recent performance in Parliament after scathing attacks on the policies of NDA government during past seven years, a chorus is building up again for Rahul. He had earlier made it clear that he will consider the appeal which will be inconsonance with their sentiments.
Rahul Gandhi used to show reluctance whenever pressed to take over reins of the party. Now the situation has dramatically changed and voices of dissent, as in the formation of G23, are being heard. It may thus become mandatory for him to take over as regular president and retain family hold over the organisation.
With the inconsistent health of acting President Sonia Gandhi, there seems to be no option left for him. Senior leaders loyal to the family have been drumming up support over Rahul Gandhi’s capability to stand up to BJP and strengthen his hold over the Congress with ample help from sister, Priyanka Vadra, who is working hard in Uttar Pradesh assembly polls to revive the party’s fortunes.
In just over a decade the Congress has slipped into irrelevance from its pole position in the most populous state, so crucial for any party contending for power at the Centre.
It is now established that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka were responsible for the ouster of former chief minister, Amrinder Singh who would not yield any space for next line of leadership.
It was tough calls as it was guided by a controversial decision to hand an important assignment to Navjot Singh Sidhu. Not just Amrinder Singh but many others were wary of Sidhu’s burning ambitions and overbearing attitude.
Rahul-Priyanka took a big risk by antagonising Amrinder Singh who had played a significant role in bringing Congress back to power against all odds. Punjab was considered as a safer bet with Amrinder at the helm. On Sidhu’s entry into the party as state party chief he expectedly split the party and created a serious crisis.
That did not deter the duo who decided to install a ‘Dalit’ leader as chief minister and changed the narrative. Channi’s elevation is seen as ‘Masterstroke’ and will put Rahul and Priyanka to a vital test during the upcoming polls. Its effect will be felt not just in Punjab but also in four other poll-bound states.
Congress leadership had meticulously planned the strategy to avoid any bickering among other aspirants. Rahul therefore conferred with Sidhu and the senior Hindu leader, Sunil Jhakar who was vocal in his resentment against leaders like Ambika Soni.
Jakhar squarely blamed her for vetoing the proposal to elect him leader of the legislature party with the majority support of party MLAs. The calculated move of consulting with two top state leaders clinched the issue and both had to fall in line.
Rahul Gandhi tactfully put the ball in workers’ court by deciding the issue through majority support and acceptance thereby eliminating Sidhu. Channi’s Dalit identity and proven credentials as grassroots leader weighed in his favour. This made it difficult for party cadres and leaders to opt for aggressive and unpredictable leader like Sidhu.
Congress couldn’t afford to name a non-Dalit as face of the party with Chenni already holding the post of chief minister. It could have exposed Congress at national level and leaders of BJP, AAP, Sanyukt Akali Dal would have seized the chance to dub the Congress as anti-Dalit party. Thus the high command consequently dashed their hopes.
Battle lines will be redrawn when Channi takes on the opposition parties carrying the tag of a dalit chief minister who will retain his position if party comes to power.
Sidhu has accepted high command’s decision in Rahul Gandhi’s presence saying he will leave no stone unturned to ensure victory of the party. Channi emerged as natural choice for Congress party also because Punjab has the highest population proportion of scheduled castes in the country. It has the potential to influence poll equations in 48 of 117 assembly segments (including 34 reserved seats).
The Dalit (31.91 percent) plus Jat Sikh (approximately 21.25 percent) combination might prove invincible as BJP-Amridner Singh combination does not seem formidable. AAP, which has declared Bhagwant Mann a Jat as CM face, is confident of taking on the ruling party.
Of the 15 chief ministers that have ruled Punjab since 1947 none was a Dalit. Gaini Zail Singh, who hailed from (OBC) Garsia caste, ruled Punjab from 1972 to 1977. Jats are primarily rich agriculturists whereas Dalits have got more than 50 different castes and sub-castes.
One third of Mazahbi Sikhs are also linked to agriculture and spread over Malwa (south east), Majha (Tarntaran,Gurdaspur, Pathankot etc) whereas poor Valmikis form 10 to 12 percent who reside in urban areas. The largest chunk of Dalit artisans reside in Doaba region are relevant to the polity of the state.
In the prevailing scenario, Punjab acquires a lot of importance for Congress as it is struggling in other four poll-bound states except Uttarkhand where it expects to snatch power from BJP.
The Congress has neutralised the issue of Chief Ministerial face. APP and SAD will need to change the strategy to counter the Dalit card.
The much talked about anger of the farmers could tilt the balance in favour of any party though burning issues like unemployment, prices of essential commodities, closure of thousands of industrial units and loss of jobs etc. have affected common people.
(K. S. Tomar is National Columnist and Political Analyst)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.