After the political messaging by elevating Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab’s first Dalit chief minister, the Congress has the tough task of maintaining a delicate social balance to prevent counter-rallying by political and social opponents to its experiment.
Although Channi’s appointment was to whitewash the mess created by the ugly fight of Gandhis-Sidhu with Amarinder Singh, Punjab political circles are wary that the attempt at social churning and counter moves could test the delicate social and political chemistry and unity in the sensitive border state.
The Punjab Congress and AICC brass understandably projected Channi’s elevation as a master stroke and powerful message on social empowerment which, they feel, has foxed the AAP that promised a Dalit CM. They calculate that Channi’s elevation has also neutralised the challenge from an Akali Dal-BSP alliance, besides checkmating Amarinder Singh’s counter plots. While symbolism plays a key role in electoral packaging, history is replete with instances of desperately manufactured image crash landing on the electoral turf.
After the Janata Party government collapsed due to personality clashes and ideological contradictions, its leaders came out with the grand idea to camouflage the party mess and trip the Indira-Sanjay-led Congress fight back: It projected Dalit icon Jagjivan Ram as its poll mascot and prime ministerial candidate in 1980, hoping the significant Dalit community would fan their electoral fight and stitch up a formidable social combination. After the project flopped, assessments showed that while Ram’s caste voted en masse for the Janata Party in north India, for political and social reasons, most other Dalit segments and major castes rallied behind Indira Gandhi’s party to facilitate her triumphant return.
Almost two decades later, the Vajpayee regime presented political heavyweight Sushma Swaraj as the first woman chief minister of Delhi, less than two months before the assembly polls. It was projected as a great leap for women empowerment and remedy to end the raging feud in Delhi BJP. When the Swaraj government was voted out, Congress circles internally credited their party’s victory to sabotage of Madanlal Khurana-Sahib Singh Verma-Pramod Mahajan trio, apart from the spiralling onion prices. A similar elevation of Rajnath Singh as UP CM and packaging him as the ‘Rajput and kisan leader’ in 2000, a little more than a year ahead of the UP polls, could not prevent BJP’s defeat. The ‘Sushma-Rajnath experiments’ are a reminder to BJP and Congress of the pitfalls of notional messaging before the dramatic ‘sacking and making’ of CMs.
Some Congress leaders are of the opinion that the examples should prompt the Congress leadership to have an imaginative political backing for the Dalit CM project. The 34% Dalit community in Punjab is the largest concentration of the community for any state, but the state has never allowed the Bahujan Samjawdi Party to be a major force despite founder Kashi Ram being a member of the Dalit Sikh community and latter efforts of Mayawati, despite being UP CM.
Punjab experts say that the Dalit community is not homogeneous and has many divisions based on religion and caste. Among them are Mazhabi Sikhs, Valmikis, Ad Dharmis, Ravidasias, etc, with inter-party and inter-region political loyalties. Expecting Channi to rally all Dalits groups behind Congress would be unrealistic, they feel.
While a section of Dalits would definitely be enthused by Channi’s elevation, how the influential Jat Sikhs (about 25%) react to the ‘challenge’ to its ‘leadership monopoly’ would be crucial. Will pro-Congress supporters among them turn hostile after Amarinder Singh’s ‘humiliation’ despite Congress having another Jat Sikh, Sidhu, as PCC chief, and whether they will collaborate with Akalis for revenge, is not a guess easy to hazard. The mood of the 38% Hindu community too is closely watched. Equally crucial would be Singh’s next move. Channi is young and has the advantage of a divided Akali-BJP opposition, but has a determined challenger in AAP. He lacks the political stature of Singh or Badal and pan-Punjab appeal, apart from being saddled with a divided party and a PCC chief with unbridled ambition and self-obsession. Cahnni’s four months’ slog overs could see many new plots and realignments, offering him many opportunities as well as challenges.