Charanjit Singh Channi was sworn in as Punjab’s new Chief Minister today after Amarinder Singh’s dramatic weekend resignation just four months before an election in the state. Punjab’s first Dalit Sikh Chief Minister took charge with two deputies, both carefully chosen to tie up the Congress’s poll math- Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and Om Prakash Soni.
Rahul Gandhi attended the oath ceremony — earlier reports has said he would not — making an exception in the tumultuous circumstances of the Punjab switch. The Congress leader has faced heavy criticism over his handling of the party’s Congress crisis, raging for the past six months because of the ceaseless feud between Amarinder Singh and Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Just before the new Chief Minister’s takeover, a top Punjab Congress leader’s tweet made it clear that the transition would not be as smooth as the party would hope.
Former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar, who was briefly considered for the top post, hit out at a comment by the party’s Punjab in-charge Harish Rawat in support of Navjot Sidhu.
“On the swearing-in day of Charanjit Channi as Chief Minister, Mr Rawat’s statement that ‘elections will be fought under Sidhu’, is baffling. It is likely to undermine the Chief Minister’s (designate) authority but also negate the very ‘raison d’etre’ of his selection for this position,” he tweeted.
On the swearing-in day of Sh @Charnjit_channi as Chief Minister, Mr Rawats’s statement that “elections will be fought under Sidhu”, is baffling. It’s likely to undermine CM’s authority but also negate the very ‘raison d’être’ of his selection for this position.
— Sunil Jakhar (@sunilkjakhar) September 20, 2021
Mr Channi, 58, a three-time MLA and a minister in the Amarinder Singh cabinet, is known to be close to Mr Sidhu.
Mr Channi was chosen after much back-and-forth on Sunday that saw at least two more candidates edged out of the race. The party’s first pick, Ambika Soni, reportedly turned down the offer in a late-night meeting with Rahul Gandhi; she reportedly stressed on the ramifications of a non-Sikh Chief Minister as the Congress seeks re-election.
The Congress is betting on the vote of Dalits, who are 31 per cent of Punjab’s population, to counter the opposition Akali Dal, a former BJP ally that has teamed up with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for the polls.
But the perception that he is a place-holder for Mr Sidhu has spurred attacks from rival parties of an “insult to Dalit Sikhs” in Punjab.
“The Congress remembers Dalits only when it is desperate. But the people of Punjab will not be fooled by such tactics,” said Mayawati.
“I have also come to know through media that the next Punjab assembly elections will be fought under the leadership of a non-Dalit. This means that Congress still does not fully trust the Dalits. Congress is also scared of the Akali-BSP alliance in Punjab,” the former Chief Minister said.
Whether the Congress’s gamble pays off depends considerably on Amarinder Singh. After months of bickering with Mr Sidhu and other rebels, the “Captain” resigned on Saturday after the Congress called a sudden meeting of MLAs without informing him. He called Congress resident Sonia Gandhi and told her he felt humiliated for the third time this year and “enough is enough”. After quitting, he told NDTV that though he had resigned, he would not accept Mr Sidhu as the party’s face for the Punjab polls.
Amarinder Singh has refused to reveal his plans, and his answers to questions on his future in the Congress are worrying for the party. In the past, he had formed his own outfit before returning to the Congress.
Reports suggest Sonia Gandhi, who is currently in Shimla in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, may meet with Mr Singh to try and mollify him.