In his debut session as Punjab’s leader of the Opposition, Congress leader Charanjit Singh Channi faced more brickbats than bouquets. He was called “inexperienced and inarticulate” as the party struggled to corner the Shiromani Akali Dal-led government and keep its house in order.
Channi told Sukhdeep Kaur of Hindustan Times he did all that the Opposition should have done.
HT: You battled opposition from not just the ruling benches but from your own MLAs.
Channi: How do you function when the Speaker is biased, your mikes are manipulated, and there is a campaign to discredit the leader of the Opposition as a poor replacement of someone? Punjab deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal and revenue minister Bikram Majithia tried to demoralise me, saying the ruling and opposition benches should together go to the Congress high command to bring Sunil Jakhar back as leader of the Opposition.
They (Badals) were rattled that a person from a poor Dalit family was sitting in front of them. While the chief minister lost no time in congratulating Jakhar on becoming leader of the Opposition, he never bothered to extend the courtesy to me. These are people of the elite class and I don’t belong to that.
HT: But your party has an elite class too. Your MLAs had to be issued a whip to attend the assembly.
Channi: The caste system is deeply entrenched in Punjab and every party has it. But I got the support of all our MLAs. Low attendance does not mean they were indifferent.
HT: The Congress entrusted its leadership in the House to inexperienced, younger MLAs. The experiment, according to senior leaders, has backfired.
Channi: How can I be called inexperienced? I have been an MLA for nine years. Senior party leaders also supported me. Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh came to the legislature party meet to support me and said I was doing a good job. Jakhar and other senior leaders also backed me when I was stopped by the ruling benches from speaking in the House.
HT: So it was a job well done?
Channi: I am among those who work for the party and not to get credit. I was able to expose the lies in the budget. I questioned them how could debt be productive when only 8% is spent on capital expenditure. I produced statements of the accused given to the enforcement directorate on Majithia’s drug links. We punctured Sukhbir’s claims on Punjab being power surplus.
He (Sukhbir) is an insincere person; when he has no answers, he starts to ridicule others. Unlike Sukhbir, I did not get the opportunity to become a political leader because of my father. As for Majithia, he has always behaved like a child in the House and I cannot let such people decide my work.
HT: Do you regret falling for Sukhbir’s bait on the previous Congress government’s performance?
Channi: Should two minutes of that be allowed to eclipse 10 days of what we said in the House? I could have said the best thing the Captain Amarinder Singh government did was to send him to jail. I gave the answers in a different context and they were distorted.
HT: But the Akalis stole the Congress’s thunder on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL), though you started the session with a march and ended it seeking a no-confidence motion, which was rejected.
Channi: The Speaker was colluding with the government to reject every motion we proposed. Our mikes were switched off while we were speaking and those of Sukhbir and other Akali ministers were switched on promptly. The resolution moved by chief minister Parkash Singh Badal on March 8 had no mention of denotifying the acquired land. I had proposed an amendment to the resolution that the government should denotify the land.
They did not steal our thunder but our proposal and the CM announced it in his speech. It is all there in the assembly records. The government just needed to issue a notification to denotify it but they deliberately chose to bring in a bill, which would be sent to the governor, resulting in Haryana seeking a status quo from the Supreme Court. We have exposed the government before the people of Punjab.