In a bid to woo the huge vote bank of Scheduled Castes (SCs) in Punjab comprising more than 30% of the state’s population the Congress has appointed a Dalit MLA as the new leader of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) after Sunil Jakhar put in his papers last month to make way for an overall organisational revamp.
It is the second time that the party has appointed a Dalit face as the CLP leader in Punjab after late Chaudhary Jagjit Singh. Charanjit Channi (47), MLA from Chamkaur Sahib, belongs to the dominant SC community of Ravidassias and was appointed as one of the four vice-presidents of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) in 2013 under the presidency of Partap Singh Bajwa.
As part of its social engineering formula of giving representation to all castes and communities, the party has appointed a Hindu, Ludhiana West MLA Bharat Bhushan Ashu, 44, as the deputy CLP leader, while Sultanpur Lodhi legislator Navtej Cheema, 41, a Jat Sikh, has been appointed as the chief whip.
With these appointments, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has again tried to usher in a generational shift by passing the baton of leadership of the state assembly to Young Turks after entrusting the senior leadership with the job of leading the state unit and the campaign for the 2017 state elections. Channi, Ashu and Cheema are all under 50 years of age.
The state unit was revamped last month to bring 73-year-old Captain Amarinder Singh back as the new Punjab Congress president, replacing a younger Partap Singh Bajwa, while two other septuagenarians ‑ MLA Lal Singh and Rajya Sabha MP Ambika Soni ‑ were appointed senior vice-president of the state Congress and chairman of the campaign committee, respectively.
Since the Amarinder camp was rooting for Jakhar, the appointment of Channi and Ashu is also being seen as a balancing act by the party high command between various factions. Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu, who had been appointed deputy chairman of the campaign committee last month, and Ashu are self-proclaimed Rahul loyalists who had stayed away from Amarinder’s shows of strength against Bajwa before his appointment as the state Congress chief. Cheema, however, owes allegiance to Soni and Amarinder.
It is again the politically-important Malwa region that has got the lion’s share as both Channi and Ashu hail from the belt. Doaba has been represented by Cheema, while Majha has gone unrepresented in the CLP leadership.
It is not just his caste credentials that have stood Channi in good stead but also his activism within the Punjab assembly. But his appointment may not go down well with old-timers who question his contribution to the party as Channi had left the Congress and contested as an Independent in the 2007 assembly elections and returned to the party fold ahead of the 2012 polls.