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Channi takes over, but Congress drama continues

Chandigarh: Charanjit Singh Channi was sworn in as the Punjab chief minister on Monday, becoming the state’s first Dalit CM, even as a political controversy over the change of guard just months ahead of assembly elections in the state grew with changing power dynamics within the ranks of the Congress
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Published on Sep 20, 2021 11:54 PM IST

Chandigarh: Charanjit Singh Channi was sworn in as the Punjab chief minister on Monday, becoming the state’s first Dalit CM, even as a political controversy over the change of guard just months ahead of assembly elections in the state grew with changing power dynamics within the ranks of the Congress.

In his first comment after taking oath, Channi promised free water supply to smaller homes, a reduction in power tariff and a transparent government for the “common man”, and urged the Centre to repeal the three “black” farm laws.

With under five months to go for the state elections, Captain Amarinder Singh resigned on Saturday after the Congress summoned a meeting of its lawmakers in the state, saying that he felt “humiliated”, but adding that he won’t accept newly appointed party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu as the next CM or the party’s face in the coming polls.

Hours before the swearing-in ceremony on Monday, the Congress’s Punjab incharge Harish Rawat said the upcoming state elections will be fought under the leadership of Sidhu. Calling the statement “baffling”, former state unit chief Sunil Jakhar said it could “undermine” the authority of the new CM.

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Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and OP Soni, both ministers in the Amarinder cabinet, were sworn in as deputy chief ministers at the ceremony, which was also attended by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Amarinder skipped the swearing-in ceremony.

At his first press conference as the CM, Channi, 58, teared up and described himself as an “aam aadmi (common) man”, while thanking the Congress leadership for picking him for the post. The chief minister said his would be a “government of the poor, for the poor and with the poor”.

There will be no water and sewage charges for houses up to 150 or 200 square yards in urban areas, he said. The government will also reduce the electricity tariff, Channi said.

“My wife is a doctor, my brother is a doctor. There are employees in my house. When the power bill comes, my wife tells me that the money goes from her pocket… these bills will be reduced,” the three-time MLA from Chamkaur Sahib said.

While Channi did not divulge the details of the schemes, his promises in the poll-bound state appear to rival those announced by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has pitched itself as the main Opposition party in the state.

Channi also urged the Centre to repeal the three contentious farm laws which have led to months-long protests across the country. Asserting that the Congress supports the agitating farmers, Channi said: “Together, we have to make Punjab prosperous. Punjab is primarily an agrarian state. This government is pro-farmer.”

Hundreds of thousands of farmers, largely from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, have been protesting since last November, seeking a repeal of the farm laws. Several rounds of consultations with the central government have failed to resolve the deadlock.

Besides Rahul Gandhi, Rawat, party leader Ajay Maken, former chief minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Punjab Congress chief Sidhu, and Manpreet Singh Badal also attended the ceremony at the Raj Bhawan.

After Channi’s election as the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader, the appointment of Randhawa, a Jat Sikh, and Soni, a Hindu, is being seen as an attempt by the Congress to balance the caste equations ahead of the polls and counter the attempt of rival parties to woo Dalit voters.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party has declared that if voted to power, it will have a Dalit CM, the Shiromani Akali Dal has tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party, with the promise to pick a deputy CM from the community. At 32%, Dalits constitute almost one-third of the state’s population – the highest anywhere in the country.

After Rawat’s remark appeared to suggest that Sidhu will lead the efforts of the Congress for the assembly elections, Jakhar 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.” Jhakhar was removed from the post of the state unit president to make way for Sidhu’s appointment.

Soon, the Congress went into damage control, saying that Channi and Sidhu will both be “our” faces for the Punjab elections in 2022.

Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the next Punjab assembly elections will be fought under the leadership of both Channi and Sidhu, and attacked the BJP, Akali Dal, BSP and Aam Aadmi Party for allegedly insulting a Dalit chief minister.

He also questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP leadership on why they had not named any Dalit as their chief minister and why they and other leaders of the BSP, AAP and Akali Dal were undermining the young Congress Dalit leader.

“Our faces will be Charanjit Singh Channi and Navjot Singh Sidhu as also ordinary Congress workers and leaders who will be supporting them. If anybody says one or the other will be the face, intentionally or otherwise, it is being misinterpreted by the media,” he told reporters.

Channi is the chief minister and Sidhu is the organisation head of the Congress in Punjab, and the next elections will be fought under both of them, he added.

Channi is learnt to have started consultations with the state president and other senior leaders for the expansion of his cabinet.

There are indications that several new faces, including the leaders who rebelled against Amarinder Singh, may be inducted to make a clean break from the previous administration.

Punjab Congress working president Sangat Singh Gilzian has sought due representation for backward classes in the cabinet. “OBCs constitute 31% of the state’s population. Their concerns need to be addressed,” he told reporters on Monday.

Calling Channi’s appointment a mere “election stunt”, opposition parties hit out at the Congress on Monday.

The BJP fronted its Dalit leaders to target the Congress and dared the party to make a public promise that Channi will be its chief ministerial face in Punjab if it was sincere about its move.

BJP general secretary Dushyant Kumar Gautam, who is the party’s incharge for the state, said, “This is an old habit of the Congress. It believes that it can capture Dalit vote bank by making a Dalit chief minister for a few months. A conspiracy is being hatched in Punjab to grab Dalit vote bank.”

BSP chief Mayawati, meanwhile, said that the Congress is rattled by the SAD-BJP alliance for the Punjab Assembly polls.

“Congress still does not have faith in Dalits. Dalits need to be very alert to their double standards. I have full faith that Dalits will not fall for this stunt,” Mayawati said.

Channi was elected the CLP leader on Sunday, a day after two-time chief minister Amarinder Singh stepped down, capping a long-drawn and bitter tussle in the Congress state unit.

Channi, Randhawa and Soni were among the cabinet ministers who rebelled against Amarinder Singh amid his power struggle with party leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was appointed the state unit president last month despite Amarinder’s opposition.

While Amarinder did not attend the swearing-in ceremony, Channi called him a “protector of water rights”.

The new CM said his government will remain committed to the Congress leadership’s 18-point agenda for the state and the previous election promises will be fulfilled. “We will ensure a transparent government,” he said.

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