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Sunday, September 25, 2022

The curious case of the Punjab Congress

Even with ‘operation Captain’ over, the party has hurdles to cross if it is to emerge successful in the Assembly elections

The installation of Charanjit Singh Channi as the new Chief Minister of Punjab may be viewed as an important landmark in the State’s political history in terms of the politics of ‘presence’. Mr. Channi is the first Chief Minister from the Dalit community in the political history of Punjab, going back to its pre-Partition days when governments were formed after the 1937 and 1946 provincial elections. Even the key portfolios in successive governments never went to the community in the past despite it constituting one-third of the population in Punjabi Suba, since its reorganisation in 1966.

It is the Jatt Sikh community that consistently got disproportionate representation in successive Assemblies and in the governments. Giani Zail Singh, a Sikh OBC, was the lone exception, as the Chief Minister of the State (later the President of India). Jatt Sikhs qualify as the ‘dominant caste’, going by the noted sociologist M.N. Srinivas (1972) formulation, as they are numerically strong, land-owning and not very low (middling) in the caste hierarchy.

The change is a major gamble

Considering the extremely narrow social basis of political power in the State, it is obvious that the Congress high command, a euphemism for the Gandhi family, has taken a gamble, even if done reluctantly, by anointing a non-Jatt Sikh, and from a Dalit community. Landless Dalits, being farming labourers in rural Punjab, have historically shared an uneasy relationship with Jatt Sikhs.

The high command has also made a gamble by indicating that it wants Navjot Singh Sidhu, a late entrant to the party, as the face of the Assembly election campaign as clearly indicated by Harish Rawat, the Congress party’s Punjab affairs-in charge. Though it was denied later after protests, the position of the Chief Minister has already come under cloud. Mr. Sidhu being the first choice of the high command in case of an electoral win, is making it obvious in the way he has been allowed to play the role of king-maker. He has reportedly vetoed the chief ministerial chances of Sunil Jakhar and Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and is currently influencing key administrative decisions. His loyalists such as Pargat Singh have been included in the Channi cabinet. If the high command actually takes such a drastic step, it is going to be in a spot facing another round of dissidence from Sidhu detractors within the party. The party shall also lose the Dalit community support base in the State and elsewhere also.

The third gamble the party high command has taken is by abruptly replacing a long-term powerful Chief Minister (Captain Amarinder Singh), less than three months before the election code of conduct comes into effect. This is probably for the first time in the history of the Grand Old Party that the high command has moved so recklessly; there was no such development even during the Indira Gandhi-Rajiv Gandhi era. There are not many parallels in other parties except the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) replacing Sahib Singh Verma with Sushma Swaraj just before the 1998 Assembly elections in Delhi, which did not work.

‘Social balancing’ is a risk

The ‘historic’ appointment of Mr. Channi is being hailed as a ‘master stroke’/‘game-changer’. The running argument is that purported ‘social balancing’ would fetch electoral dividends for the incumbent party as the ‘Channi factor’ would consolidate and galvanise the Dalit community. However, the community has historically been divided along regional, religious, linguistic and caste lines. Scheduled Castes as in other States have never voted en bloc for any party if one is to go by surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and a field-based study by Kanchan Chandra (2004).

In fact, the Congress should instead be wary of a brewing counter-mobilisation among the Jatt Sikh community which may be sensing a loss of power and blaming it on the internecine war among its power-hungry community leaders such as Mr. Sidhu. A ‘humiliated’ Captain, a royal from a former Sikh princely State and a senior Jatt leader with a five-decades long career, is most likely to accentuate this sense of loss. Capt. Amarinder has enjoyed considerable support among his fellow community due to his bold stands vis-à-vis the Centre on panthic issues, by getting the Punjab Termination of Water Agreements Bill passed as the Chief Minister in 2004 that resulted in the annulment of the pact entered into by the State in 1981 on the sharing of Ravi and Beas river waters with Haryana and Rajasthan and, more recently, on the contentious farm laws issue. Whether a rebellious captain would try to damage the Congress’s prospect by forming a regional outfit or joining another party is another issue.

Unfulfilled promises

It is questionable whether removal of Capt. Amarinder would be sufficient to address the anti-incumbency factor. After all, it was not only about the leadership of Capt. Amarinder, however unpopular he might have become of late — as being projected by citing surveys. It has mainly been due to the non-fulfilment of the promises made by the party in 2017, after it won, about creating new jobs, bringing industries back, rejuvenating the farming sector and improving the power sector that made party legislators and workers restless and wary of facing voters.

Capt. Amarinder may be held culpable in the public eye for his inability to show urgency in acting against those responsible for sacrilege and the subsequent police actions (the incidents relate to the desecration of a religious text and subsequent police firing that took place at Faridkot in 2015). However, greater failures such as bringing an end to the drug menace and flourishing land, sand and transport mafias may not be viewed as Capt. Amarinder’s sole responsibility As Aam Aadmi Party leaders have been alleging, it is not only Akali Dal leaders but also many Congress leaders who have been under scrutiny for being complicit in wrong-doings.

A lot to mind ahead

With ‘operation Captain’ over, the onus now is on incumbent Mr. Sidhu and fellow rebel Jatt Sikh leaders — most of them are influential only in one region — to not only secure their community vote but also those from other communities and the other electoral regions. The direct and visible role played by the Gandhi siblings (Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra) means that they have to take greater responsibility in keeping dissidence in check and ensuring the party’s success. A tall order for them.

Already, the ‘revelation’ by loyalist Ambika Soni that a non-Sikh should not be appointed as a Chief Minister in the Punjabi Suba, reportedly to deny space to senior leader Sunil Jakhar, has brought back the contentious Hindu-Sikh question that might be to the electoral advantage of the beleaguered BJP.

Finally, the Channi cabinet, with six first-time Ministers, would need the whole-hearted support of the State’s higher bureaucracy, undergoing large-scale transfers at the moment, to fulfil at least some of the unfulfilled promises. The higher bureaucracy may not be too willing to cooperate fully as elections are round the corner and with the Centre watching things intently. The paucity of time, the empty treasury and high indebtedness are also going to be huge challenges.

Ashutosh Kumar is Professor and Chairperson, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh


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