Seeking freedom to take decisions, Sidhu categorically told the Gandhi scion at a virtual rally in Jalandhar that give him the power to make a decision as he did not want to be kept as a ‘showcase horse’…reports Vishal Gulati
This is one show where Punjab Congress chief Navjot Sidhu will find it tough to say his catchphrase ‘thoko tali’ (clap your hands).
It may be entertaining to watch in this Assembly polls, but for the cricketer-turned-entertainer-turned- politician to face a googly by his own team captain in the match for the chief minister’s post may not be easy.
With last week’s assurance by former Congress president Rahul Gandhi that workers will decide well ahead of the February 20 polling, a power struggle is on between Sidhu and Charanjit Singh Channi, the first Dalit Chief Minister of a state that is home to 32 per cent Scheduled Caste population, the country’s largest, to be the chief ministerial candidate.
The former is toeing his ‘self-proclaimed’ Punjab Model agenda with the promise of creating corporations in the state to stop pilferage of revenue from liquor and mining, while the latter is harping on achievements during his 111-day stint. Channi became the CM after the ‘unceremonious exit’ of Amarinder Singh over allegations of being hand-in-glove with the Akalis for not fulfilling the 2017 prominent poll promises — acting with an iron fist against the drug mafia and justice for the sacrilege of 2015 that led to protests and the deaths of two persons in the subsequent police firing.
On his Punjab Model, not part of the party’s manifesto as rivals within the party are gunning for him for being unrealistic, Sidhu has been saying that he would answer them when he would deem fit.
Sidhu, who is not averse to even sharp criticism of his own party and its policies and leaders, is firm on his stand that it is the people who will elect the MLAs and choose their chief minister, not the party’s central leadership.
Seeking freedom to take decisions, Sidhu categorically told the Gandhi scion at a virtual rally in Jalandhar that give him the power to make a decision as he did not want to be kept as a ‘showcase horse’.
Channi, who has established himself as a bright and prickly maverick, missed no opportunity to scotch speculation of a rift by hugging Sidhu on stage.
Seeing a war of supremacy Rahul Gandhi, who was sharing the stage with the two chief ministerial faces, said the party will soon name a chief ministerial candidate in Punjab with the decision to be taken by the party workers — an in-house mechanism that was adopted by the Aam Aadmi Party but dubbed a ‘scam’ by Sidhu.
“Both Channi and Sidhu told me that whoever leads, the other will put all his energy behind him,” Gandhi assured workers while clearing the stand about the party’s future prospects.
Political observers told that it will be a tough task for the party high command to choose Channi, a Dalit Sikh, or Sidhu, a Jat Sikh, in a state with a population caste mix of roughly 32 per cent Dalits, 30 per cent Jat Sikhs and 40 per cent the rest.
“Most of the cabinet ministers and top leaders are standing behind Channi owing to his soft approach, easy accessibility and the most important, the biggest Dalit face. If the high command projects Sidhu as the chief minister’s face, it could upset the party’s Dalit vote bank,” a senior Congress leader said, requesting anonymity.
“The crucial challenge against Sidhu is that he’s neither a Congress veteran nor enjoys a mass base. He was selected to lead the party at a time when the anti-incumbency of Amarinder Singh was at its peak. Sidhu helped greatly in overcoming the anger against the government by attacking its policies,” he said.
“Now after building an image of transferring power from the elite to the poor, the party can’t ignore Channi’s claim at this stage,” the Congress leader added.
In a bid to woo Dalit voters, Channi last week spent a night at Dera Sachkhand Ballan, a prominent Ravidassia community that has much influence in the Doaba region comprising Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala districts.
In his brief helm, Channi built an image of the common man’s Chief Minister by extensively touring the state, occasionally performing ‘bhangra’ on the beats of a ‘dhol’ at public functions, favouring tea at roadside eateries while narrating couplets to the masses, besides accepting ‘siropas’ (religious robes) enroute by stopping his cavalcade.
Three-time Congress legislator Channi (58) comes from a humble background. “Despite being elevated to the top post, the fame has not gone to Channi’s head. Unlike the previous incumbent, Channi is regularly meeting the legislators, leaders and party workers,” say Channi’s colleagues.
At least four cabinet ministers, including Bharat Bhushan Ashu and Sukhjinder Randhawa, opened a front against Sidhu, saying he is constantly slamming his own government as if he is the only honest person and everyone else is a thief.
But political observers sound a cautionary note too.
They say Channi’s projection could be a double-edged sword — chances of irking the dominant Jat community, and a certain revolt by Sidhu just in the run-up to polling.
Congress veteran Jat face and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Randhawa could be the third alternative to bring peace in the camps of Sidhu and Channi.
The Jats have nearly a 21 per cent vote share.
On the other hand, the Aam Aadmi Party and the SAD have already announced that their deputy chief ministers, if elected, will be from the Dalit community.
Will the Congress go to the Punjab polls with the chief minister’s face, only time will tell, remarked a senior leader. Till then ‘thoko tali’.