Outlook: Panjab CM Change

   Posted by: aman   in Punjab

Dear Friends,

Outlook asked me for a write up on the change of CM in Panjab. Here is my piece. Since it is behind pay wall. Please find text inline:

Congress Bowls A Caste Googly: A Dalit Sikh As Chief Minister Of Punjab Ahead Of State Polls

When former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, said, ‘A week is a long time in politics’, he might have Maharashtra in mind, not Panjab. In Panjab, between last Saturday and Sunday, within almost 24 hours, the Congress high command effected a massive change which upturns the state’s history of selection of chief ministers. It not only pushed former royalty Captain Amarinder Singh to resign but also installed an unlikely common man, a Dalit Sikh as the chief minister.

Before we come to the change of guard, a generally asked question is: how can Panjab, where Sikhs are 56 per cent population, which suffered Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh pogrom at the hands of the Congress, repose faith in the Congress? Let me illustrate with three examples. First, Captain resigned from Congress after Operation Blue Star. Second, in his last term, Captain’s big stroke was the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 cancelling the sharing of river waters with Haryana and Rajasthan. The Congress high command and the then prime minister were very unhappy with the move, but Captain scored a brownie point and precipitated a constitutional crisis. Third, before this term, his authorised biography claims, in 2015 he threatened to quit the Congress and float his own party to fight elections if he was not made state chief. These examples illustrate Panjab warmed up not to Congress but to a rebel leader within the Congress. Captain’s major draw has been that he has stood up to the high command in Delhi, hence he would protect Panjab’s interests. This was seen in Captain’s handsome victory in Amritsar over BJP’s Arun Jaitley in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

When Congress was bidding for power in 2017, under Captain’s leadership, there were two dominant issues in Punjab: sacrilege of holy books, over 200 issues of the Granth Sahib, Gutka Sahib, Holy Quran, Ramayan, Gurdwaras being desecrated; drugs, the notion that Panjab was in the grip of a lethal drug smuggling racket, abetted by Rahul Gandhi’s false figures of ‘7 in 10 youth are drug addicts’ and movies like Udta Punjab. To negate the impact of the Aam Aadmi Party bid to power, on December 15, 2015, captain vowed on the Sikh holy book, the Gutka Sahib, a shortened version of the Guru Granth Sahib, to ‘break the back of the drug menace’ within four weeks of being elected; end corruption in public office; and provide employment to unemployed youth.

This was a tall order. So tall, that it was realistically impossible. Yet, since Captain had said it, since it was sworn of the holy book, people took his word. During the course of his campaign, Captain promised farm loan waiver to all, rallied against the sand and gravel and liquour and transport mafias and asked for votes on the plea this was his last term. He wanted voters to enable him to leave a worthy legacy with Panjab back on the path of progress.

Hence, once elected, people expected him to fulfil his promises. But, he didn’t. In his conduct, Captain has been the personification of royal disinterest in the affairs of the common people. The first signs of Captain’s failure could be seen when Captain’s famed promise to waive farm loans, from projected ?73,000 crore estimated by universities, was limited to loans taken from cooperative societies, for farmers owning not more than 2.5 acres of land and a loan value of up to ?2 lakh. The actual waiver amount came down to ?4624 crore till date. In July, 2018, the people of the state, frustrated with the drug menace, held a Black Week Against Drugs – Either Die or Protest. The promise to break the back of drugs had led to major infighting in the police department which was showing up to be hand-in-glove with the illegal trade. The mafias continued, unemployment remained high, corruption in public office did not abate, office of the CM was run from Captain’s residence, there have been massive protests by unemployed and underemployed teachers, by farm labourers. In August 2019, Congress MLAs questioned Captain on his performance. There were no answers. Captain had the entire state machinery in his control.

Meanwhile, the all-important sacrilege cases, the unprovoked firing at Behbal Kalan and Kotakapura, on which Captain had even conducted a special Assembly session and taken back consent from Central Bureau of Investigation over the cases, also came to nought. This April, the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed an investigation into the Kotakapura firing case. The informal discourse of sacrilege and firing targets the Badals, but once again they are off the hook. This is similar to how in 2017 Captain had fought from an additional seat at Lambi, just to help former CM and Akali stalwart Prakash Singh Badal win. This prompted Congress to set up a probe panel to sort out the issue. Finally, Captain’s error was: instead of preparing for succession, Captain betrayed his appeal to people and entered the bid for another term to rule the state as CM.

Once Navjot Singh Sidhu took over as Panjab Pradesh Congress head in July this year, he entered a head-on fight with Captain. Developments in the last few days show, Captain has had his comeuppance earlier than when normally leaders of parties have them – in elections which are still five months away. The outcry on Captain resigning is indicative of two aspects: one, those opposed to BJP are aghast how Congress could mess with the one state it had handsomely won; two, most media has no inkling of what really goes on in Panjab. For years, Captain has remained a loud nationalist – baiting Pakistan, posturing over Kartarpur Sahib corridor, supporting Army Major who dragged a civilian in front of his jeep. No one asked if these stances by a border state’s CM have been in the interest of Panjab, the state that elected him to power. Or if he has been furthering arch rival Bhartiya Janata Party’s agenda.

Through the change of CM, given the uneven electoral turf of Panjab – Akalis and AAP still in disarray – the Congress has moved deftly to prevent the party from facing a debacle in the February 2022 elections. The change is huge because in Channi, first time in many decades Panjab has a CM out of the top ruling families in Panjab. As far as the value of symbolic faces in an electoral democracy goes, it is a smart move. As a Dalit Sikh face, in the state with highest percentage Dalit population at 31.9 per cent, from the neglected eastern Puad region, Congress has apparently check-mated the Akali-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance, the BJP overtures to Dalits, beaten AAP’s projection of a deputy CM candidate and attempted to retain its old voter base. But as a veteran journalist says, and considering the fact that Dalits are not a monolith, they do not vote together, ‘It is too early still to assess the power of a whisper campaign. Who knows what will happen?’

While Channi is an interesting selection, the way the Congress high command fumbled with selecting the next CM reveals it still does not understand Panjab’s ground realities. At this point, given the limited time Channi has before elections, unlike Captain’s bombast, he would do well to remain modest and grounded and cover as much ground as possible. The Congress must remember: if Channi sees the party through the elections, they must continue with him as the next full-term CM. Panjab, Puad and Dalits have been neglected for long, Congress would do well to demonstrate its intentions are sincere and honourable.

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