Charanjit Singh Channi has 4 months to revive governance, lead a divided Congress to polls in Punjab

New Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi now has to put the government back on the rails and find backing from a faction-ridden party with ambitious leaders.

It took four years and eights months for the Congress to figure that Amarinder Singh is disconnected with the electorate and legislators, that governance in Punjab is a failure, and that Dalits may need to be empowered by offering high public office. As early as in 2017, soon after the Congress swept the polls winning 77 out of 117 seats, 33 legislators had written a letter to Singh demanding action in drugs cases. It was ignored and later, MLAs began to complain that the CM had become inaccessible and a course correction was necessary to address public grievances. It is only in the past five months that the party woke up to the fact that one of the three big states where it runs a government may be slipping from its hold. With dissenting voices increasing by the day, the Congress was compelled to look beyond Singh, its tallest leader in Punjab — Singh resigned on Saturday and on Sunday, the party chose Charanjit Singh Channi as Captain’s replacement. The burden of winning the elections is now on Channi, who has four months to prove his leadership credentials.

Channi, 58, will be the first Dalit to be sworn in as CM of Punjab, a state where Dalits constitute at least 32 per cent of the population. On paper, it is an astute move by the Congress for he ticks the religion and caste boxes and has experience in government. But does Channi have the time to recover the ground lost under Singh and win the trust of the public? The Congress had won the 2017 elections with a host of promises. It had promised to investigate allegations of corruption under the previous Badal regime, take action in the sacrilege issue, end illegal sand mining, crack down on the drug mafia and so on. The crises in industry, education, agriculture called for state intervention, which the Congress had outlined during the 2017 campaign. The Singh government ignored these concerns despite frustrated legislators frequently flagging them to the party leadership. The high command, perhaps intimidated by Singh’s stature and refusal to play ball, preferred to kick the can down the road to the state leadership, which was even less inclined to call the CM to account. Clearly, the internal checks and balances of the party had failed in gauging the crisis. The high command, instead of calling its CM’s attention to the governance crisis, sought to undermine his leadership by appointing Navjot Singh Siddhu, who had fallen out with Singh, as party chief. Channi now has to put the government back on the rails and find backing from a faction-ridden party with ambitious leaders.

Singh has said that he feels humiliated by the Congress decision and would keep his options open. He has in the past rebelled with the party, joined the Akali Dal, and even floated his own outfit. Twice CM, Singh is no pushover: He has influence among legislators and within the party. The challenge for the Congress in Punjab has got more complicated than before.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 20, 2021 under the title ‘Channi’s challenge’.

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