Rival groups jockey for Congress CM’s face in Punjab

Everything is in a name when it comes to announcing the chief ministers face, it seems!

Just about a week after the AAP declared comedian-turned-politician Bhagwant Mann as its chief ministerial candidate, whispers in the Congress party have become louder over announcing a name for the coveted post.

The demand by Congress leaders in Punjab comes at a time when both Charanjit Singh Channi, the state’s first Dalit Chief Minister, and the party’s state unit chief Navjot Singh Sidhu have made clear their desire to occupy the seat, while former party chief Sunil Jakhar is the silent runner in the race.

Delhi is cautious about announcing the name as it has the potential to create trouble for the party with elections just round the corner.

In the 2017 Punjab assembly polls, ending all speculation with just a week to go before the election, then party vice-president Rahul Gandhi had announced that Amarinder Singh would head the government if the Congress was voted to power.

“Amarinder Singh has given his blood and sweat for Punjab. He has worked day and night for the development of Punjab. He has always worked for the Punjabi and Sardar (Sikh) community. He is going to be our chief minister,” Gandhi had said at his first political rally in the Akali Dal assembly stronghold of Majitha.

This time too the clamour within the party has been increasing to announce Channi as the Congress’ face.

Party insiders told IANS that the leadership is in favour of playing it safe for the moment by not naming any chief ministerial candidate.

But the key opponents in the state — the AAP, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)- Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine and the BJP in alliance with Amarinder Singh’s new party Punjab Lok Congress and the Samyukt Samaj Morcha, the fledging coalition of farm unions — are making an issue out of it. The prominent faces for the parties are Channi, 58, Mann, 48, Sukhbir Singh Badal, 59, Amarinder Singh, 80, and Balbir Singh Rajewal, 78, respectively.

The announcement of the Congress chief ministerial face is crucial with the pollsters predicting that the Congress could either retain the helm with a photo finish close to the halfway mark of 59 or no party will get a clear majority, despite the anti-incumbency sentiment against previous incumbent Amarinder Singh, who was unceremoniously removed after a bitter power tussle with Sidhu last September.

Cricketer-turned-politician and a well-known TV personality Sidhu, 58, who in the game once rebelled against the Indian cricket team captain and in politics left the BJP in 2016 to join the Congress a year later, is slamming the central leadership by asking: “What’s a ‘baraat’ without a ‘dulha’ (bridegroom)?

“People of Punjab will choose MLAs and they alone will decide who will be the Chief Minister. Who told you that the high command will make the CM?” Sidhu, who is eyeing to be the next captain by hitting out at his government for ‘delaying’ probes in sacrilege and drugs cases and announcing freebies, has been quoted as saying.

“Our high command is intelligent and whatever decision it will take, it will be in the interest of the state. I have trust in the people of Punjab that they will vote for ‘Punjab model’ — a roadmap for the state’s future,” said Sidhu the day the AAP announced Mann as its chief ministerial face.

Responding to the ‘bitter infighting’, Channi, whose appointment by the high command just months before the polls, though a little late but nonetheless a clever and strategic move, said “Sidhu is my brother and there will be no problem of any kind if the party decides to do so.”

Channi, who believes his strength lies in his connection with the masses, was responding to the ‘self-styled’ demand for the next CM face in Punjab.

“I am not the Congress party’s CM face. The party has to contest elections and I am only fulfilling my duty as the CM,” he told IANS.

Ending a ‘bitter battle’ of one-upmanship, the Congress clarified that it will not declare anyone as the chief minister’s face in Punjab and will contest the upcoming Assembly elections under collective leadership — Channi, the Dalit face; Sidhu, the Jat face; and Jakhar, the Hindu face.

Justifying the party leadership’s move not to name the CM face, Cabinet minister Raj Kumar Verka, a vocal Dalit face, told IANS, “The Congress is a cadre based party and has so many ‘dulhas’; and of various age groups. We have a young ‘dulha’ and an experienced one. We have given our 80-year-old ‘dulha’ to the BJP.”

Verka was indirectly hitting out at former Congress veteran Amarinder Singh for quitting the party and joining hands with the BJP by launching a state-specific party.

Another cabinet minister Sukhjinder Randhawa, who was part of the ‘midnight coup’ led by Sidhu in ousting Amarinder Singh from power, joined the chorus for Channi’s candidature. “Channi is our Chief Minister and we are contesting the elections under his leadership. If the party is voted to power, he will be our leader in the next Congress government too.”

Joining the chorus, the Punjab Congress tweeted a video by actor Sonu Sood, whose sister is a Congress candidate from Moga, who says the “real chief minister is the one who does not have to tell he is the chief ministerial candidate”.

After the Enforcement Directorate raids on his nephew in an illegal mining case, the Punjab Congress started a campaign on social media in support of Channi.

“AAP ‘baraat’ now has a ‘dulha’. Now the Congress has to choose between Channi and Sidhu well ahead of the polling like it did in the 2017 assembly polls so that the people could make up their minds and vote accordingly,” a senior Congress minister told IANS, requesting anonymity.

About 2 crore voters of Punjab had voted the Congress, led by Amarinder Singh, to a landslide victory in the 2017 Assembly election giving the party 77 seats in the 117-member Vidhan Sabha.

It later won three more seats in the bypolls held in October 2019, taking its strength to 80.

Assembly elections in Punjab will be held on February 20 and the counting of ballots on March 10.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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