CAN CHANNI DELIVER?
India Today|October 04, 2021
On the morning of September 20, Charanjit Singh Channi, 58, was sworn in as the 17th chief minister of Punjab, in the process making history as the first Dalit to occupy the chair.
Anilesh S. Mahajan

He took oath along with two deputy CMs, prominent Jat Sikh leader Sukhjinder Randhawa and Om Prakash Soni, an upper caste Hindu businessman. It’s a big gamble the Congress is taking, trying to alter caste equations in the state. Since the 1966 state reorganisation, Punjab has always had a chief minister from the dominant Jat Sikh community (with the exception of Giani Zail Singh, an OBC Ramgarhia Sikh), and Channi’s big challenge will be to prove to the Dalit community that the Congress didn’t pick him just as a night watchman.

It won’t be easy. Even before he took an oath, party general secretary Harish Rawat flubbed his lines and said the Congress would fight the assembly poll due in February 2022 under the leadership of Punjab PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, a Jat Sikh, only to be rebuked by the likes of Sunil Jakhar (ex-PCC chief) and other non-Jat Sikh leaders in the party who called it an insult to Channi. Rawat quickly clarified that what he meant was a Sidhu-Channi joint leadership.

The Congress also has to watch out for ex-CM Capt. Amarinder Singh, 79, who resigned a day earlier after tussling with Sidhu for months. The power shift is hugely symbolic—Amarinder, a Jat Sikh, is the titular Maharaja of the erstwhile Patiala fief. Channi, a threetime MLA from Chamkaur Sahib, is a Ramdasi Dalit Sikh.

As per Census 2011, Dalits make up 32 per cent of the population of the state, with Ramdasis/ Ravidasis being dominant among them. The choice of Channi as CM might propel the Jat Sikhs towards the SAD (Shiromani Akali Dal). Jat Sikhs make up 18 per cent of the electorate, but have dominated Punjab’s politics, culture, Sikh religion and intelligentsia. The development skew is clearly visible: according to the 2015 Agriculture Census, Dalits own less than 3 per cent of the farms, whereas the Jat Sikhs own 93 per cent.

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