The emerging consensus among political pundits is that of the bigger states going to polls this month, the Congress Party’s best chance to arrest its electoral decline is in Punjab. The brouhaha over the exit of Captain Amarinder Singh as chief minister has died down and his replacement Charanjit Singh Channi ~ the state’s first Scheduled Caste chief minister ~ has proven to be a reasonably empathetic administrator who has shown political nous in handling the tantrum-prone state unit president Navjot Singh Sidhu.
With the announcement of chief ministerial faces by AAP and the SAD-BSP, however, the Congress’ putative national president Rahul Gandhi, who was happy to rely on the ‘collective-leadership’ formula in the run-up to the announcement of the poll, has been forced into stating publicly that “two persons cannot lead the Congress in Punjab”, an obvious reference to the Channi-Sidhu power tussle. But a formal announcement of the Congress’ chief ministerial candidate is awaited, the hesitation believed to be emanating from fear of a revolt within, led by whoever is not picked.
Mr Gandhi is believed to have insisted on ~ and received ~ an assurance from both camps that they would abide by the party’s decision. But that, as recent events in the Congress’ Punjab unit have shown, is neither here nor there. The thinking at Congress HQ now is to delay the decision as far as possible ~ perhaps even to just before the last date for withdrawal of nominations ~ to block the option for any disgruntled faction to field rebel candidates.
As for the political camps themselves, a group of Cabinet ministers has thrown its weight behind Mr Channi as the party’s chief ministerial candidate citing the “people-centric decisions” taken by the CM in his short tenure which is thought to have taken the edge off the anti-incumbency sentiment in the state.
Mr Sidhu’s supporters, meanwhile, are pushing the narrative that the PCC chief has a “vision” for the state as delineated in his ‘Punjab model of development’. His association with the Gandhi siblings, despite his periodic outbursts, is expected to hold him in good stead too. Observers, though, are according considerable significance to the development that Mr Channi has been fielded from two constituencies ~ the Congress on Sunday declared his nomination from Bhadaur reserved constituency in addition to his candidature from his traditional seat of Chamkaur Sahib.
In 2017, the then CM face of the Congress, Captain Singh, also fought the poll from two constituencies. Crucially, the Congress think-tank is wary of the potential damage the Opposition charge that its appointment of a Dalit CM was only symbolic, and that Mr. Channi would be unceremoniously dumped post-poll could inflict on its support base in the Scheduled Caste community which comprises well over 30 per cent of the state’s electorate. One thing is clear; before the Congress will have to resolve the battles within before it faces its political adversaries.