In September 2021, when Charanjit Singh Channi was appointed the Chief Minister of Punjab, few outside the State had heard of him. For most people, the Indian National Congress in Punjab was synonymous with Captain Amarinder Singh, the man Channi displaced. The fact that Channi was the first Dalit Chief Minister of the State surprised many, considering almost every third voter in Punjab is from the Scheduled Caste community. There were challenges yet for Channi as Pradesh Congress Committee chief Navjot Singh Sidhu failed to reconcile himself to the rise of Channi after the Captain’s departure. Even as election momentum picked up, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the principal opposition party, began to make inroads into what was considered a safe territory for the Congress, internal bickering continued in the party, putting at risk all the gains accumulated by the appointment of a Dalit Chief Minister. It was barely two weeks before the February 20 election that Channi was formally declared the Congress’ chief ministerial candidate.
Unflustered, Channi trains his guns on the AAP, talks of its alleged Hindutva politics, and expresses confidence that the Congress will form the government with a two-thirds majority. Travelling between Dhurri and Kotkapura, Channi spoke to Frontline ahead of another “Navi Soch, Nava Punjab” rally. Excerpts from the interview:
You are approaching the election with the slogan of “111 Days of Channi” although the Congress has been in power for five years.
I have to go by what I have done. I cannot seek votes on what Captain [Amarinder Singh] did or did not do. Let Captain seek votes for that period with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] for that. I am responsible for my time. As a candidate I believe in seeking votes for my work.
After 111 days in the Chief Minister’s chair, you are now the chief ministerial candidate. Is this the most important election of your career?
Every election is important. This one is important because I have to repay the faith the party has reposed in me. I have to live up to the expectations of all Congressmen and the party. If it had been only my election, it may not have been as important. The party is greater than the individual.
You are contesting from both Chamkaur Sahib and Bhadaur. Is it owing to a lack of confidence that you might not be able to win at the former?
No, this is a strategy. In that area (Bhadaur), the AAP people thought they were ahead. By my entry there, things have changed. We decided to take them head-on.
Is it your version of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls “ghar mein ghus kar marenge [We will enter your home to beat you]”?
Yes, it is like that only. I would say it was important to send a message to the electorate that we are there with them. There was no question of taking a step back.
The media as well as pre-election surveys show that the AAP is ahead of the Congress in the run-up to the election.
[Arvind] Kejriwal has made a lot of money in Delhi. And he is hiring agencies for such surveys, throwing money. It does not matter. Last time, in 2017, the AAP was touted to get 100 seats and they got 20. Now they are saying they will get a simple majority. That means they will get 10 seats.
But the AAP is getting a good response in Dalit areas that were a Congress stronghold. Many voters seem to want change…
You must also understand the truth of it. There is no presence of the AAP in Doaba. It is finished. They were concentrating on Malwa. I went there. They are lagging behind there too. A lot of AAP hype is more in the media than on the ground. I go to the grassroots level myself. I understand it well.
How much of an effect will Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s presence have on the Congress, considering many senior leaders have kept away?
The people of Punjab love Priyanka. She is married into a Punjabi family. She is soft-spoken, cultured. She is a good leader. As the daughter of the Gandhi family, she has great following. Women in particular love her. She talks of their issues, understands their psyche. They warm up to her.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also accused the AAP of originating from the RSS. Do you agree?
Well, Kejriwal himself said so in a video.
But he was talking about himself, not the party…
Actually, he is looking ahead to the 2024 election. He wants to tread the path of Hindutva. He wants to present a counter to the BJP. It won’t help Punjab in any way. Punjab has always rejected sectarian politics.
This time, the AAP’s election campaign is indirectly stoking religious sentiments. Their leaders wondered why a Hindu could not be the Chief Minister of Punjab. How do you look at it?
Yes, I know. The BJP and the AAP are two sides of the same coin. They are experts at arousing religious sentiments. But we are a secular party, we take everybody along. We believe in “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”…
But that is the slogan of the Prime Minister…
Arrey , how does it matter? You know, and everybody knows, that the Congress has always believed in it. For the BJP, it is a mere slogan. We all know how the Prime Minister functions. For us, it is a way of life.
Can we expect a better rapport between you and Prime Minister Modi considering what transpired during the election campaign? (When the Prime Minister had gone to address a rally in Punjab, Channi was not allowed to fly.)
When was our relationship sour? He is our Prime Minister; I am a Chief Minister. Wherever he calls me, I will go. I have every respect for him.
But you said: “I am not a terrorist. Yet I was not allowed to fly.”
That is not about the Prime Minister. The people around did not let me go within a hundred kilometres of where he was. That was the problem. I wondered, “I am a Chief Minister. I am also a people’s representative. What was the big problem if my helicopter landed there too?”
What are the basic issues on which the Congress is seeking votes this time?
We are asking for votes on our work during 111 days of government. We are seeking votes on our credibility, our skill and talent.
You talked of farmers’ debt.
Yes, we talk of waiving the debt of farmers. We talk of compensation for farmers’ property. We talk of waiving electricity charges, making water more affordable. We have made petrol and diesel cheaper. There has been upgradation of schools; we are building a new university. We have done a lot of work in a short time, some 150 things.
While you recount all these achievements, the message does not always reach the common man. Is packaging a problem with the Congress?
It was the same during Manmohan Singh’s time as the Prime Minister. A lot of work was done but the message did not percolate down. We may not have succeeded fully either but still people know what we have done.
All these achievements sound good, but Captain Amarinder Singh said that the State’s treasury is empty.
The treasury was empty for Captain Amarinder Singh because he did not want to work. Now he says, when Channi is the Chief Minister, how come money is available? Treasury is never empty. Every day money flows in, every day expenses are made.
The Captain also alleged that there was corruption in the Congress at all levels.
Was he corrupt himself? He didn’t speak a word for four and a half years. After he was removed, he started making these allegations. Why did he tolerate corrupt people for so long? Why did he compromise with such people? Why did he not take action? It is only because he has been removed that he is speaking now.
Do you agree that during the Captain’s time, the government was being run from Delhi?
See, from the first day, he was in league with the Akalis and the BJP. He did not ever call himself a Congressman. He always called it his government, not the Congress government.
If that is true, why did you not raise your voice earlier?
I have been at it from the first day, but he had such a stature that it took so long for the party to realise the truth. He was a maharajah, twice Chief Minister, M.P., MLA, everything. So it took long to break that aura.
Did the high command in Delhi not take too long to decide?
Well, it took long because the party had to think of the consequences of removing a man with such a stature. Ultimately, it proved to be a good decision, The Congress survived in Punjab because of that.
But is not the Congress still a divided house? Sunil Jakhar has quit electoral politics; Navjot Sidhu’s daughter keeps throwing barbs.
If Jakhar is not fighting elections, it does not mean that it is a divided house. Jakhar’s nephew is contesting the election (from Abohar). Not contesting elections is a personal decision. He remains a Congressman. As far as Sidhu is concerned, well, if you are in a family, you have to ignore a few things. The family has to progress. Not everything remains fine all the time.
Amarinder Singh made Malerkotla the first Muslim-majority district in Punjab. Are there any specific issues of the community you plan to address?
We have given money for building a Haj House there. We are all together; I respect all castes and religions. Whatever we need to do for the economic uplift of people, we will do.
Your party supported the farmers when the farm ordinances were brought in by the Centre. Yet today, the Congress has failed to capitalise on that support.
I agree, but now the farmers have built their own group and are fighting elections. They have a right to do that. I am confident that whatever support we used to get from the farmers in the past, we will not only maintain that but improve upon it.
What about the Dalit vote? After all, you are the face of the election campaign.
On the same lines, we will get the Dalit vote en bloc. But I don’t see it as Dalit vote, I see it as poor and rich voters. We will get the support of the poor and middle-class families. Whether they are farmers, workers or in service is immaterial.
So, you feel that the Congress is poised to win the election, irrespective of opinion polls?
We are winning a by two-thirds majority. It will be in front of you all. We are confident.