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Battle for Punjab: Congress' Channi vs AAP's Mann

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Despite a multi-cornered contest, a broad consensus is emerging that incumbent chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi is now pitted against Bhagwant Mann as main battle for Punjab is chiefly between the Congress and the AAP with an eye on Dalit voters.

With Punjab going to polls next month and a multi-cornered contest and new alliance in the 2022 Assembly elections, political battle in Punjab has never been fought as intensely as it is now. From a traditional bipolar contest to a triangular fight among the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the 2017 polls, the up coming polls will be fought by as many as five parties or coalitions. Apart from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–Punjab Lok Congress–Shiromani Akali Dal (Sanyukt) alliance, the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM)—a grouping of Punjab-based farmer outfits—has also thrown its hat into the political ring.

However, as the date for polls is approaching fast, focus is heavily on the two top performers in the last elections—the Congress and AAP. The debutant AAP had managed to be the second-largest party with 20 seats in the 117-member assembly, pushing the SAD and BJP to the third spot and ending up as the state's main opposition party. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit was poised to form its government in Punjab in 2017 till a few weeks ahead of the assembly elections then. Three years back, in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, party had stunned everyone with its impressive performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, winning 4 seats out of the total 13 seats in Punjab. Today, the moot question is: Will 2022 be the year of the AAP in Punjab? If one believes in a couple of opinion polls conducted recently, AAP might secure the highest number of seats and become the single largest party in the state.

Channi, Congress’ unofficial CM face

Meanwhile, as all contesting parties or coalitions have almost brought into open chief ministerial faces, the Congress is still shying away from officially projecting the incumbent chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi. The main reason being factionalism in the party, particularly between Punjab PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu and Channi. Significantly, it was the elevation of a maverick and mercurial and hawkish Jat Sikh Sidhu as the Congress state chief and eventually the coronation of Dalit leader Channi as chief minister, after Captain Amarinder Singh was unceremoniously ousted, which the Congress wanted to showcase as a refurbished and resurgent party to retain Punjab.

A few days ago, an advertisement tweeted by the party seemed to project him as the CM face for the upcoming polls. Punjab minister and Congress leader Brahm Mohindra also said the party should declare its CM face for next month’s state Assembly polls while stressing that Channi has proved himself in the role in just three months. “There should not be any confusion in the party about announcing the chief ministerial candidate when there is already one who proved himself beyond everybody’s expectations,” Mohindra has reportedly said. Cabinet minister Rana Gurjeet Singh had asserted that Channi had done an “exceedingly outstanding job” during just three months and claimed that raising a question mark about his continuation as the CM after party comes back to power could prove to be suicidal.

There is no CM face projected as yet, and for now, the grand old party wants to play it safe by insisting that the elections will be fought under the collective leadership of Sidhu and Channi. Political observers, however, say that by hinting at Channi, the Congress is openly playing the Dalit card. Also, stakes are high for the beleaguered party because Punjab is among a few remaining states where the Congress is still in power on its own.

AAP picks Bhagwant Mann

On January 18, 48-year-old comedian-turned-politician and president of the AAP's Punjab unit Bhagwant Mann was named as the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate for the upcoming Punjab Assembly polls after an unusual statewide telephonic survey conducted by the party. "Aam Aadmi Party Lok Sabha MP from Sangrur constituency in Punjab, Bhagwant Mann will be the party's chief ministerial candidate for the upcoming Assembly elections," Kejriwal said while addressing a press conference. When Kejriwal announced his name, Mann broke down. As he addressed the gathering at Mohali after the announcement, Mann said that “it is a huge responsibility” and “I will work with resolve.” AAP is the only party which can deliver on parameters of “aam aadmi,” reiterates Mann.

Since 2014—two terms in a row—Mann has been representing Sangrur in the Lok Sabha. Today, he is the only MP from the party in the Lok Sabha. He emerged as the AAP’s top leader in Punjab after he became the only Lok Sabha MP to retain seat for the party in 2019 election. Born in Satoj village of Sangrur in 1973, Mann started his political career in 2011 from Manpreet Singh Badal’s People’s Party of Punjab (PPP) but had an unsuccessful run in the 2012 Assembly elections and lost to senior Congress leader Rajinder Kaur Bhattal. Badal had floated the outfit after leaving the SAD. Later, the PPP merged with the Congress. Mann shifted to AAP in 2014 and contested the Parliamentary elections from Sangrur. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Mann defeated the then SAD’s stalwart and heavyweight Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa, and the AAP itself went on to win four Lok Sabha seats in Punjab. Needless to say, his victory over Dhindsa by over two lakh votes immensely increased his position in the Punjab politics.

Many see Mann’s candidature as unique in Punjab politics, which is dominated by Jat Sikh leaders. Since Punjab became a state in 1966, it has seen only two non-Jat Sikh chief ministers in Giani Zail Singh, who went on to become the President of India, and Channi. Mann is a Jat but a non-observant Sikh, one who does not religiously follow the basic tenets of Sikhism like keeping uncut hair. This could be an advantage for the AAP even as Channi being Dalit could influence substantial numbers of Dalit votes.

Mann has come of age

On the other hand, Mann’s multi-faceted personality as politician, satirist, actor, and comedian could cut across caste and community. But Mann has his share of controversies. His alleged alcoholism and videos of his tumbling down from dais have haunted him; visuals of an MP getting close to Mann to smell him of alcohol while he was speaking in the Lok Sabha had left many amused. Mann has claimed to have overcome this with his “mother’s blessings.” Realizing the extent of damage the label was doing to him and the party, Mann in 2019 vowed not to drink and claimed to have turned into a teetotaler.

Unlike Channi who is currently at the center of corruption charges after the Enforcement Directorate (ED) conducted raids on the premises of his relatives across Punjab over illegal sand mining cases this week, Mann has come of age with his image as a leader who has remained free of the taint of corruption. His lifestyle is without any ostentation which makes him a mass leader. Mann’s narrative and public posturing remain simple, straightforward, and appealing to the people.

The AAP believes his popularity and charisma could help the party to expand outside Delhi and fulfill Kejriwal’s a long-cherished dream of ruling this sensitive state. The recent spectacular debut of the AAP Chandigarh municipal corporation elections, where it won a majority of seats, has buoyed hopes of the party in Punjab. Despite a multi-cornered contest, a broad consensus is emerging that Channi is now pitted against the Mann as main battle for Punjab is mainly between the Congress and the AAP. Others like SAD and the BJP with their allies are waiting for a fractured mandate and to play the role of kingmakers if such a situation arises.

Battle for Dalit votes

Several analysts argue that never before the race for Dalit votes in Punjab has gained such momentum as in this election. The incumbent Congress with Channi as its unofficial face is now assiduously focusing on the Dalit votes in the state. Punjab has nearly 33 per cent Dalits—the highest for any Indian state. However, the community remains a fragmented lot and is spread across state eminently in Doaba, Malwa, and Majha regions. Dalits in Punjab are divided into Hindus and Sikhs.

Even as Sikhism doesn’t recognize any kind of social stratification, the presence of Dalits within Sikhism appears at the outset to be a misnomer. Over the decades, many Hindu Dalits have adopted Sikh religious practices. According to a report by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are 39 sub castes among Dalits in Punjab. Five sub castes constitute more than 80 per cent of the Dalit population. Mazhabi Sikhs comprise the largest share of 30 per cent, followed by Ravidasias (21–24 per cent) and Ad Dharmis (11 per cent). Channi belongs to the Ravidasias—the second-largest Dalit community.

Dalits have been consistently backing the Congress. A survey data suggest that the party has been the major beneficiary of both Hindu and Sikh Dalit votes since 2012. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Congress received 58 per cent Hindu Dalit vote as against 37 per cent in the 2012 assembly polls. In the 2017 assembly elections, the share was 26 per cent and 34 per cent, respectively.

Division of Dalit voters

However, Congress’s support among Sikh Dalits declined from 51 per cent in 2012 to 35 per cent in 2019, and the SAD–BJP combination pocketed 27 per cent Hindu Dalit and 26 per cent Sikh Dalit votes in 2019. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the new entrant received a handsome 23 per cent vote in their first-ever election in the state. A very significant Dalit population voted for the AAP in both the 2014 general elections and 2017 assembly polls. Analysts say this support to AAP came at the expense of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by Mayawati. The interesting fact remains that Mayawati-led party could not win even a single seat in the past two assembly elections.

Thirty-four of the total 117 assembly seats in Punjab are reserved. In the last assembly polls, Congress bagged the highest number of reserved seats followed by AAP, SAD, and BJP. 

But if we look at the trajectory of past 11 assembly election results, SAD has won maximum Dalit seats in six assembly elections, followed by Congress in five. The entry of AAP resulted in further division of Dalit voters among the major parties.

No wonder then that every major political party in the fray is trying to woo Dalits. Channi’s appointment to the top post could be seen as a reward for the community. Notwithstanding the party’s dilemma over the choice of CM face, Dalits make him a strong contender for the chief ministerial post if the Congress beats factionalism and anti-incumbency to retain power when results are announced on March 10.

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