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Punjab Polls | Dakha & a Day of Ironies: How Channi Upstaged Amarinder & Sidhu

Eight months ago, nobody could've guessed that Amarinder Singh would resign as CM & that Channi would get his job.

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For those familiar with Punjab politics, one look at this photograph will suggest a bunch of stark ironies – Punjab Chief Minister and Congress CM candidate Charanjit Singh Channi atop an SUV, flanked by Captain Sandeep Sandhu, the Congress candidate for Dakha constituency, which is on the outskirts of Ludhiana, in the heart of Punjab.

Eight months ago, nobody could've guessed that Amarinder Singh would resign as CM & that Channi would get his job.

Charanjit Singh Channi with Captain Sandeep Sandhu (immediate left of Channi) on 6 February at Dakha, shortly after Channi was announced as the Congress' CM face in Punjab.

(Photo Courtesy: Rohit Khanna/The Quint)

Irony #1 – That Channi Is the Congress CM candidate

Eight months ago, nobody could have anticipated that Amarinder Singh would resign as CM, exit the Congress, and that Channi would get his job. Yes, Channi was among the state Congress leaders who worked towards pushing Amarinder Singh out, but he wasn't in the reckoning to replace him as CM. And more importantly, he wasn't in the reckoning to be the face of the Congress in the 2022 Punjab elections.

But there he is, seen on the roof of an SUV, just an hour or so after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi officially named him as the 'people's choice' for CM of Punjab, at a rally in Dakha on 6 February.

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Irony #2 – The Man on Top of the SUV Is Not Navjot Singh Sidhu

Eight months ago, nobody could've guessed that Amarinder Singh would resign as CM & that Channi would get his job.

Channi had upstaged Sidhu in September 2021 when he became the CM.

(Photo Courtesy: Congress)

The man who worked hardest to unsaddle Amarinder Singh, who was his most visible and most vocal critic, and clearly expected the CM's job, didn't get it. In fact, on 6 February, he had to fall in line and be on the stage and 'thoko taali' for Channi at Dakha. Channi had upstaged Sidhu in September 2021 when he became the CM, and here he was upstaging him yet again. Channi was smart enough to touch Sidhu's feet at the 'anointment' to save the latter some blushes.

Irony #3 – The Man Next to Channi Is Captain Sandeep Sandhu

A former merchant navy man, Sandhu had been a close aide to Amarinder Singh for close to 15 years. Most recently, since 2017, he had been the ex-CM's political secretary, clearly a close confidante. Except, when Amarinder Singh exited the Congress, Sandhu placed loyalty to the party above the personal equation, and didn't join the ex-CM's new outfit, the Punjab Lok Congress (PLC). The option became even less tenable when Amarinder Singh joined hands with the BJP. And so, Captain Sandhu is seen in this picture riding on the footboard of the SUV, next to his new party leader, Charanjit Channi.

Another Irony: How Captain Sandhu Came to Dakha

So, quite a few political ironies there. And we're not done. In politics, as in love, there is no fury to match that of a former political mentor scorned, and that's playing out here as well.

Unhappy that Sandeep Sandhu is contesting Dakha on the Congress ticket, Captain Saab has queered the pitch for his former aide by fielding Damanjeet Singh Mohi as the PLC candidate. Rubbing it in is a hoarding featuring Mohi, a former Youth Congress leader, and Amarinder Singh, right opposite Sandeep Sandhu's campaign office on the Ludhiana-Moga highway. Mohi is expected to finish a poor fourth, but in a tight contest; even a few hundred votes that Mohi may garner could matter. This may well be the intention of Sandhu's former boss – to play spoiler for the Congress' chances, not just at Dakha, but at least a few other constituencies across the state.

Dakha: Muscle & Money Vs Technocrat

Staying with the theme of irony, we need to recount what brought Captain Sandeep Sandhu to Dakha. Born in Faridkot, educated at the illustrious Punjab Public School, Nabha, and later in Chandigarh and Australia, Sandhu was actually brought to Dakha by Amarinder Singh in 2019. The seat had been won in 2017 by senior Delhi lawyer and rights activist HS Phoolka, fighting on the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket. But then, Phoolka resigned as MLA, unhappy with the state government’s inaction in the sacrilege cases, and so there was a byelection in Dakha in 2019. Amarinder Singh offered the Congress ticket to his political secretary, and that's how Sandeep Sandhu came to Dakha.

To Sandhu's credit, he knew he was actually accepting a tough challenge, because Dakha has been a sort of an Akali bastion. The current SAD candidate Manpreet Singh Ayali had won in 2012, lost narrowly by 4,000 votes to Phoolka in 2017, and was running again in the 2019 byelection. In the circumstances, Ayali won the byelection, but by coming in at a very respectable second place, it was clear that Captain Sandeep Sandhu had established his credentials with Dakha's voters. What Sandhu also achieved was pushing Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) out of contention, after their Phoolka honeymoon.

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Currently, Dakha seems to be a keen contest between the Akalis and the Congress. It is also seeing an interesting contest between two very different approaches to politics.

Ayali is the typical local 'strongman' politician, a real estate developer, with money and muscle backing him. He is seen as not very accessible to the ordinary voter. Under his stewardship, unemployment, drug abuse, and poor health infrastructure have remained outstanding issues in Dakha, but he expects his clout to see him through.

Sandeep Sandhu, on the other hand, is seen as accessible. The voters seem to recognise the fact that after his loss in the byelection, he did not head back home to Mohali, but instead stayed back in Dakha. An almost entirely rural constituency, in need of better infrastructure, Sandhu seems to have used his clout in the Chief Minister's Office to get work done in Dakha, for instance getting pucca roads built in several villages, and improving conditions at the local mandis. In contrast to Ayali's clout, Sandeep Sandhu is approaching Dakha's voters with a resume of 'work done' for his adopted constituency.

It will be interesting to see which brand of politics the voters of Dakha reward.

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