Punjab Results: Who Is To Blame for Congress’ Defeat – Channi, Sidhu or Neither?
The Congress' defeat in Punjab is likely to lead to a churn. Knives are already out for Navjot Sidhu.
The Quint DAILY
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The Congress has been voted out of power in Punjab, a state where it had won a near two-third majority five years ago. The Aam Aadmi Party is now all set to form a government in the state with a landslide mandate, winning about three-fourths of the seats in the state.
The loss will no doubt lead to debate within the Punjab Congress on what went wrong and who is to blame for the defeat.
There are four arguments that may be made but are essentially wrong.
1. Congress Shouldn't Have Replaced Captain Amarinder Singh
Captain Amarinder Singh was a hugely unpopular chief minister, especially in the last one year before his removal. Survey after survey showed that Captain had a negative approval rating. Charanjit Channi, on the other hand, had reasonably positive approval ratings despite a decline towards the end.
When The Quint travelled across Punjab, voters would often say that Captain did nothing in his 4.5 years. Whether this was true or not is besides the point, but it was a widely held impression.
The stalemate in the probe into the 2015 sacrilege cases was probably the last straw for Captain as he was seen as going soft on the Badals on an issue of immense importance to the Sikh community.
Captain was also known for being an aloof CM – he allegedly worked out of his farmhouse and was often unavailable for MLAs and even ministers, choosing instead to rule through his handpicked bureaucrats.
2. Appointing Charanjit Channi Was a Mistake
Appointing Charanjit Channi as the CM wasn't a bad call by the Congress leadership. If at all, Channi brought the Congress back into the contest for a while.
His approachable demeanour and frequent appearances with common people was a sharp contrast to Captain's aloof image.
The fact that he was also the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab also may have helped Congress win some goodwill in the community.
This effect of this can be seen in the fact that even amid the debacle, the Congress has performed relatively better in the Doaba region where the concentration of Dalits is over 35 percent.
However, one must admit that the ED raid against his nephew and the recovery of cash harmed Channi's image and prevented him from being seen as a agent of 'change'.
3. It's All Sidhu's Fault
Navjot Sidhu isn't blameless in the Congress' loss, neither is Channi. But a major section of the Congress is likely to put the entire blame on Sidhu. His loss from Amritsar East may also worsen matters for him.
Sidhu is a difficult person to work with, claim many in the Congress. His constant criticism of first Captain's government and then Channi's may have harmed the Congress' standing as may have his own ambition to become the CM.
However, it would be wrong to put the entire blame on Sidhu.
To be fair, he wasn't wrong in pushing for Captain's removal and his allegations against the then government also may not have been without merit.
With all his problems, Sidhu also has an image in Punjab of being an upright politician. And his stands on issues like the sacrilege cases were justified. He also played a key role in the opening up of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, a long standing demand of the Sikh community.
Sidhu may have definitely erred in his constant criticism of government and his inability to take along diverse sections in the party.
4. Appointing a Dalit CM Was a Mistake
It would be unfortunate if the Congress' defeat after Channi's appointment is seen by parties as a warning against appointing a Dalit CM.
There is no evidence to suggest that caste-based Opposition to Channi contributed to the Congress' defeat.
This is not to say that there is no casteism in Punjab. But this didn't come up in ground reports or surveys as an issue that could change electoral outcomes.
However, it is true that Channi received a lukewarm response from a major vote bank of the Congress – Upper Caste Hindu voters.
The party had a massive lead in this section in 2017 but it seems to have lost a lot of support to the AAP.
What Really Lead to the Congress' Defeat?
1. Central Leadership Remained Oblivious
It is clear that the central leadership remained oblivious to the massive resentment against Captain's government. Its efforts to make Captain deliver on his electoral promises were too little and too late.
The leadership also seemed to have been unaware of Captain's decent relationship with the BJP.
The leadership should have held Captain accountable and if necessary, removed him, much earlier than it did.
2. Indecisiveness on Leadership
First the party allowed the Captain vs Sidhu tussle to fester. Then when it did appoint Sidhu as the state unit chief, it persisted with Captain, causing more confusion.
Then when it did replace Captain, the party should have thought of a succession plan in advance. In the end, the confusion led to the perception being created that Sunil Jakhar was denied the position for being Hindu. Then the name of Sukhjinder Randhawa was considered but he was replaced by Channi at the last moment.
Even after appointing Channi, it should have been obvious to the party that making a Dalit CM and then not projecting him later would be counter-productive. Therefore it should have finalised Channi as the CM face much earlier.
Instead it allowed confusion between Channi and Sidhu to remain, giving the impression of instability.
3. Lack of Narrative
The lack of a clear narrative also harmed the party. One area of confusion in the party was how to project Captain's tenure? If Channi was to be presented as an agent of change, then that would mean completely running down Captain's period as being one of misgovernance.
On the other hand, projecting the 'achievements' of that period would have meant taking the blame for failures as well.
Then the narrative of what the Congress was offering also wasn't clear. Its slogan 'Congress Mange Sarbat Da Bhala' was also vague. The phrase Sarbat Da Bhala is from Sikh Ardas or prayer and means 'may good come to all' or 'may everyone be blessed'. So the Congress slogan means 'Congress is asking for the welfare of all'. 'Asking' here doesn't really make sense as that's something a ruling party should be delivering.
4. Inaction on Key Issues
The Congress government in Punjab also may have failed in addressing certain key issues that were concerning the public - such as the sacrilege cases or the cases against Bikram Majithia.
Two major issues plaguing the everyday life of people was local level corruption and the lack of jobs. Not much was done to address these issues.
Then for several years, the pension promised to older citizens wasn't given. The promise to reduce electricity tariffs also wasn't acted upon until Channi addressed this to some extent after taking over.
What Next for the Congress?
The knives may soon be out for Navjot Sidhu. Even during the campaign many Congress leaders are said to have ganged up to ensure his defeat in Amritsar East.
His loss would leave him with very little standing.
The first challenge for the Congress would be to choose a leader of the Opposition, especially with outgoing CM Charanjit Channi losing both seats and Sidhu also facing a defeat.
Deputy CM Sukhjinder Randhawa and former PCC chief Partap Singh Bajwa managed to win in Dera Baba Nanak and Qadian respectively and may be front-runners to be the leader of the Opposition.
If the party chooses to go for a younger face, then Amarinder Singh Raja Warring in Gidderbaha also may be an option. Sukhpal Khaira in Bholath is another significant winner but the case against him and his independent demeanour may work against him.
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