Historic or Symbolic? What Charanjit Channi Becoming Punjab CM Means for Dalits

Why is Congress' decision to make Chanranjit Singh Channi Punjab's first Dalit CM a significant political move?

Punjab Election
5 min read
Historic or Symbolic? What Charanjit Channi Becoming Punjab CM Means for Dalits

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Charanjit Channi, becoming the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab and the only Dalit chief minister in India presently, is no doubt significant.

It also comes at a very important historical moment in Punjab - the current leader of Opposition - Harpal Singh Cheema of the Aam Aadmi Party is also a Dalit as is his deputy in the house Sarvjit Kaur Manuke.

The present Jathedar of the Akal Takht Giani Harpreet Singh is also a Dalit, though representation of Dalits in Sikh bodies has been slightly better than the top echelons of the Punjab government where Jatt Sikhs have tended to hold sway.

There had been a growing sense among Dalits in Punjab that there's a need for greater representation in top government positions and not just tokenism.

"Different parties have been promising different posts to Dalits, if they come to power. So there was already a narrative in civil society of Punjab that no matter what the Dalit community in the state will be given recognition," says Professor Ronki Ram of Panjab University.

Congress, however, has gone a step further to appoint a Dalit CM, who also happens to be the first non-Jatt Sikh to be CM since Giani Zail Singh (1972-77), over four decades ago.


The Quint spoke to several experts to try to answer four questions:

  • How significant is Channi's appointment from the point of view of Dalits in Punjab?

  • What about divisions within Dalits?

  • Will this help Congress?

  • How will Congress balance difference social groups?


How Significant Is Channi’s Appointment From the Point of View of Dalits?


"The proportion of Dalits is the highest in Punjab (31.9 percent according to the 2011 census) compared to other states. But it has never had a Dalit CM. The Congress Party by appointing a Dalit CM has sent a big signal which has national repecurssions," says Harjeshwar Pal Singh, political analyst and Assistant Professor History, Shri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh.

Harjeshwar Pal Singh also says that Channi's significance also stems from him not being a "proxy of a powerful politician or bureaucrat". It wouldn't be accurate to label him as the proxy of Navjot Singh Sidhu.

"Channi has worked hard to become a politician. He won an election as an independent. He ticks almost all the boxes. He has administrative experience as well. so he can't be considered just a proxy candidate," he said.

Darshan Ratan Ravan, chief of the Adi Dharam Samaj, warns against overestimating the importance of Channi's appointment.

"We agree that Channi is a Dalit but he is a prosperous Dalit. He has no role in the social movement of uplifting other Dalit groups in the state," he said.

Harjeshwar Pal Singh, however, says that Channi's appointment is more than "just symbolism".

"Of course, it is symbolic at the moment but even symbolism is important in politics. Especially for a community which has never held such a considerable position and real power in the state. This helps gives a lot of self-confidence to the community," he said.


What About Divisions Within Dalits?

Charanjit Singh Channi is a Ramdasia Sikh, which is considered in the same category as Jatavs/Chamars or Ravidasis. These are considered relatively better off in the social hieratchy compared to Mazbhabis or Valmikis. Due to this difference, there are varying opinions on the impact of Channi's appointment.

According to Professor Ronki Ram of Panjab University, "Giving Channi the CM-ship may bring the different Dalit communities in Punjab under a larger umbrella and it may minimise the differences among them and consolidate them in the realisation of new-found dignity. This will help the Dalit community gain social and moral capital".

Darshan Ratan Ravan, however, disagrees. "Out of 38 scheduled caste groups in Punjab, 50 percent of them are Valmikis...but be it MP ticket or Vidan Sabha, most positions always go into the pockets of Jatavs. Valmiki community is also showing their disappointment on social media as well".


Will The Move Help Congress?

There is a sharp difference of opinion among observers on whether making Channi the CM would yield political benefits for the Congress.

Darshan Ratan Ravan says that Congress won't gain much from the move, due to divisions within Punjab's Dalits.

"The community from which the CM has been made used to vote for Congress long ago, during the time of Jagjivan Ram but when Kanshi Ram's movement started, they had switched from Congress. They had shifted their loyalties to BSP," he said.

According to Ravan, Ravidasis may remain with the BSP while making Channi CM may alienate Mazhabi Sikhs.

Interestingly, when the Congress had announced its team in Punjab in July, it was Ravidasis who were upset as the only Dalit among the new working presidents - Sukhwinder Singh 'Danny' Bandala is a Mazhabi. The equations have now changed with Channi's appointment.

Ronki Ram says that the Congress could gain due to the move.

"While the other parties are just promising, Congress has done it," he said, adding that "It will definitely help the Congress gain some success within the different Dalit communities".

Harjeshwar Pal Singh concurs.

"It would help Congress in the election. As far as SAD-BSP is concerned, they can max offer a deputy CM position to a Dalit. Because it (SAD) is a family-owned party. Even if AAP does make a Dalit CM, it might not get the same applause since Congress has already taken the lead," he said.

However, there's also a sense that symbolism of a Dalit CM won't be enough to get the community's vote, it has to be work on the ground.

Ronki Ram is hoping for some important policy changes.

"We hope Channi to implement the pro-Dalit schemes, for example the land distribution. If he is able to do it, the credit will go to him as well as the party," he said.


How Will Congress Manage Different Social Groups?

The other challenge for the Congress would be on balancing different social groups, not just within Dalits but also ensuring that it doesn't alienate Jatt Sikhs and Upper Caste Hindus.

According to data provded by Lokniti-CSDS, Congress' support among Dalit Sikh voters remains strong but has been going down. In the 2012 Assembly elections it was at 51 percent but fell to 47 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 41 percent in the 2017 Assembly polls and finally 35 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

However, among non-Sikh Dalits, the picture is slightly different. It increased from 37 percent in 2012 to 42 percent in 2014, 43 percent in 2014 and 58 percent in 2019.

It remains to be seen what Channi's appointment does to Congress' support in both these groups.

Congress' main challenge would be retaining its base among Jatt Sikh and Upper Caste Hindu voters. Non-Dalit Hindus - which includes Upper Caste Hindus and OBC Hindus - have been Congress' strongest backers in Punjab.

According to CSDS data, Congress has consistently polled over 45 percent of the non-Dalit Hindu vote since 2002, and enjoyed a substantial lead over its rivals in this demographic. In 2017, Congress got more votes in this section that SAD-BJP and AAP combined, according to CSDS data.

Among Jatt Sikhs on the other hand, it lagged behind both AAP and SAD.

Will having a Dalit CM affect Congress' appeal in these sections?

Harjeshwar Pal Singh doesn't think so.

"I don't think it alienates Jatt Sikh or Hindu upper caste votes. Because I believe Punjab is a very mature democracy. Neither is there too much communal polarisation nor too many caste conflicts," he said.

Congress has tried to appease these sections by having a deputy CM each from them - Sukhjinder Randhawa is a Jatt Sikh while OP Soni is a Hindu Khatri.

This is uncharted territory both for the Congress and for Punjab politics in general. A lot would depend on how Channi performs as a CM as well as in managing competing factions within the Congress. Another very important factor is how will the Congress' rivals like SAD, AAP and BJP respond.

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