Punjab Ground Report: Channi a Hit But There's Huge Anger Over Jobs & Corruption
Channi's 'common man' image has struck a chord but unemployment and lower level graft continue to harm Congress.
"Arthi nu kandha ditte hoye koi CM dekhya eh?" (Have you seen a chief minister who lends his shoulder to a (common man's) body," says Kanha Ram, a cobbler in Jandiala town of Amritsar district, stressing on how the present Punjab chief minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, has an accessible image compared to his predecessors.
"He (Channi) comes from a simple background that's why he understands what common people go through," he emphasises.
However despite his positive opinion of Channi, Kanha Ram is unsure of which party he'll vote for and he is deeply aggrieved at the state of affairs in Punjab.
"There are no jobs in Punjab. I have a son who is a graduate, but he's still unemployed. I worked so hard mending shoes and doing odd jobs to raise money to educate him. I still save up money to fund his transportation so that he can go and give exams for government job recruitments. But there just aren't enough positions," he laments.
"Can you give him a job? Can you tell Channi or anyone that there's a cobbler in Jandiala who is praying for a job for his child?" Kanha Ram pleads.
Kanha Ram is a representative of a very widespread sentiment in Punjab. Channi may have established some kind of personal connect with the public but the change may be too little or too late to address the problems they face.
LOWER LEVEL CORRUPTION AND ADMINISTRATIVE APATHY A BIG ISSUE
Gurmehar Singh, who drives a tempo rickshaw in Jandiala, says that corruption from lower level government and police officials is harming common people.
"As it is the prices are rising rapidly and our earnings have only fallen in the last couple of years. On top of that if we have to pay bribes for small things on a regular basis, it becomes a nightmare," he says.
From Jandiala in the Majha region we came to Nawanshahr in the Doaba region and Jagraon in Malwa. And the complaints were no different.
Here's what Somraj, a resident of Nawanshahr, had to say.
"We have to pay bribes for the smallest things. You may change the CM at the top but nothing changes in our day-to-day lives".Som Raj, a resident of Nawanshahr.
Satnam Singh, a farmer near Jagraon in Ludhiana district, says that it's not just the corruption but administrative apathy that's the problem.
"I go to the Seva Kendra here. They refuse to help, even though the office is entirely staffed. I have to go to Amritsar to get my work done. If anyone goes to the Patwari, he asks for a bribe for even basic tasks," he says.
Satnam also complains that the Sarpanches in the nearby villages, most of whom are from the Congress, are very arrogant and don't help the people.
"On TV and social media we see visuals of the CM meeting common people and getting work done. But what's the point when Sarpanches from his own party don't help us? It would then just seem a publicity stunt from the CM," he says.
'SIDHU VS CHANNI' NOT A MAJOR ISSUE FOR VOTERS
Going by people's responses, it appears that the tussle between CM Channi and Punjab Congress chief Navjot Sidhu isn't a major issue.
"That tussle – Sidhu said this or Channi said that – is only for the media. It makes no difference to us. In fact sometimes I feel both the leaders are alright in their respective place," says Satnam Singh.
Amarjit Singh in Mehta Chowk in Amritsar district goes a step further.
"Actually, a lot of the work that Channi is doing is because of pressure from Sidhu"Amarjit Singh, a resident of Mehta Chowk
Rather than the Sidhu-Channi equation, a bigger problem for the Congress is the baggage of the last four years of its government, besides lower level corruption and unemployment.
"People care about their day-to-day challenges. What leaders say about each other doesn't matter. If Congress loses, it would be because its government did nothing for four years and because of corruption and lack of jobs," says Som Raj in Nawanshahr.
VERY LARGE PORTION OF VOTERS STILL UNDECIDED
Almost all the people we spoke to said that the Congress would certainly have lost had it persisted with Captain Amarinder Singh at the helm. But now a number of voters who had decided to vote against the Congress, are reconsidering due to Channi.
Sanjeev* (name changed), a shopkeeper in Mehta Chowk, said he doesn't want to be named as his "once-BJP leaning family" is divided "between AAP and Congress" and he doesn't want to make his name public in favour of any one party.
"We used to vote BJP but the past few couple of Assembly elections, we had shifted to the Congress. But a few months back, I had made up my mind to vote for AAP mainly because the Congress did nothing in its first four years. It made such big promises but it delivered even less than the previous SAD-BJP government," Sanjeev says.
However, he adds after Captain was replaced by Channi, he is confused again.
"The Congress took a right step, though a bit too late. But now the government at least seems to be doing something even if a part of it must be PR. Now I'm not sure what I'll do."Shopkeeper in Mehta Chowk
"AAP also hasn't named a CM candidate so we don't even know what their plan is," he further adds.
Satnam Singh in Jagraon is also a bit miffed with AAP for delaying the announcement of its CM face.
"Why don't they name Bhagwant Mann? He's been loyal to the party unlike others. It seems (Arvind) Kejriwal wants to control things from Delhi," he says.
Both Sanjeev and Satnam Singh are voters who say that a few months back they had almost made up their minds to vote for AAP but are now in two minds.
However, AAP still has sizable support and a portion of its voters don't care about the CM face issue.
Deepak Kumar in Nawanshahr is one such voter.
"When you clean a temple, a Gurdwara, a school or your own home, you have to use a jhadoo (broom, AAP's symbol). Punjab needs to be cleaned of corruption, that's why we need jhadoo," he says.
NO TAKERS FOR CAPTAIN, BJP
One thing is clear, that barring a few seats, the battle in Punjab as things stand today is essentially between the Congress, AAP and the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. There are very few takers for the BJP or Captain Amarinder Singh's party.
Each of the people we have quoted above said that "there's not much hope for BJP or Captain".
Captain also seems to have lost the support of the one demographic group that was still supportive of him just before his removal as CM - older Hindu voters.
Chander Pal is in his 60s and has a business in Nakodar in Jalandhar district.
"We supported Captain earlier. But he did nothing as CM. People won't waste their vote on his party or on the BJP," he says.
Chander Pal says that he may opt for either Congress or SAD in his seat.
WHERE DOES THE ELECTION STAND AT THE MOMENT?
The election is evenly poised in Punjab. The Congress, which was staring at a certain defeat a few months ago, has been brought back from the brink by Channi. But if the election gets localised instead of being about Channi, then it could undo the gains made by the party in the past couple of months.
AAP which had a clear edge as the underdog challenger to Captain Amarinder Singh, has lost some momentum due to Channi playing the common man card. This also explains why AAP's attacks on Channi have intensified in the past few weeks. Perhaps declaring a CM face could bring back its momentum.
The SAD-BSP alliance has a smaller but more stable support base compared to the Congress and AAP. It has a good chance of winning seats where it has strong candidates or where the alliance arithmetic is working, such as in Doaba region seats like Banga, Sham Chaurasi, Nakodar and a few seats in Jalandhar.
But its prospects are weak outside of such seats. Also a bigger chunk of floating voters are in the 'AAP or Congress' mould and SAD may get a smaller chunk of such votes.
The problem is that due to lack of jobs, loss in income and rising prices, there's a general atmosphere of pessimism in Punjab. Many voters may end up picking the party they feel is "least evil" or "least disappointing". And this may be different for different people.
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