NEW DELHI: Ahead of the 2022 assembly elections, caste politics has taken the centre stage with Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi taking oath as the Punjab chief minister, a move considered significant not just for this state but for others as well.
The Congress with its nomination of the first chief minister from the Scheduled Caste community in any north Indian state is seeking to dictate the political narrative with leaders across parties coming out to welcome the appointment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BSP supremo Mayawati, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann congratulated Channi on his appointment, even as the BJP and the BSP warned the Congress against making it a mere political gimmick to get Dalit votes.
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The Congress got the first taste of the challenge of projecting a Dalit CM early this morning from within when its former Punjab unit chief Sunil Jakhar questioned AICC general Secretary Harish Rawat’s remarks that 2022 Punjab polls would be fought under state chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.
“On the swearing-in day of Charanjit Channi as Chief Minister, Mr Rawat’s statement that ‘elections will be fought under Sidhu’, is baffling. It’s likely to undermine CM’s authority but also negate the very ‘raison d’être’ of his selection for this position,” Jakhar said triggering a wave of reactions from the BJP and other rival parties who began questioning the intentions of the Congress behind Channi’s appointment.
The BJP was quick to attack the Congress and IT cell head Amit Malviya said “a Dalit CM has been posted as a night watchman in Punjab till Gandhi family loyalist Navjot Sidhu takes over.”
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While it appears Congress has stolen the march over its rivals, political analysts feel it will be difficult to remove a Dalit from the top post, considering how the country’s politics is driven by caste equations.
The Aam Aadmi Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal, contesting the Punjab polls in alliance with BSP, have both declared that they will have a Dalit as deputy chief minister if voted to power.
BSP supremo Mayawati, who was the first Dalit chief minister to complete her term, targeted both the Congress and the BJP, alleging whatever the “casteist parties” are giving to Dalits and OBCs, whether it is in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or other states, it is for their votes and to serve selfish motives and not for ameliorating their lot.
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“Making a person belonging to Dalit caste as the chief minister of Punjab is nothing but an election stunt. I have come to know through the media today that assembly elections in Punjab will be fought under a non-Dalit leader and not under Channi,” Mayawati said.
BJP’s Malviya alleged that Dalits “are now mere political pawns in Congress’ devious politics. In Punjab, they claim to have made a Dalit CM, only to be posted as a night watchman, till Gandhi family loyalist Sidhu takes over. But maintains deafening silence over lynching of a Dalit youth in Rajasthan.”
The Congress retorted strongly asking if the BJP had named any Dalit as chief minister in the states it runs.
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“Charanjit Singh Channi is the only Dalit CM in India today. The BJP is happy to attack a Dalit CM, but can it answer why the BJP has a stomach ache if a Dalit has occupied a top post,” asked Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
The Congress leader described the decision to name Channi “historic”, noting that the person who rose from the ranks and proudly did manual work with his father has today become the CM of Punjab.
“This shows our doors are always open for the poor and the disadvantaged,” he said.
The Congress has instead accused the BJP of playing the religion card in Uttar Pradesh and indulging in polarisation there and elsewhere.
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The selection of Charanjit Singh Channi as chief minister is an unmistakable signal by the party leadership of its commitment for the empowerment of Dalits, said former Law minister Ashwani Kumar, adding the PPCC Chief along with the CM would be two wheels of the Congress chariot that would ride to a decisive electoral victory.
A former union minister felt that caste politics does play a major role and merit becomes a casualty.
Surjewala hailed Channi for the first pro-poor decision taken by the Punjab cabinet today to waive sewage charges of poor and underprivileged people and said water bills of the poor have also been waived.
“Many historic decisions will be taken. This is a mirror. This reflects our priorities. The Congress stands with the poor and the disadvantaged,” Surjewala added.