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Amarinder's Price for joining BJP...

September 21, 2021 13:54 IST

If the BJP wants to recruit him, it needs to make the supreme sacrifice -- of rolling back the three farm laws, because without that, Amarinder Singh is unlikely to cross over.
Aditi Phadnis reports.

IMAGE: Captain Amarinder Singh (retd) speaks to the media after resigning as Punjab chief minister in Chandigarh, September 18, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

Charanjit Singh Channi took oath as Punjab's new chief minister on Monday along with two deputy chief ministers, closing the caste and identity circle in Punjab.

Channi's new lieutenants are Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa -- a Sikh MLA from the Dera Baba Nanak constituency in Gurdaspur district, a stone's throw from the India-Pakistan border -- and O P Soni -- MLA from Amritsar Central, part of the parliamentary constituency that saw two successive defeats of top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders: Arun Jaitley and Hardeep Puri.

However, problems remain. "We will judge the new CM on the basis of the decisions he takes in the next 15 days," said an advisor in the government of former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh (retd), who resigned the day the latter stepped down.

Amritsar is also the constituency of Navjot Singh Sidhu, state Congress chief and the man who unseated Amarinder Singh.

Soon after he was sworn in, Channi, the state's first Dalit chief minister, called on his predecessor Amarinder Singh for a short meeting, and later announced that electricity will be made cheaper in the state, and 'Any dues for last five years towards power bills will be waived off today itself.'

The fine print is that the outgoing chief minister had already put these two announcements on his to-do list two weeks before he was shunted out.

Unpaid water dues for domestic water connections in villages were to be erased, and dues of gram sabhas that use electricity to pipe ground drinking water to village homes were to be wiped clean.

"These decisions were on the table even earlier. All the new CM has done is announced them," a source in the outgoing government said. The state government will take a financial hit of around Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) on account of these announcements.

To be fair, Channi said these were not his decisions: 'Captain (Amarinder Singh) is the saviour of Punjab waters. Whatever work he was unable to complete due to shortage of time, will be done.'

Channi also called on the Centre to take back the contentious farm laws that farmers have opposed.

'I will sever my head, but I won't let any harm come to the farmers,' Channi said, adding, 'We have to strengthen Punjab. It is a state of farmers. I appeal to the Centre to withdraw the farm laws.'

However, Channi faced pushback within hours of assuming office. National Commission for Women Chairperson Rekha Sharma said he must be prosecuted as women had spoken out against him for sexual harassment.

Amit Malviya, the BJP's IT department head, in a tweet said: 'Congress's CM pick Charanjit Channi faces action in a 3-year-old MeToo case. He had allegedly sent an inappropriate text to a woman IAS officer in 2018. It was covered up but the case resurfaced when Punjab Women's Commission sent notice. Well done, Rahul.'

However, this is only part of the problem. The two big challenges before the Congress in Punjab are constituting the new council of ministers and trying the anticipate what unseated leader Amarinder Singh will do now.

Balancing interests in the council of ministers will require political intricacy. Sunil Jakhar, who was unseated when Navjot Sidhu was appointed the Congress state unit chief in July, reacted sharply when central party leader Harish Rawat said the Congress will contest the upcoming assembly election under 'Navjot Sidhu' and not the new chief minister.

'On the swearing-in day of Charanjit Channi as chief minister, Rawat's statement that 'elections will be fought under Sidhu' is baffling. It is likely to undermine the chief minister's authority but also negate the very raison d'etre of his selection for this position,' Jakhar tweeted.

The party quickly issued a clarification, but no one was left in any doubt who the real chief minister is likely to be.

The jury, however, is out on Amarinder Singh's next moves.

If the BJP wants to recruit him, it needs to make the supreme sacrifice -- of rolling back the three farm laws, because without that, Amarinder Singh is unlikely to cross over.

The farm laws, amended versions of which he had managed to get the Punjab assembly to pass with the bipartisan support of all parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal, will be the crucial differentiator.

Sources in Amarinder Singh's camp said the BJP could offer to impose a moratorium of five years, and even that would be acceptable.

"After all, the government did offer to put off the operationalisation of the farm laws by two years to farmers, which they rejected," said an advisor to Captain Singh.

They also said Amarinder Singh "could start his own party with the support of the BJP". But how the BJP will support such a party given the stand-off on farm laws is a matter of speculation.

"He might opt to do nothing. After all, he hasn't resigned from the membership of the Congress," said one of his supporters.

Though no MLA loyal to Amarinder Singh stayed away from the meeting that elected Channi as chief minister, suggesting his supporters had crossed the floor en masse, there is no denying that the captain still has traction with the people of Punjab cutting across regions and castes.

His record in winning elections for the party is on the table. The Congress won eight Lok Sabha seats out of 13 in 2019. It could easily have won 10 if more thought had been given to ticket distribution. It has won every by-election held so far. It won all the local body elections, too.

Amarinder Singh's exit makes one thing clear: All parties will reposition themselves in Punjab and could spring surprises in the coming polls.

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
Source: source image