Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit Sikh, will be sworn in as Punjab's new Chief Minister today after Amarinder Singh's weekend resignation just months before polls in the state. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi will attend the oath ceremony.
Earlier reports had said Rahul Gandhi would not attend the oath-- likely to be a restricted ceremony because of Covid -- but sources say the Congress leader has decided to make an exception, given the tumultuous circumstances of the Punjab power shift.
Mr Gandhi has faced heavy criticism over his handling of the Punjab Congress crisis, which escalated in the past six months because of the ceaseless feud between Amarinder Singh and Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu.
Mr Channi, 58, a three-time MLA and a minister in the outgoing Amarinder Singh cabinet, is known to be close to Mr Sidhu. He has limited appeal, compared to either Amarinder Singh or Mr Sidhu, but the Congress hopes that the self-made Dalit politician who has risen from the ranks can help settle the unrest.
Mr Channi was named after dramatic talks and negotiations on Sunday that saw at least two more candidates edged out of the race. The party's first pick, Ambika Soni, reportedly declined the offer in a late-night meeting with Rahul Gandhi; she stressed on the ramifications of a non-Sikh Chief Minister, particularly with an election due.
Rahul Gandhi, in a message after the announcement, tweeted: "Congratulations to Shri Charanjit Singh Channi Ji for the new responsibility. We must continue to fulfill the promises made to the people of Punjab. Their trust is of paramount importance."
Congratulations to Shri Charanjit Singh Channi Ji for the new responsibility.— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) September 19, 2021
We must continue to fulfill the promises made to the people of Punjab. Their trust is of paramount importance.
Unlike his predecessor, Mr Channi will have two deputies, both carefully chosen to fortify the Congress's poll arithmetic.
Sources said Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa - earlier a frontrunner for the top post-- will be the Jat Sikh Deputy Chief Minister. For a deputy from the Hindu community, the party may choose Brahm Singh Mohindra.
By appointing Punjab's first-ever Dalit Chief Minister, the Congress hopes to counter the Akali Dal (earlier in power in alliance with the BJP), which has joined with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to tap Dalit votes.
Dalits are around 31 per cent of Punjab's population. However, the community has never voted cohesively for any one leader in the past.
The Congress' choice has drawn criticism from rivals because of sex harassment allegations against Mr Channi from a woman IAS officer. Mr Channi allegedly sent an inappropriate text in 2018, but the officer never filed a complaint. The claim resurfaced in May after the state's Women's Commission sent a notice asking for the state government's response.
Mr Channi is expected to meet with Amarinder Singh as the party attempts to reach out to the wounded "Captain".
Amarinder Singh resigned on Saturday, after months of bickering with Mr Sidhu, when the Congress called a sudden meeting of MLAs without informing him. He called Congress president Sonia Gandhi and told her he felt humiliated, for the third time in the past few months. He told NDTV that though he had resigned, he would not accept Mr Sidhu as the party's face for the Punjab polls.
The Captain has refused to reveal his plans, and his answers to questions on his future in the Congress have been ominous for the party. In the past, he had formed his own outfit before returning to the Congress.
His resignation followed months of sniping with Mr Sidhu. Sources told NDTV the party made up its mind after around 50 of the party's 80 MLAs wrote to Sonia Gandhi and asked for Mr Singh to be replaced.