Punjab elections: It’s Channi versus Kejriwal
If Channi scores a win, it will be despite his party. If Kejriwal does, you will hear more of the ‘Delhi Model’ nationally, as you once did of the ‘Gujarat Model’. For now, it’s advantage the AAP, courtesy the Congress
In this round of assembly elections, Punjab is proving to be the most fascinating one. I say this not just from the parochialism of it being my home state — or my love for the white butter slathered on fat parathas at its dhabas, churned fresh in washing machines.
The marginalisation of a heavyweight leader (Captain Amarinder Singh); the birth of a brand new persona (Charanjit Singh Channi); and the real opportunity for a party to go from regional to national (the Aam Aadmi Party) makes this the poll story with the most interesting protagonists and twists in the plot.
I dislike political forecasts and have been chastened by often getting them wrong.
So, this column will not be about who will win in Punjab. But it is about some impressions after a week of travelling through the state.
The contest, in the end, is a face-off between Arvind Kejriwal and Charanjit Singh Channi.
While the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate, Bhagwant Mann, enjoys grassroots following because of his oratory and skill for instant poetry, and suffers some skepticism because of the persistent focus by the Opposition on his drinking habits in the past, it is the “idea of Kejriwal” that has resonance, especially among younger voters tired of old-style politics.
In the small village of Kotla Afgana, about 30 kilometres short of the city of Ludhiana, on the Lohri festival, as kites were being flown to mark the end of winter, was a young man with the flag of Canada. I asked him why, he was, by turns, angry and sad. Canada, he said, represented a country where a number of his relatives lived and worked. He felt he would not be able to ever join them because he knew no English. For this, he lambasted the education he received. In this election, he told me, he wanted a change from the past. The “Delhi Model”, which is focused on schools and hospitals, is the one he could relate to.
In another village in Roopnagar, an anganwadi worker, echoed the same sentiment. Responding to the Congress’s criticism that Kejriwal was an “outsider”, she likened him to a “bahu” in an Indian home who has to adapt to a new family and make it her own. People also seemed comfortable with the idea of Kejriwal as a “super chief minister”, if his party forms the government.
The AAP has got its caste calculus right as well. In Mann, they have a Jat-Sikh candidate and a local face declared as a chief ministerial contender; in Kejriwal, they have a Hindu face; and in Harpal Singh Cheema, they have a Dalit representation.
The Congress has banked on the same arithmetic with Channi, the first Dalit chief minister of Punjab, Navjot Sidhu, and Sunil Kumar Jakhar. Except, compared to the cohesive, united campaign of the AAP, the Congress messaging has been cannibalised from within.
Ajmer Singh, a Dalit dairy farmer I met, said he would be voting for Channi, but believed he has been severely undermined by Sidhu, who has been inexplicably made the state Congress chief. “Sidhu ne Congress ka bede garak kita hai [Sidhu will sink the Congress’s ship],” he proclaimed angrily. Sidhu’s overweening ego and Jakhar’s sulk (he went abroad in a huff) have damaged the Congress.
There’s no doubt that Channi is the political discovery of the year. He is a savvy, soft-spoken leader who has converted his humble origins into a compelling political narrative. As we sat on a manja, placed against the yellow bloom of mustard fields, Channi pointed to its knotted ropes and spoke of how he could weave it with his hands. He speaks compellingly of the abject poverty he grew up in, putting up tents, selling firecrackers, and living in a house without a pucca roof. Like Kejriwal, Channi has a keen sense of the power of image and storytelling in politics. And he is careful never to say an inappropriate or abrasive word. His supporters say, by contrast, Sidhu is rude and humiliating, seen in his refusal to place posters of the CM at his press appearances.
We found people like Channi personally but are not convinced that the party will back him fully. The Congress’s refusal to declare Channi as CM candidate —- notwithstanding tweeting a clumsy, edited clip of actor Sonu Sood’s interview to me where Sood had been talking of his political plans and not about Channi —- is handing over the advantage to Kejriwal.
“Mujhe Gilli Danda khelna nahi aata, gai ka doodh nikalna nahin aata [I don’t know how to play gilli-danda, or milk a cow]” said Kejriwal to me, sarcastically countering Channi’s claim to being the real aam aadmi (common man), “Lekin mujhe hospital banane aata hai aur school banane aate hain. Channi is a nakli Kejriwal [But I know how to build schools and hospitals. Channi is a fake Kejriwal].”
If Channi scores a win, it will be despite his party. If Kejriwal does, you will hear more of the “Delhi Model” nationally, as you once did of the “Gujarat Model.”
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal