Commentators say weekends have been dangerous for chief ministers this year, especially in Assam, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Gujarat and now Punjab, as first the BJP high command and later the Congress leadership chose this time to initiate removal of the incumbent chief ministers.
Amarinder Singh, the oldest chief minister in the country, has been removed by the Congress in what turned out to be a swift operation. The scales for the veteran leader, who was riding high just a few months ago — after the split between the BJP and the Akali Dal as well as the prolonged farmers agitation — were finally tipped when he appeared to praise the renovation of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial in Amritsar. He had contradicted party leader Rahul Gandhi, who had described the refurbishing of the memorial where hundreds were shot dead by British troops in 1919 as an insult to martyrs. Singh instead had said the changes at the memorial in Amritsar were nice.
What next for CMs replaced
Among the sacked chief ministers this year, Singh and Karnataka's B S Yediyurappa are wounded lions, who had their own strong electoral base, but fell foul of the high command. In Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal was removed after retaining the state for BJP, but he has now been made a Union cabinet minister; whereas Trivendra Singh Rawat and Tirath Singh Rawat — the two Uttarakhand chief ministers who were replaced within a span of few months — are waiting patiently for rehabilitation.
Gujarat's Vijay Rupani, jerked out of his chair a few days ago without a murmur of dissident activity, is recovering from the shock with the hope of eventual rehabilitation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as was done for his predecessor Anandiben Patel, who is now the Uttar Pradesh Governor.
Likely next in line
There is turbulence in Congress-ruled states of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, with the high command presently siding with the incumbent chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel.
In BJP, Modi has always kept the cards close to his chest as he constantly evaluates feedback he gets on chief ministers and union ministers from the party sources and intelligence agencies. He likes to surprise both his supporters and opponents with sudden moves. Even though party chief ministers of other election-bound states — Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh, Pramod Sawant in Goa and Biren Singh in Manipur —are considered safe, the changes made this year has kept them on their toes.
What spurs changes at the top
The replacements made both by the BJP and Congress high commands also have shown that caste politics and balancing is essential more than personal preferences in states. Thus Modi has continued with the chief minister from the dominant Lingayat caste in Karnataka and a Rajput in Uttar Pradesh, while he has bowed to the demand to appoint a Patel as chief minister in Gujarat. In Assam, however, the party replaced Sonowal, who is a tribal, with Himant Biswa Sarma, who is a Brahmin. However, the dominant Ahom caste is restless as it has not got good representation either at the Centre or in the state, despite voting in big numbers for the BJP.
Significance of Channi's choice
After typical jostling in Punjab, the Congress high command's decision to appoint Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit Sikh as chief minister for the next four months, has ticked off multiple boxes. Dalits who are more than a quarter of the state's population had gravitated away from the Congress in the last two decades — first to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and in the 2017 assembly elections to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The Akali Dal, after its break-up with the BJP, had formed an alliance with the BSP, and promised a Dalit as deputy chief minister if the combination came to power. The Aam Aadmi Party which has 17 Dalit MLAs in the present assembly too promised a deputy chief minister.
Thus with Channi's choice, the Congress has upstaged the rivals.
Secondly, Amarinder Singh, who had launched a frontal assault on the Pakistan links of archrival Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) President, would not be able to generate the same intensity of anger against Channi. The high command thinks that if the Punjab voters would give a massive mandate for Channi-Sidhu combination, then the electoral legitimacy would help Sidhu's ambition of becoming the chief minister.
Fate of Dalit CMs
While Channi has broken the glass ceiling for Dalit politicians in Punjab, it is intriguing why the Congress, with its social justice agenda and seven decades history of running states, has been niggardly towards Dalit aspirants in its ranks. Very few Dalits have been chosen by the party as chief ministers, despite their national population of around 18 per cent, and even those Dalits who made it as chief ministers of Congress states, have not been able to rule for long.
D Sanjivayya was the first Dalit to become a chief minister in the country when the brilliant lawyer was picked to rule Andhra Pradesh in 1960. After 26 months as chief minister, Sanjivayya led the party to victory in the 1962 elections. But there was a nasty surprise as Delhi chose Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, belonging to the dominant Reddy community to be the chief minister and Sanjivayya was given the consolation prize of All-India Congress Committee President under a dominant Jawaharlal Nehru.
Same was the experience of Maharashtra's Dalit Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who was hand-picked by Sonia Gandhi in 2003 after Vilasrao Deshmukh, belonging to the upper-caste Maratha community, resigned due to corruption charges. After a 21-month rule, Shinde led the Congress-NCP alliance to a victory, but was told he would be replaced by Deshmukh. Though Shinde went on to become a Union minister, he regretted that he could not rule the richest state of the country even after leading Congress in the elections.
When the Congress romped back to power in Rajasthan in 1980, there were multiple contenders, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose Jagannath Pahadia, a Dalit to be chief minister as her supremacy was emphasised in the Lok Sabha election earlier that year. Pahadia faced dissidence from the beginning and after a 13-month rule, gave way to Shiv Charan Mathur.
In the revolving-door politics of Bihar, brought about by the hung assembly of 1967-71, Bhola Paswan of the Congress became the chief minister of coalition governments thrice and each time his government fell, President's rule was imposed. One term lasted seven months, another for three months and one more for just 15 days!
Thhis weekend Channi was strongly supported by Opposition Leader in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, whose chief ministerial ambitions were repeatedly denied by the high command in favour of other caste candidates thrice in a quarter century. Even Jagjivan Ram, the longest serving Dalit Congress minister at the Centre could become a deputy prime minister briefly in the Janata Party government after he quit the party in 1977. However, the proposal to make him the first Dalit prime minister led to deep divisions within Janata Party which had allied with Jagjivan Ram's own outfit the Congress for Democracy.
Thus Channi has to not only ensure the Congress house is repaired in the next four months and win the mandate, but ensure that victory does not deny him the big chair.