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Punjab Elections: Is Channi's 'Bhaiya' Comment a Sign of Desperation or...?

In the context of Congress internal squabbling and voters veering toward an alternative in AAP, the CM’s remark is being seen as the last arrow in his quiver.

In an interaction with this reporter on the campaign trail, the Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab, Charanjeet Singh Channi, answered a question about his unique selling proposition (USP). He assured unassumingly and unabashedly that he has no USP and prefers to walk on the path he has created for himself.

Since the day Channi became the CM, he knew he had a daunting task to put the party together in the state and would have to face the unique challenges of an election campaign. He was aware that the internal squabbling between him and the state Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu were not good for him and the party.

Channi's team designed and weaved a narrative around his humble dalit background -- a CM who burns midnight oil flipping his files even at 4 a.m.

Despite his perseverance, things on the ground show a different reality. There is admiration for Channi's speeches among voters. At the same time, voters are looking for an alternative with a party like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which seems to be breaking the monotony of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Congress with their promises of a Delhi-like model of development.

Channi's location as the first dalit CM becomes critical in a state which has a 32% Scheduled Caste (SC) population. Despite the undercurrent of social capital that Channi brings, he seems to be failing to reassure the electorate. Despite some campaign promises, Channi, as the chief ministerial candidate for his party, seems to be unable to rekindle the possibilities of job creation, arrest migration and bring agricultural advancements.

This certainly cannot happen with Channi as the solitary General of the political army. The other lieutenants of the Congress in the state fail to drive energy, almost living in absentia, resulting in the party's state unit looking fractured and disintegrated and disoriented.

The Congress cadres seem confused with contrasting orders from Channi, Sidhu and the high command. Had Sidhu, Sunil Jhakar and Manish Tewari put up a united front or had Amarinder Singh's exit been better handled, the path for Congress's victory in Punjab would have been veering much more toward certainty.

In some quarters, Channi is known as a man of delivery who proved himself in 111 days and thus, earned the phrase Channi Karta Masle Hal (Channi solves problems). Despite that, he is also aware of the limitations. When this reporter asked him who his enemy was, he said he was competing with himself; as per Channi, he is his own adversary.

Being parachuted into the political fray too late, Channi has done his best but with no support. In the last 48 hours, with the campaign curtain drawing to an end, he has managed to revive the 'insider-outsider' debate, seen as a strategy that has never been tried in Punjab but may almost be like the last arrow left in his quiver.

In Priyanka Gandhi's presence, Channi appealed to the people of Punjab to disallow the bhaiyas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in Punjab (he later clarified that he meant outsider politicians and those who have come to create disruption) and not let them rule, very well knowing that this could backfire politically. His opponents could gain mileage; he possibly knew the political incorrectness of the statement and its repercussions, yet, Channi bit the bullet.

What's being criticised as an unsavoury comment by a CM seemingly looks like a masterstroke to win the hearts of the people of Punjab. Some would say it's a strategy copied from Shiv Sena’s book, but Channi's statement has consolidated his position in Punjab further. This sub-cultural hostility ploy might resonate in all the three regions of Malwa, Doaba and Majha.

The bhaiya comment is seen by most of the political pundits as a sign of desperation and could be Channi's last bet or his last hurrah when so much is at stake for Congress. With adversaries around him, he is seen as a man giving a good fight since he became CM.

Will he fall off the card or win like a Royal Rumble? Well, the big show is awaited. But Congress has so much to learn from this fiery leader and needs to realise that the party has dynamic leaders who can propel the party's fortunes, but the centrifugal push has to come from the Central leadership if victory is the goal.

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist. The views are personal.

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