Challenges before newly-appointed Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi in Punjab

Both Rahul Gandhi and N.S. Sidhu seem impatient with traditional ways of politics. If the new CM, with their backing, steers away from the beaten track, he can still salvage the state and the party

Challenges before newly-appointed Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi in Punjab
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Nirmal Sandhu

Despite the constraint of having limited time before the next assembly election in the state, which is due in February next year, and factionalism in the Punjab Congress, the new Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi does have a choice: to follow the beaten track or take the road less travelled.

The discontent on the ground needs to be addressed because the novelty of being the first ‘Dalit’ chief minister of Punjab is unlikely to last very long. While a smart political move, which has surprised and preempted political rivals in the state, it will still be considered a token gesture and a gimmick if Channi fails to be markedly different from his predecessors.

He starts with an advantage. He has the backing of both Rahul Gandhi and Navjot Singh Sidhu. He himself is liked by people for his low profile and humility. But it is hard to gloss over the challenges he faces.

People have grown cynical enough not to expect radical changes in the mindset of politicians. But a radical step like removing a towering but non-performing Capt Amarinder Singh midway as Chief Minister has given rise to the hope that the new leadership is capable of taking bold decisions. Maybe things could change.

The familiar politics of populism pursued by former chief ministers, which supposedly won them elections, has financially ruined the state. Once holding the top rating, Punjab today is a mid-rung state on various parameters. Channi has the unenviable choice of either working for the next election or to try and set Punjab in order.

In public perception in Punjab, there is not much difference between the Akalis and Congress politicians. The status quo they have evolved in successive terms has largely benefitted them. They would naturally resist change. But people are disenchanted. Realising this perhaps, the Congress boldly effected a leadership change. But is that really enough?

Expectations from the new CM are low. His track record as a minister has been far from spectacular. But then as minister he never had the kind of power and political backing that he now enjoys. He has with him Rahul Gandhi and Navjot Singh Sidhu, who both seem impatient with the traditional style of doing things.

So immense has been the damage done to Punjab in the last 20 years that anyone other than Parkash Singh Badal and Captain Amarinder Singh at the helm would perhaps have ended up lifting the state – economically and administratively – provided he or she did not follow the same set of policies and politics. Congress therefore has a rare opportunity to start the process afresh to rid itself of the corrupt and the compromised.

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Coming from a humble background, Charanjit Singh Channi can reorient governance to benefit the common man. Right now, it serves politicians and the hangers-on more than anyone else. He may have political compulsions to please all to survive in office but if he fails to take tough decisions in the larger interest of the state, he would go down as yet another Badal-Captain type of chief minister.

There are mistakes made by Channi's predecessors to avoid too. There is the understandable pressure and temptation of rewarding loyalists, handing over jobs arbitrarily, having an army of advisers or adopting a lavish lifestyle by travelling in helicopters, chartered planes or moving around in large cavalcades.

If he identifies himself with the common man, he should set an example by having a simple lifestyle and a minimum government. Every Natha Singh and Banta Singh, who is now given gunmen for no apparent reason and the system of patronage needs to change for change to become visible.

If Punjab today is in dire straits economically and has a mountain of debt, the maharaja-like lifestyle of the former chief ministers, their annoying personal promotion at the expense of the exchequer, administrative extravagance and the political culture of freebies are to blame.

Governance was geared for personal comfort and winning elections. The previous chief ministers did not discontinue free power supply or limited it to only the needy, disregarding sane advice given by the likes of Dr Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

The present issue of cancelling pro-corporate power purchase agreements would not have arisen, had free power supply to everyone not bankrupted the electricity board. Subsidies are certainly needed but they should remain restricted to the needy and delivered efficiently.

On top of the new Punjab team’s agenda should be the task of depoliticizing the administration and the police by putting competent officers on key positions, disregarding personal or political loyalty, in order to restore rule of law in Punjab. It will help to keep out politically connected civil servants and police officers, especially those with pending criminal cases or having business interests.

This may jolt the politician-bureaucrat-criminal nexus and help bust the drug, sand and transport mafia. Crime and corruption have flourished under political protection. Previous governments did not apply the law equally. Scuttling police reports/investigations that indicted the powerful – in the opposition and within their own parties has been a hallowed political practice in the state.

Political confidence that instead of freebies, good, honest governance too can return parties to power a la Naveen Patnaik, needs to be restored.

Two steps need to be taken by the new Government. One, pass a law to enable the government to confiscate properties of those occupying public office and convicted of corruption charges. Two, change the rules/law to ensure that each MLA gets only one pension. In Punjab a five-time MLA gets five pensions, one for each term.

(The writer is a former Associate Editor of The Tribune, Chandigarh. Views are personal)

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