Three-time Congress MLA Charanjit Singh Channi was sworn in as the first dalit chief minister of Punjab on Monday, along with two deputies – Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and O P Soni. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and AICC in charge of Punjab Harish Rawat, besides PCC president Navjot Singh Sidhu, attended the ceremony. While the party leadership has tried to strike a caste balance by picking Randhawa (a Jat Sikh) and Soni (a Hindu), along with the party’s dalit face for the top post, the selection of the deputy CMs was not without drama - which was seen in choosing Channi the previous day as well.
Party insiders said Rawat had spoken to Brahm Mohindra, a six-term MLA, on Sunday night for the deputy CM’s post and the latter had even got congratulatory calls from senior party leaders. AICC national treasurer Pawan Bansal had also tweeted to congratulate Mohindra and Randhawa as deputy CMs. But things changed by Monday morning, with the perception of being from former CM Amarinder Singh’s camp working against Mohindra. Finally, the leadership settled for Soni, a five-term MLA. Both Randhawa and Soni are from the Majha region.
In his first remarks after the swearing in, Channi, who took the oath of office and secrecy in Punjabi, appealed to the Centre to scrap the three contentious farm laws. He also spelt out the agenda of his government, saying relief will be provided to the economically weak by slashing power and water bills and the sand mafia will be wiped out from the state. Channi also promised to resolve the pending issues of state employees.
Flanked by Sidhu and Rawat at his first press conference as CM, Channi said: “Punjab is an agricultural economy and if there is a threat to the farming sector, we will make any sacrifice. I make an appeal to the Centre to take back the three farm laws. The economy of the state is dependent on the farming sector. We support the farmers’ agitation.” Announcing a slew of relief measures, he said that power for the agriculture sector should continue to be free. “However, water supply for the rural sector should also not be billed. There are pending bills ranging from Rs 10,00,000 to 30,00,000 and the cabinet will waive them... The power supply of economically weak households will not be disconnected for non-payment of bills. The pending bills over five to 10 years will be waived to resume their power supply. We will tear off their bills. In urban areas, bills of water supply and sewerage will not be charged for houses of up to 150 or 200 square yards. The 18-point agenda of AICC will be implemented one by one without delay."
‘Humiliated’ Captain resigns
Earlier, Captain Amarinder Singh resigned as chief minister after two months of alleged humiliation by the Congress leadership admittedly prompted him to resign along with his entire council of ministers, albeit with the caveat that state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu was unacceptable to him as a prospective successor as he would be “a disaster”. Amarinder declared he wouldn’t quit politics, but would wait to explore and exercise his future options when the time comes. The two-time CM stepped down with a one-line resignation letter to pre-empt what was widely being seen as a move to remove him from the chief ministership through an emergency Congress Legislature Party meeting convened by the AICC. He met the governor less than half an hour before the meeting.
I had made a decision in the morning. I had a word with the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi), and I conveyed it to her that I will resign today. ‘I am sorry, Amarinder,’ said Sonia Gandhi when I spoke with her,” Amarinder told the media after handing his resignation to governor Banwarilal Purohit, just about six months before assembly elections are due.
“Apparently, they (Congress high command) do not have confidence in me and did not think I could handle my job. This is the third time that a meeting of party MLAs is being held in a few months... But I feel humiliated the way it has been done. I decided that I will step down as the CM and they may appoint in whom they have confidence,” he said.
Asked if he would accept whoever Congress chose as the new CM, Amarinder said, “I will not do it (make a commitment) right now. I will now consult my associates and supporters and then make a decision.”