Rahul Gandhi made the announcement during a virtual rally in Ludhiana in the presence of Channi and Sidhu, both of whom hugged twice on stage in a display of bonhomie that did little to calm the PCC president’s supporters in Amritsar East. Sidhu had been lobbying for the top post ever since Amarinder, whose departure he is believed to have hastened, stepped down as CM. Sources said the party had assured Sidhu of “a key role” if it forms the government again.
“The decision on who should be Congress’s CM face was not taken by me, but by the people of Punjab, and I totally agree with them. They said they want their CM to be from a poor home — someone who can understand poverty and hunger…(It was) a very tough decision, but you people made it very easy. Punjab’s chief ministerial candidate is Charanjit Singh Channi,” Rahul said.
Amid cheers from the audience, Sidhu raised Channi’s hand, seemingly in a gesture of collective triumph. He, Channi and Rahul then got into a team hug.
Touching the stage and bowing towards the audience, Channi said, “I want to thank Punjab’s people, based on whose voice Rahul Gandhi has picked a poor person like me. I request everyone with folded hands to help fight a very big battle that I cannot win alone.”
He iterated that his “clean image” was his biggest strength. “I want to assure the people of Punjab that note a single penny in my home has come through wrong means. I promise everyone that from today onwards, I will not even buy even a single property either in my wife’s name or my name. Neither will I do any business,” he said. “It has been 40 years and nobody ever pointed a finger at me. Had I been indulging in any kind of wrongdoing, Amarinder Singh would have killed me as he was after me for four-and-a-half years, and he tried to do everything he could and even conspired to trap me falsely. He did not succeed.”
Sidhu, who spoke before Rahul and Channi, told the gathering ahead of the formal announcement that he had made peace with the Congress leadership’s call on who should be the CM candidate.
“Channi sa’ab, hass le, par taali thok (Channi sa’ab, you are laughing but you should also clap),” the PCC chief said, at which the CM got up from his seat and walked towards the former to hug him.
“I have already accepted Rahul ji’s decision. I have no ‘justajoo’ (desire),” Sidhu said.
He went on to praise Rahul for picking Channi. “Kuch Rahul Gandhi jaise hote hain jo ek Dalit garib ko mukya mantri banaya karte hain (There are some like Rahul Gandhi who make a poor Dalit the CM)…It’s a moment of change, and if Navjot Sidhu is standing here, away from his family and after giving up an income of Rs 50 crore, it is for the welfare of Punjab, and not for any personal gain,” he said.
“My political career of 17 years is proof enough that I have never gone after any position…In Congress, there are times when you hear voices against me, but I have never criticised even any (party) worker. The fight is not with our own but the rivals.”
In Channi, Congress has chosen its Scheduled Caste mascot with “humble origins” over Sidhu’s popularity and oratory. Also, with Punjab having a 32% SC population, the party’s focus was on winning in the Doaba region, besides reaping the potential benefits in other states. Congress is also aiming to dilute the prospects of the Akalis’ newfound ally BSP.
Many in the party, however, aren’t sure Channi, who represents Chamkaur Sahib, and Sidhu will get along for long. “The party’s decision to pick Channi could further isolate Sidhu in the state unit as a group of cabinet ministers and MLAs had already been rooting for Channi,” a party functionary said.
Sources said Rahul had discussed the decision with Sunil Jakhar, Channi and Sidhu on his way from Halwara airport to Ludhiana. The four of them were later closeted for about two hours in a hotel. It was here that efforts were made to placate Sidhu, sources said.
In Amritsar East, Sidhu’s supporters accused the Congress think tank of bending “under pressure from unprincipled and shady people”.