Charanjit Singh Channi, a 58-year-old Dalit is now the new chief minister of Punjab, one of just three Indian states where the Congress is in power. His appointment was announced late on Sunday after a day of frantic meetings among party leaders.
Mr Channi, a three-time legislator, has replaced Congress party veteran Captain Amarinder Singh, who is an ex-solider and has been a politician for more than five decades. The 79-year-old served as the chief minister for nine-and-a-half years in Punjab.
The MLA from the reserved constituency of Chamkaur Sahib was part of the anti-Amarinder camp aligned with Punjab Congress Chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is being perceived as an instrumental force behind Amarinder’s exit.
A three-time MLA, Channi was Minister of Technical Educational and Industrial Training in the outgoing cabinet of Captain Amarinder Singh
He began his political career as a councillor in Chamkaur Sahib municipal body and then served as its head. He was the leader of opposition in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha from 2015 to 2016.
In a move that left many political observers in India stunned, the party manoeuvred Mr Singh’s resignation last week. “I feel humiliated… I feel they have no confidence in my work,” he said after quitting.
This came after months of attempts by top Congress leaders to broker peace between Mr Singh and his growing list of detractors – state lawmakers who accused him of being inaccessible and running the government through a coterie of bureaucrats who ran roughshod over elected representatives.
The change has come just four months ahead of the next assembly elections.
Mr Channi’s elevation to chief minister dissolves the power held by the Jat Sikh community since the state’s creation in 1966,. And it also appeals to the Dalits, a dominant vote bank not just in Punjab but in all-important Uttar Pradesh state, which is likely to go to the polls in February 2022.
Whether the move will pave the way for more such surprises in states where the Congress is in a deep morass is too early to say, but Rahul Gandhi’s confidantes insist that top leaders are keen on stepping out of the comfort zone.
It hasn’t been a particularly happy year thus far for chief ministers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-governed states either – four of them across three states have been swiftly replaced since March. But no-one expected the Congress to effect a similar plan against one of its most visible leaders.
Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on Sunday issued a very guarded statement on Channi’s appointment.