Charanjit Singh Channi was the Technical Education Minister in the Cabinet of Captain Amarinder Singh (retd.). He was one of those Congress leaders in Punjab who revolted against the Chief Minister in recent months in a State that is going to the polls in 2022. But he may not have expected then that he would succeed the captain as Punjab’s Chief Minister.
On September 20, after Capt. Amarinder announced his resignation and said he “felt humiliated” by the actions of the Congress’s leadership, Mr. Channi, 58, took oath as Chief Minister. He is the first Chief Minister of the State from the Scheduled Caste community.
Soon after assuming office, Mr. Channi, who comes from rural Punjab with a humble background, said his government “is of the poor, for the poor and with the poor”.
A law graduate with a Master’s degree in business administration and currently pursuing doctoral research on “Indian National Congress: a study of its central organisation and electoral strategies” in Panjab University, Mr. Channi had accused Capt. Amarinder of failing to fulfil the Congress’s 2017 Assembly election promises.
As Minister, he had demanded creating a regular post of ‘Class D’ employees in the State government instead of “outsourcing” them. Within days after becoming the Chief Minister, Mr. Channi announced that all ‘Class D’ employees would be regularised. He also announced curtailing his security cover.
Born in Makrona Kalan village near Chamkaur Sahib, the three-time legislator saw hardship closely in the early years of his life. Mr. Channi began his political journey by contesting the municipal council elections from Kharar town, where his family had eventually settled.
He remained a municipal councillor for three terms and then he became the President of the Kharar Municipal Council twice. He was first elected to the Punjab Assembly in 2007 as an Independent. In 2010, he joined the Congress, and retained the seat in the 2012 and 2017 elections. During 2015-16, when the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine was in power, Mr. Channi was the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. In 2017, Mr. Channi became a Cabinet Minister.
A handball player and Bhangra (Punjab’s folk dance) enthusiast, Mr. Channi has had his share of controversies as well. In 2018, a woman IAS officer had accused him of sending an “inappropriate text” message.
The Punjab Women Commission had taken suo motu cognisance of the matter and sought a response from the government. Capt. Amarinder had then asked Mr. Channi to apologise to the woman officer, and said he believed the matter was “resolved” to her satisfaction. But amid the infighting in the party and Mr. Channi’s strident opposition to Capt. Amarinder, the issue resurfaced in May when the women’s panel chief threatened to go on a hunger strike if the State government failed to apprise her within a week of its stand on the issue. After Mr. Channi was announced as the new Chief Minister, the National Commission for Women Chairperson, Rekha Sharma, demanded his resignation, citing the allegation.
In 2018, Mr. Channi got embroiled in another controversy when, as a Minister, he chose to flip a coin to decide on a posting for lecturers at a polytechnic institute. While two candidates, chosen by the Punjab Public Service Commission, wanted the same station to work in Patiala, Mr. Channi decided to toss a coin, which he said “was done after both the candidates had agreed to it”. Mr. Channi found himself in a piquant situation in 2017 when a road was built through a park outside his official residence in Chandigarh, apparently on the advice of an astrologer. The local administration later dismantled the road.
Now that he is the CM, Mr. Channi is looking beyond the controversies. In his public interactions, he has emphasised his common man image, and said the government’s priority was to listen to and resolve the problems of the poor. The challenge before him is to rally the Congress, weakened by infighting, behind his leadership and reach out to the voters for a fresh mandate, with only months left for the Assembly poll amid mounting political challenges from a resurgent opposition.