With the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab inching close to completing nine months in power, Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema, who has been dealing with the stiffest task of bringing the cash-strapped State back on track fiscally, has seemingly demonstrated an assertive style of leadership. Hailing from the Scheduled Caste community, Mr. Cheema enjoys the party high command’s confidence, and is being seen by many as an emerging ‘acceptable leader’ in the Jat Sikh-dominated politics of Punjab.
The two-time MLA from the Dibra constituency first won the Assembly polls in 2017. Since then, it has been no looking back for the rather soft-spoken leader, who has been demonstrating his assertive leadership style within the party and in State politics.
Leadership in times of crisis
His acceptability as a senior leader among the party cadre has grown with the passage of time, and as he stood by the party during tough times and crises, the party’s confidence in him has also grown. In 2018, when the party saw an internal rebellion by almost half of its 20 MLAs and was in disarray, the party expressed its confidence in Mr. Cheema and appointed him as the Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly, where he rose to the occasion and led his party from the front to counter the then-Congress government in Punjab on several public-centric issues.
When the AAP formed the government in the State earlier this year, Mr. Cheema was sworn in to the State cabinet. After Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, he holds the most powerful portfolios, including the Finance Ministry. In September, when the Chief Minister was on a tour of Germany, it was Mr. Cheema, who held the fort for the party in the State in his absence, at a time when the AAP had accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of trying to topple its government by offering bribes to its legislators. The BJP dismissed the allegation, saying the AAP was attempting to divert public attention from its governance failures.
Mr. Cheema is an advocate by profession, coming from a humble background in rural Punjab. He has been working to establish himself as the common man’s leader by holding weekly meetings in his constituency, to not lose connection with the masses.
Dalit leadership vacuum
A sense among a section of the party and political experts is that he stands a good chance of acceptability as a pan-State leader, as there is currently a vacuum in Dalit leadership in the State. Scheduled Castes make up almost 32% of Punjab’s population, which could help the ruling AAP if it plays its cards well to gain the trust of Dalit voters in the near future. Ahead of the 2022 Assembly election, the Congress party had bet its fortunes on the Dalit votebank by appointing Charanjit Singh Channi as Chief Minister, but it failed to reap the dividends as it was percieved to be giving a message of “Dalit appeasement” just when the polls were around the corner.
“There are several issues surrounding Dalits that have been lingering on since previous regimes, which if resolved could consolidate the vote bank to a certain extent in favour of the ruling party. But it all depends on the resolution of the issues,” said Surinder Singh, an assistant professor of Political Science at Panjab University’s Rural Centre. “Being a Dalit is different and Dalits accepting him as a leader is a separate issue.”
Dalit plus package
Commenting on the vacuum in Dalit leadership in Punjab, he said that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has not been performing well, and there are no major Dalit faces left with the Congress or Shiromani Akali Dal. “There’s a space, but to capture this space, Mr. Cheema needs to develop a balance between the Dalit community and other communities, including the prominent Jat Sikhs, who have dominated Punjab politics for years,” said Prof. Singh. “If the party and Mr. Cheema are successful in developing the balance, there’s a good possibility he could emerge as a prominent Dalit leader from the Malwa region of the State,” he added.
“Harpal Cheema is a Dalit plus package, who brings an alternative option of state leadership for the AAP as Bhagwant Mann had been erratic. So, AAP promoting Harpal Cheema is good for the long term,” said Ashutosh Kumar, a Political Science professor with Panjab University in Chandigarh.