ATTARI, India — Charanjit Singh Channi, the chief minister of India’s Punjab state, has many elements to mount a successful election campaign in Indian politics.
He is from the dominant party in the state. He handed out last-minute sweeteners, waiving utility bills and slashing the prices of necessities like fuel. And it captured the imagination of India’s raucous TV scene, delivering viral moments that portray the 58-year-old chief minister, a former handball player, as a man of the people: sneaking into bhangra dance routines at debate events; stop his official convoy to help an injured motorcyclist; congratulating a newly married couple on the road.
Yet when this state of 30 million votes on Sunday to elect its new government, Mr. Channi is an outsider. Not only are opposition parties trying to dislodge his Indian National Congress party from one of the last states he remains in power, but his own ranks have also crumbled amid messy infighting.
The vote in Punjab promises to be a wider test of whether Congress, which has governed India for most of its history since independence from British rule, can arrest its steep national decline in recent years after the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Domestically, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party has emerged as such an unchallenged force in back-to-back national elections that India’s democracy is increasingly resembling one-party rule, analysts and observers say.
Mr Channi, in an interview between campaign rallies, acknowledged the pressures of his situation in a race of significance to Congress beyond Punjab, adding that he was only focused on what he could do. “I work hard, with dignity and effort, and the rest is up to the public.”
The Congress party, led by members of the Gandhi family at the top, is a shadow of its former self, with less than 10% of seats in parliament and governments at the head of only three of India’s 28 states. The party won a few victories in local elections, but not enough to fuel a national revival. Other regional parties that have tried to form coalitions to challenge Mr Modi have expressed frustration with what they see as historic Congress sentiment, despite its dwindling numbers.
Several parties, including Mr Modi’s BJP, are trying to win seats when votes for the Punjab assembly are counted next month, along with the results of ongoing elections in some other states. In Punjab, an agrarian state struggling with rising farmer debt and unemployment, the main challenger is the Aam Admi party, which is trying to expand nationwide after taking power in the capital region thanks to a protest movement against corruption.
“There is a new game that has started among India’s opposition parties – to cannibalize Congress,” said Rahul Verma, a political scientist at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Mr. Verma said the misfortunes of the Congress were such that even a victory in Punjab would not result in a broader momentum. If Congress loses, the damage could be more deadly – the party would find it hard to justify clinging to the role of what it described as “the natural leader of the opposition”.
“If Channi pulls it off, it will boost morale,” Verma said, “but that doesn’t mean Congress can significantly improve his situation nationally.”
The Congress victory in Punjab in 2017 followed major defeats, including in the 2014 national elections, when Mr Modi first came to power. Party leaders wanted their victory in Punjab to be seen as the impetus for a national comeback.
“Congress will be reborn from here, get energy from Punjab and spread,” Rahul Gandhi said after that 2017 victory. “Listen to me.”
This does not happen. The party suffered another crushing defeat at the hands of Mr Modi in the 2019 general election, with its position in the national parliament so small that it did not have enough seats to claim the title of opposition leader.
His government in Punjab was marred by mismanagement, as discontent grew over pressure on farmers, rising prices and rising unemployment. Amrinder Singh, the chief minister, was considered so out of touch that he began to face uprisings within his government.
Months before the Assembly elections, the Congress leadership replaced Mr. Singh. But the reshuffle and maneuvers around his replacement have divided party ranks. Amid the friction, Mr Gandhi, who along with his mother and sister have led the party in recent years, made what was hailed as an inspired choice. He chose Mr. Channi as the new chief minister, making him the first Dalit, from a community occupying the bottom of India’s caste system, to hold the post in Punjab.
“I started crying,” Mr Channi, whose father ran a small shop renting out wedding tents, said of receiving the appeal declaring him chief minister.
Mr Channi, previously a minister under Mr Singh, had around four months to repair some of the damage before Sunday’s election. But other party leaders continued to see it as a stopgap solution that could be squeezed out.
Just two weeks before the vote, Mr Gandhi reiterated that Congress would fight the Punjab elections with Mr Channi as its leader.
After his ousting as chief minister, Mr Singh quickly formed his own party and joined forces with Mr Modi’s BJP to create a coalition. The Congress party has tried to blunt some of the anti-incumbent sentiment in Punjab by blaming Mr Singh. For his part, Mr. Singh has criticized Congress in terms that amount to attacks on his own record.
“Everyone in Punjab knows that Congress has been making money for the past five years,” Mr Singh said. said in a recent interview with the Indian media.
The Aam Aadmi, or Common Man Party, founded by an anti-corruption activist, has tried to position itself as the answer to Punjab’s health and education problems. Their members highlight their record of improving public education in Delhi. At a ‘road show’ on the final day of the campaign in Amristar, a convoy of hundreds of cars, trucks and motorbikes drove through the streets urging voters to ‘give the party a chance’.
At one of Mr Channi’s out-of-town rallies, thousands of people who had poured in – on tractors, buses and motorbikes – waited around four hours, entertained by a live band, before the arrival of the Chief Minister.
Jagroop Singh Sandhu, a 33-year-old farmer in the crowd, acknowledged fatigue with mismanagement and congressional infighting. But Mr. Channi’s ability to connect with people, he said, was racing around rather than celebrating.
“There is a Channi wave,” Mr Sandhu said. “It will be about what he has shown in his three months.”
Driving between rallies on Friday, Mr Channi stopped his convoy when he saw a group of children playing football and ran towards the pitch. The children surrounded him enthusiastically. He would take turns shooting at goal, then playing goalie — the skill that had won him scholarships during his high school and college years when he played handball — while the kids shot.
His media team quickly posted a video on his Twitter account, edited to show Mr Channi both shooter and defender in the same shot – an apt metaphor for his party’s race.