Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s political stock has been bullish after his public response to the security threat allegedly faced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while he was on his way to address an election rally in Ferozepur last week.

Modi’s cavalcade had to make a U-turn on a flyover because of a blockade allegedly by agitating farmers in the state, and on his return to Bathinda airport reportedly told an official to thank his chief minister that he had managed to return to the airport alive.

The recent incumbent Channi seized the opportunity and proceeded to air the sentiment of Punjabis on this grave observation coming from the prime minister, which has been construed by many as an attempt to sully the image of Punjab, a border state home to a significant share of non-Hindus, with the motive of communalising Hindu voters in poll bound states.

No matter what the outcome of the polls in Punjab, due to be held on February 14, Channi by taking a stand on the issue has emerged as a political leader with a lot of weight among Punjabis, emerging tall not only in his Congress party but across the Indian political spectrum.

Observers point out that he has come a long way since his anointment to the post of chief minister of this border state where Sikhs, a national minority are in the majority. Initially seen as a sidekick of party state unit chief Navjot Singh Sidhu who was instrumental in the ouster of erstwhile Congress heavyweight Amarinder Singh, Channi has emerged from the shadows to build a powerful image of his own. He has established himself as a head of government who is not a pushover.

With the federal sentiment always running very high among them, Punjabis have always wanted their chief minister to be someone who can stand up to Delhi (aka the central government) for their rights, and until now, no matter what the party, all the chief ministers have been cast in this image.

According to Vijay Bombeli, a political observer with a keen interest in documenting Punjab’s political history:

“This is because of the martial genes of Punjabis. The term martial is often used for Sikhs, but it is because they are a dominant community in terms of number here. Otherwise it is Punjabis as a whole that are martial, no matter what their religion is. If one looks into recent history, it is Bengal and Punjab who have made a lot of revolutionary contributions to the nation. While Bengalis have added to this contribution through their intellect, Punjabis have made tremendous sacrifices.”

Bombeli added that Punjabis have been standing up to the Centre on every issue concerning people’s rights. While the state was the cradle of the recent successful agitation against three farm laws that have a bearing on farmers and peasants across India, the community also opposed Parliament’s own abrogation of Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir, and stood with those opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.

“I have been interacting a lot with the commoners on the position that Channi took on the security breach of Modi’s cavalcade and his subsequent reported remarks. The people feel that Channi through his actions has reflected the spirit and soul of Punjab. By taking this stand, it is not only Channi’s stock that has gone up but it will work to the advantage of the Congress as well, because people are not happy with how the other political forces responded to the issue that day,” said Bombeli.

It is interesting to see how Channi built on his narrative to counter Modi and the Hindu right-wing stand on the issue of the security breach. He made a very powerful statement after the incident, emphasising that farmers are peaceful and saying, “I am not going to fire or use force on my people.”

The chief minister then took to social media to drive home the point, by tweeting a quote from India’s Iron Man Sardar Vallabhbai Patel where he said, “Someone who is more concerned about his safety in comparison to his duty should not take upon big responsibility in a country like India.”

(In October 2013 as chief minister of Gujarat Modi announced plans to build a statue of freedom fighter and Congress minister Sardar Patel. The resulting Statue of Unity was built by Larsen and Toubro at a stated cost of Rs 2,700 crore or USD 422 million.)

After his social media positioning, Channi demonstrated how protestors should be engaged with, when he stopped to interact with some employees who had blocked the road and were shouting slogans against his government for not addressing their demands. All this happened while a TV reporter was accompanying him for an interview. Channi got down and pacified the agitators, saying he had already called them for talks the next day and they should not resort to a road blockade.

In fact, right from the day he took over as chief minister Channi has been trying to portray himself as a common man’s leader and representative. Right from performing bhangra on stage with folk dancers to having tea at roadside tea stalls, he has conveyed the image of a people friendly politician.

“He has showed the people a new concept of political leadership in a state where ministers and even MLAs tend to show off their stature. Contrary to his predecessor Captain Amarinder Singh, he is easily accessible to the people and this is what they appreciate. He is a leader who sits outside his house to listen to the commoners,” underlined Ujagar Singh.

A keen political observer who has witnessed the functioning of several chief ministers in his capacity as a senior government public relations official, Singh said that with this episode Channi’s image as a politician has definitely got a boost.

Observers add that following a brief silence on the day that Modi returned without addressing a rally, Channi’s detractors and rivals within the Congress party had to meet on the same page to defend the chief minister’s stand. While many say that they were left with no option, others say that the party high command goaded them to do so.

It is felt that no matter how the Congress fares in the polls – as a lot will depend on the ticket distribution, always something very chaotic in the grand, old party – Channi and the image he has built will remain a political force to contend with for a while.

Facebook/ Mir Suhail