Chandigarh, September 20: Punjab's first Dalit chief minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, took charge on Monday, promising free water supply to smaller homes, a reduction in the power tariff and a transparent government for the "common man" in the poll-bound state.
Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa and O P Soni were also sworn in by Governor Banwarilal Purohit at a ceremony at the Raj Bhavan here, which was attended by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Also Read | Mahant Anand Giri Arrested by Uttarakhand Police for Abetting Akhara Parishad Chief Mahant Narendra Giri’s Suicide.
Randhawa and Soni were designated as deputy chief ministers. Meanwhile, the first cabinet meeting led by Channi deliberated on making sand available at affordable rates, giving 100 more free electricity units to the SC, BC and BPL categories and providing free water supply in rural areas. Also Read | Andhra Pradesh Shocker: Man Rapes Minor Cousin in West Godavari District; Case Registered Under POCSO Act.
The cabinet meeting was held here in the evening. Randhawa and Soni, along with senior officials, were present at the meeting that went on for around three hours. The cabinet discussed various "pro-poor" initiatives to be implemented in a time-bound manner.
Earlier in the day, at his first press conference as the chief minister, Channi (58) teared up as he described himself as an "aam aadmi" (common man) and a poor person, while thanking the Congress high-command for picking him for the post.
The three-time MLA from Chamkaur Sahib recalled that he has pedalled a rickshaw and his father ran a "tent house". Channi did not offer many details but the sops appear to rival those announced by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is the main opposition in Punjab.
The chief minister said there will be no water and sewage charges for houses measuring up to 150 or 200 square yards in urban areas. The government would also reduce the electricity tariff, he added.
"My wife is a doctor, my brother is a doctor. There are employees in my house. When the power bill comes, my wife tells me that the money goes from her pocket. These bills will be reduced," he said. Meanwhile, consultations have started on the names for ministers, sources said.
Hours before the swearing-in ceremony, a remark by Harish Rawat, the Punjab in-charge of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), triggered a controversy over Channi's role in the few months remaining before the state Assembly polls.
Rawat reportedly said the election will be fought under the leadership of the Punjab Congress unit headed by Navjot Singh Sidhu. Former state Congress chief Sunil Jakhar tweeted, saying he found the remark "baffling" and it could "undermine" the authority of the new chief minister.
Channi and the two deputy chief ministers -- a Sikh and a Hindu in a balancing act by the Congress leadership -- took their oaths in Punjabi. All three were part of the cabinet led by Amarinder Singh, who resigned as chief minister on Saturday, just before the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) meeting called by the party's central leadership. After hectic consultations on Sunday, the party picked Channi as the new CLP leader.
For months, Amarinder Singh and Sidhu had been gunning for each other in a bitter power struggle in the Punjab Congress. Channi was considered to be in the Sidhu camp. Rawat and Sidhu were by his side as Channi addressed the media.
He urged the Centre to repeal the three laws over which farmers have been protesting for months. The chief minister said he will become the voice of the common people of Punjab and always remain accessible.
"Together, we have to make Punjab prosperous. Punjab is primarily an agrarian state. This government is pro-farmer," he said. On Amarinder Singh, Channi said he did good work as chief minister. "He is also known as the protector of water rights. He is our party leader," he said.
Channi said his government will remain committed to the Congress leadership's 18-point agenda for the state and the previous election promises will be fulfilled.
The party agenda includes justice in a case of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015, combatting drug-trafficking and scrapping power-purchase pacts signed earlier. "We will ensure a transparent government," Channi said.
Channi's appointment allows the Congress to play the Dalit card in the Punjab Assembly polls due next year. An estimated 30 per cent of the state's population, counting both Sikhs and Hindus, is from the scheduled caste community.
Channi's deputy Randhawa (62) is a Jat Sikh who represents the Dera Baba Nanak constituency in Gurdaspur, and Soni (64) was elected from Amritsar-Central.
Earlier, the name of Brahm Mohindra, a senior minister in the previous cabinet, was doing the rounds for the post of deputy chief minister, and AICC treasurer Pawan Kumar Bansal even congratulated him on Twitter. Amarinder Singh was not seen at the swearing-in ceremony attended by senior Congress leaders.
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