Politics

From Awaaz-e-Punjab to Congress, Will Sidhu’s Many Stops Work in His Favour?

A not-so-important political figure in Punjab, Navjot Singh Sidhu has tried every trick in the book in the last few months.

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi welcomes Navjot Singh Sidhu into the party at his residence in New Delhi on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi welcomes Navjot Singh Sidhu into the party at his residence in New Delhi on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Chandigarh: Since resigning as a BJP Rajya Sabha MP in July 2016, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu had kept everybody guessing over his next move, with it remaining matters of discussions and speculation for months.

On January 16, after much dilly-dallying, hobnobbing with the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to get a larger role in state politics and using almost every bargaining chip – in a Machiavellian sense – Sidhu finally joined the grand-old Congress party, terming the event his ghar wapasi (homecoming).

A not-so-important political figure in Punjab – which the Badal family of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), BJP’s senior ally in the state, has ruled with an iron grip for the last ten years – Sidhu tried every political trick in the book.

His experiments with Awaaz-e-Punjab

The two-time MP from the citadel of Sikh panthic politics, Amritsar, first floated his own political party, Awaaz-e-Punjab, with the help of former SAD MLA and one-time Indian hockey team captain Pargat Singh and independent MLAs Balwinder and Simarjit Bains – famously known as the Bains brothers.

Sidhu launched the party with much fanfare in September and declared that it was ready to ally with anyone who was ready to break what he called the corrupt ‘Badal-Amarinder’ nexus. Throughout this period, Sidhu was scathing in his attack against both the SAD and the Congress, led by its chief ministerial candidate Amarinder Singh. At the same time, he also lashed out at Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal for being dictatorial in his functioning.

Amarinder too publicly ridiculed Sidhu and dismissed his front as a “Tonga party,” alleging that Sidhu was a tacit BJP ally. Both were equally critical of each other.

Sidhu’s dream of pulling off an electoral surprise through his party vanished into thin air when his allies deserted him in favour of AAP. The Bains brothers formed the Lok Insaaf Party and will contest four assembly seats (of the 117 up for grabs in Punjab) in alliance with the AAP, while Pargat joined the Congress.

By November, it became quite clear that Awaaz-e-Punjab was a marriage of convenience more than conviction, as Sidhu had claimed. Sensing the imminent dark clouds, Sidhu toned down his criticism of Amarinder, political observers say, to keep his options open. The Congress returned the favour by not ridiculing him any further.

The AAP episode 

However, as his statements against both the Badals and Amarinder were still fresh, Sidhu was soon toying with the idea of joining AAP – a potent force in the state elections – with his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu, MLA from Amritsar (East), who had quit the saffron party a few months before her husband resigned from Rajya Sabha.

While attempting to cover his political failures, Sidhu said that his front did not intend to play ‘spoilsport’ in the elections and that his party had the potential to divide the anti-incumbency votes against the “Badal-Amarinder” nexus, clearly indicating his preference for AAP.

After almost two months of constant negotiations, the talks between AAP and Sidhu failed. Both Sidhu and his wife fuelled speculations that they were eyeing leadership positions in the party, which may have include the chief ministerial berth for Sidhu. It was reported that the primary reason that Sidhu jumped AAP’s ship was because of the latter’s reticence in caving in to his demands.

It was only a matter of time that both Sidhu and his wife joined the Congress. Although his wife joined the party a few weeks ago, Sidhu delayed his decision. It is believed that he joined only after he was assured of a possible deputy chief minister’s post if the party wins the elections and the election ticket from the seat of Amritsar (East), where his wife is the sitting MLA.

What lies beneath

Sidhu’s tumultuous political journey over the last few months has been as theatrical as his personality. At the heart of it is his long-drawn struggle to avenge the humiliation he has had to face over the years at the hands of the Badal family.

It is widely known that Sidhu had neither any political constituency of his own nor could he nurture it over his two stints as Lok Sabha MP. Although he is perceived as a clean leader in Amritsar, his multiple roles in public life kept him away from his constituency most of the time.

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal with his son and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal with his son and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Credit: PTI

Yet, he was the only leader in the BJP to openly speak against the Badal family, charging them with highhandedness and even large-scale corruption.

Political observers in the state believe that although the Badal family had shared their dislike of Sidhu with the BJP many times, the central leadership of the saffron party managed to persuade the Badals to accommodate him for the sake of the alliance. That Sidhu was close to L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee swung the decision in his favour every time.

“Chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, through the strong support for Bikram Singh Majithia – Amritsar’s regional strongman, minister in chief minister Prakash Singh Badal’s cabinet and also the brother-in-law of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal – ensured that Sidhu won, despite the fact that he was almost an eyesore for the Badal clan. The Badals always thought that they were doing Sidhu a favour,” an Amristar-based senior Akali leader, who requested anonymity, told The Wire.

Yet, Sidhu often attacked Majithia for his alleged involvement in the widespread drug trade in the state. While the Badals saw him as a thankless person, Sidhu saw the Badals as patronising.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, as BJP’s own leadership equations changed with Narendra Modi at the Centre, Sidhu was unceremoniously denied an election ticket.

The seat of Amritsar went to the current union finance minister Arun Jaitley, who eventually lost to Amarinder. It is believed that the Badals were instrumental in removing Sidhu from Amritsar and assuring Jaitley of a victory from the stronghold of Sikh panthic politics in which the Akalis excelled.

As it turned out, panthic politics held its sway. Despite all the efforts by the Akalis, the electorate preferred a Sikh candidate to the Hindu bania Jaitley. The defeat of Jaitley also temporarily soured the Akali-BJP alliance.

In Jaitley’s defeat, Sidhu found an opportunity to launch a full-blown attack against the Badals. The BJP tried to pacify him by offering him a Rajya Sabha seat, but for Sidhu it was too big a humiliation to swallow.

Political observers say that Sidhu desperately wants to become a significant political player, which he never was. Read it as his political ambition or his way to prove his mettle to the Badals, every move that Sidhu employed over the last few months displayed his inexperience and immaturity.

Regional media in the past weeks has been unsparing. It has painted Sidhu as a rank opportunist, a turncoat and even as a solipsistic wanderer.

“He has party-hopped so much that he has given defection a whole new meaning. He has lost whatever little credibility he had,” Pramod Kumar, a Chandigarh-based political analyst, told The Wire.

Will the Congress gain?

The fact that both Sidhu and the Congress waited until now, when the polls are just a few weeks away, seems a little miscalculated. However, as of now, Congress seems to be focused on constituencies in northern Punjab – a region called Majha, which has been the centre for Sikh identity politics with Amritsar at the centre – where Sidhu could be a potential asset.

In all the other regions of the state, polls are all set to be an unprecedented triangular contest. While traditionally Punjab polls were always a bipolar affair between the Congress and the SAD, the AAP’s strong entry into the political scene has unnerved both parties.

With 25 seats out of a total 117 in Majha, where AAP has made the least inroads, Congress is hoping that Sidhu – belonging to the powerful Jat Sikh community – will help it consolidate the region better.

In 2012, the Akalis defied the electoral tradition in Punjab for the first time by getting re-elected to power. Even at the cost of credibility, Sidhu’s energetic, emotional campaign against the Badals may lead to at least some short-term benefits for the Congress, which has been in out of power for ten years.

As Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at Chandigarh’s Panjab University, aptly put it, “His political manoeuvres over the last year bear strong personal overtones. For both Sidhu and the Congress, it is a fight to the finish.”