Politics

After Political Hibernation, Will Navjot Singh Sidhu Emerge as a Key Player in Punjab Congress?

Like his cricket, politician Sidhu has always been an enigma to political observers. With assembly elections a year away in Punjab, the Congress party wants to leverage his celebrity status.

Chandigarh: Ask his seniors, and they will say Navjot Singh Sidhu was one of India’s finest opening batsmen.

A gutsy and talented player he might be, but Sidhu could not play much of cricket during his 16-year international career. His contemporaries like Mohammad Azharuddin played almost double the number of tests and three times more one-day matches than Sidhu did.  

As Anshuman Gaekwad, former Indian team coach during Sidhu’s playing days in the 1990s, puts it, he was a prolific opening batsman in his era, so he could have easily played more cricket.

“Even Sidhu won’t mind me saying that he was lazy in his approach. When it comes to fitness or taking singles on the ground, he had to be pushed,” Gaekwad told The Wire

Who can forget when Sidhu left India’s 1996 English tour midway and flew back home following a tiff with the then skipper Azharuddin.  

Also read: ‘The Ice Is Melting’: A Triumphant Sidhu Returns to Pakistan for Kartarpur Launch

Cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle once commented in 1997, “For someone whose batting has no mystery to it, very blunt and very direct, Sidhu’s life has always had an air of mystery.”

Years later, political journalists covering the Congress in Punjab echo the same view.

“A story on Sidhu is always published and widely read too. But there is no clarity on what he is currently doing or thinking since he is out of touch for quite some time now,” said a journalist with an English daily.  

Barring his appearance on social media, where he often posts videos, or during former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s three-day visit to Punjab last October, Sidhu has not been much visible in the public ever since he resigned from the state cabinet on July 14, 2019. 

His resignation came after chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh divested him of the local bodies ministry, citing the party’s poor performance in urban areas in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and transferred him to the power ministry, which did not go down well with Sidhu.

An example of how both leaders did not share a good equation in the past relates to a bold statement by Singh in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election that Sidhu wanted to replace him as the head of the state government. 

Sidhu-Sonia meeting sets off talks of his reintroduction 

Sidhu leaving the Indian cricket team midway in 1996 might have put a full stop to his career, but he escaped with just a 50-day ban and that too in the off-season, notes an article in The Tribune in 1999. 

The reason for Sidhu getting rehabilitated at that time was due to the fact that the dispensation in the Indian team management at that time was favourable towards him. 

In the current situation too, despite walking out of the government and prolonged cold war between Sidhu and Singh, Congress’s central leadership has been keen on bringing back Sidhu before 2022 state polls since it sees Sidhu as a great asset for the party in getting it reelected in Punjab. 

In November last year, Captain Amarinder Singh hosted Sidhu for a lunch with Delhi’s intervention. But the stalemate did not end. 

Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu. Photo: PTI

Now again, former Uttarakhand chief minister and in-charge of Punjab Congress affairs, Harish Rawat’s recent meeting with Singh on February 17 in Chandigarh – days after Sidhu met Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Delhi on February 9 there have been talks of Sidhu’s possible reentry into the party and Punjab politics.

Although no side has officially spoken about it, several media reports point out that Sidhu wants a bigger role for himself, probably the post of state Congress president or deputy chief minister, but Singh is not ready to offer him anything more than a cabinet berth for him, which continues to prolong Sidhu’s re-entry.

As Mohammad Khalid, a political science teacher at Panjab University puts it, “Given that Singh has strengthened his firm grip within the party and the government after the thumping win in municipal polls and his tactical support during farm protest, no decision regarding Sidhu’s rehabilitation can be taken without keeping Singh out of the picture, no matter how close Sidhu is to Priyanka or Rahul Gandhi.”

Also read: What Congress’s Sweep of Punjab Municipal Polls Tells Us About Impact of Farm Protests

When contacted Rawat, who has been trying to break the ice between Sidhu and Singh for the past many months, he told The Wire that “amending human relations is always a tedious task”. “In the case of Punjab, it is even more difficult.” 

“But I succeeded in melting the ice between both Singh and Sidhu, for which I am thankful to both the leaders,” he said.  

Rawat said, “The good news is that they are in dialogue. They have publicly praised each other. Sidhu on a record said that Singh was his elder brother.” 

“Singh on his part agreed that Sidhu was useful for the party. He even went a step further and said he wanted Sidhu’s accommodation more so because they both belong to the same town (Patiala). He even used the word ‘same family’,” said Rawat.  

He said, “I pray to god every day that both mutually agree to move forward from here. I can’t comment it right now but I think it should happen soon,” said Rawat on Sidhu’s re-entry. 

There are rumours that Sidhu can leave Congress in the case of delay of his reentry. On this, Rawat said that it will be a great injustice to even assume that Sidhu will leave the party. 

“Ever since he resigned from cabinet, he has kept a dignified silence and did not give anyone an opportunity to question him, even though he is keenly watched,” said Rawat. 

Why does Sidhu matter, or does he? 

Sidhu’s career has had a diverse career as a cricketer, a commentator, an entertainer, a TV host, and now a politician, but so are the opinions of people for and against Sidhu.  

Rawat told The Wire, “Sidhu’s popularity among the masses is our huge wealth. Why will we lose it?”

Rawat once called Sidhu a ‘Rafale’ and important election weaponry, underlining Sidhu’s importance in the party as a star campaigner and vote catcher. 

“I also have no hesitation saying that Sidhu is an important weapon in the armoury of Captain Amarinder Singh as well,” said Rawat.

But Parmod Kumar, director of the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh, said that Sidhu’s relevance in state politics was not beyond his celebrity appeal. Unlike the South, the celebrities can win their own elections in Punjab and make others win too, but can’t lead a state, he added. 

Parmod said Punjab is a multicultural and agrarian society. But Sidhu has more of a modern and urbanised appeal. He too lacks connection with different interest groups and agendas in the state.

He said to be proactive with religion is an art in Punjab, for instance, not to get trapped in radical politics and land on the wrong side of nationalism by becoming an instrument of divisive designs of external forces like Pakistan.

“Sidhu is clueless of it,” said Parmod. He said his politics is more personal than ideological. Imran Khan becomes farishta (angel), Rahul Gandhi Captain, and Modi Bulbul.

“He (Sidhu) does not represent any consistent position in politics. When in Congress he talks of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and when in BJP, he remembers 1984 (anti-Sikh Genocide). His pitch keeps shifting. He is an ideologically liberated politician who represents a lunatic fringe of a pendulum,” said Parmod.

There are others who feel Sidhu is a rare commodity in politics.

Harjeshwar Pal Singh, the professor of history in Sri Guru Gobind Singh College, Chandigarh, said that his popularity among people in Punjab is beyond the religion and caste divide.

He said Sidhu is one of the rare politicians who is not corrupt. People feel that he has the capacity to do something good for the state.

His identity as Jat Sikh too is an added advantage in a state like Punjab where Jat Sikhs have wider acceptability among different religions and castes,” he adds. 

Harjeshwar too said it will be wrong to say that he is not aware of ground realities or fault lines of Punjab. “He is well-read.”

He said people liked Sidhu’s aggressive stand against Badals. And then, he played a crucial role in the opening of the Kartarpur corridor that increased his popularity among rural folks. He too has been consistently talking against sand, liquor or cable mafia that did not go well with even several members of his party.

“But the problem with Sidhu is that he is poor in team building. He was not able to build a team of his own like Badals and Captain. Then politics is a full-time game. Many times he goes incommunicado and does not meet even his own people that does not work in politics,” he said.  

Harjeshwar said he needs a bit of patience too. He may have a great future in Congress given that he is among the most popular second-generation leaders in this party who may possibly replace Captain Amarinder once he hangs his boot.

Jagrup Singh Sekhon, professor, department of political science at Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University, too believed Sidhu is a rare commodity in politics, but it was not a wise move for him to leave the cabinet and stay out of governance for long.

“An individual gains prominence when one has organisational backing and when one has people with him. People may know Sidhu but he has shrunk his space within the organisation because of his continuous absence. It is a challenge for him to regain it,” said Sekhon.   

But Sekhon was also critical of Captain Amarinder Singh’s working especially in case of hooch tragedy in which over 100 people were killed last August and endless problems that employees are facing in the state.

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

File photo of Rahul Gandhi and Navjot Singh Sidhu. Photo: PTI

But he said in the present context, Congress is getting the benefit of farm protest by default. “In normal circumstances, the SAD-BJP alliance would have given a tough challenge to Captain and that would have increased Sidhu’s relevance,” he said.

During his cricketing days, Sidhu was very popular for hitting big sixes that even earned him the title of ‘Sixer Sidhu’.

But Anshuman Gaekwad thought this was his career’s major drawback. The singles are equally important in pacing the cricket game. But Sidhu believed a lot in fours and sixes but never tried ones and threes. 

“If he had done that, he could have easily converted his 50s into 100s, 100s in 150s and so on,” he said.

As many observe, politics, in many ways, is like cricket too. Sixes don’t always work. There is a chance of getting caught near the boundary. One needs to gradually pace one’s inning with singles, something Sidhu probably needs to learn at this juncture. 

Rawat too has one advice for Sidhu. “Woh Dildaar Neta Hai, dil se sochte hain (He is full of heart). But he also needs an old advisor like me to tell him that he should think 75% from his heart and 25% from mind,” said Rawat with a broad smile.

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Below is the complete interview with Harish Rawat, who believes that Congress revival in the country is through Punjab. The Congress leader touches upon various issues pertaining to Singh-Sidhu relation, prospects for Congress in Punjab in 2022 elections, among others.

Read the full interview.

What do you think are the party’s main challenges in the upcoming Punjab polls?

We are confident that we will win the elections. But I think I have one major challenge which is that all our weapons must be used at the right time and at the right place. It is a difficult job given that we have so many talented leaders in our party in Punjab.   

Harish Rawat. Credit: PTI

File photo of Harish Rawat. Photo: PTI.

Do you think Congress benefited from the anti-farm protests in recent municipal polls and that it may help the party in state polls too?

It is a natural process. In politics, when the ruling party fails, the opposition gets the advantage. Congress has a very clear view of these agriculture bills that it must be taken back. If the Centre thinks that they need to do something in agriculture, they must discuss it with farm bodies and chief ministers. When Congress brought economic reforms, we started the process in 1984, and then in 1992, these reforms were brought in parliament. In farm bills, did BJP follow the consultation process? No. Did they allow voting in Rajya Sabha? No. 

But do you hope that the party’s recent win does not make it complacent ahead of the polls?

Not at all. In a party meeting last week in Punjab, I mentioned that after such a huge mandate in municipal polls, our responsibility towards Punjab and its farmers has increased manifold. At the national level too, we have to fight out more rigorously now for the cause of farmers. 

What is your view on the launch of the ‘Captain for 2022’ campaign by the Punjab Congress?

In Congress, we always have the tradition that the ongoing chief minister leads the party in fresh elections. Therefore it is natural that the next election will be fought under him. Captain is the party’s tall and experienced leader.  

What about Navjot Singh Sidhu? He is out of the public glare for long. How successful you are so far in narrowing the differences between Sidhu and Singh? 

Amending human relations is always a tedious task. In the case of Punjab, it is even more difficult. But, I succeed in melting the ice between both Singh and Sidhu, for which I am thankful to both the leaders. They are in dialogue. They have publicly expressed praise for each other. Sidhu on a record said that Singh is his elder brother. Singh, for his part, agreed that Sidhu was useful for the party. He even went a step further and said he wanted Sidhu’s accommodation more so because they both belong to the same town (Patiala). He even used the word ‘same family’.  

I pray god every day that both mutually decide how to move forward from here. 

So, can we see Sidhu’s reentry anytime soon?

I can’t comment on it right now, but I think it should happen soon.

How important is the party’s win from Punjab in 2022 polls?

Desh ki Puri Congress Punjab Ki Taraf Dekh Rahi Hai. Punjab Congress must show the way for the party’s revival at the national level. Whether Singh, Sidhu or any senior leader, they must work together for the larger cause of the party as well as the farmers’ protest. The moment Congress wins from Punjab, farmers will automatically prevail over the Centre on farm bills.  

Vivek Gupta is a Chandigarh-based reporter who has worked for several news outlets including The Hindustan TimesThe Indian Express and The Tribune.