Chandigarh: Former Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu tore into the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party – in power at the Union government and Punjab respectively – in his very first public appearance on Saturday, April 1, after spending nearly a year in jail in 35-year-old road rage case.
He said democracy in India is in shackles under a “dictator” like Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “This message is for my younger brother and Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann too,” he added.
Without referring to the fugitive Sikh hardliner Amritpal Singh, Sidhu claimed a conspiracy was being hatched to impose President’s rule in Punjab.
This, he said, is a pattern that the Modi government has been following in all minority-ruled states. “Where Hindutva does not work, a fictitious law and order problem is manufactured through non-state actors to polarise the voters. Then police action is launched to claim that the peace is restored,” said Sidhu.
He said a “terror-like” situation was created in Punjab for those with vested interests, but that the people in Punjab will not let this be realised.
“I say to both Modi and Mann that if you weaken Punjab, you yourself will face the consequences. No government can remain empowered after weakening Punjab,” said Sidhu, in his statement aggressive style.
“Debate and dissent,” he said, “are the essence of democracy. But they are being crushed.”
Referring to Modi and BJP’s ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas‘ slogan (which means ‘with all, development for all’), he questioned if the poor in the country have at all been empowered under BJP rule.
Alleging that in Modi’s India, democracy has become enslaved to a few industrialists and that constitutionally-run institutions listen to a handful of power holders, Sidhu said if there is one person fighting this dictatorship, it is Rahul Gandhi.
“It is time to empower him so that he can fight more strongly against these vicious powers,” he said.
Referring to Gandhi’s disqualification from parliament, he said attempts are being made to trample Gandhi’s voice by misusing public institutions. But his voice is now ringing everywhere in America and Germany, he added.
“Whenever a dictatorship has come, a revolution has come as well and today I say the revolution’s name is Rahul Gandhi,” he also said.
Returning to the topic of Punjab, he slammed AAP government and asked as to what it had achieved in the past one year. Bhagwant Mann sold “false dreams” to Punjabis to seize power, he said.
“You (Mann) made the people a fool. You have been reduced to a spineless CM,” said Sidhu, adding that while the AAP government gave free electricity, it incurred a Rs 30,000-crore debt for this.
“Who will ultimately pay this loan? Punjab people,” said Sidhu.
Referring to AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal’s pre-election statement, Sidhu said Kejriwal had claimed that the state would earn Rs 20,000 crore from sand mining and Rs 30,000 crore from other sources like liquor to fund their subsidies. “Where is this money now?” he asked.
Sidhu also accused Mann of being a CM only on paper.
He said Punjab’s development is at a standstill, law and order were in a terrible state and the state had come under the control of the Centre’s para-military forces, all thanks to the Mann government.
The mood was upbeat outside the jail premises as a large number of Congress workers including senior leaders of the party gathered to welcome him at 10 am. On Twitter, Sidhu’s handle had spoken of a noontime release but it was after 6 pm that he got to walk out.
Sidhu claimed it was a conspiracy by the Mann government to keep him waiting for hours so that the media as well as Congress workers leave the premises.
As soon as Sidhu stepped out, scores of his supporters cheered.
After addressing the media, he along with of his supporters went straight to Gurdwara Dukh Nirwaran Sahib and then to his paternal house in Patiala.
Sidhu spent his early years in this town before shifting base to Amritsar after joining politics in 2003.
He represented Amritsar in parliament three times before entering Punjab assembly through Amritsar (East) assembly constituency in 2017 assembly elections, which he lost during 2022 assembly polls.
Gautam Seth, former spokesperson of Punjab Congress and Sidhu’s close aide, told the media outside jail, “You will soon see Sidhu saab playing a leading role in the party. Congress high command including the Gandhi family continues to have full faith in his leadership and he will soon meet Sonia Gandhi in Delhi”.
There is a section in the party who blamed Sidhu’s tussles with former chief minister Charanjit Channi as the major reason behind Congress’s defeat in Punjab last year.
Sidhu was unseated as Punjab Congress chief after the election defeat and disciplinary proceedings began against him on the recommendation of his successor Amarinder Singh Raja Warring.
But soon after, the Supreme Court sent Sidhu to a year in jail in a 35-year-old road rage case.
The crisis within the party did not end there. Miffed by the leadership vacuum in the party, dozens of senior Congress leaders including Manpreet Badal, Gurpreet Singh Kangar, Raj Kumar Verka, Sunder Sham Arora, Balbir Singh Sidhu, Rana Gurmeet Sodhi and Sunil Jakhar joined BJP.
While Sidhu’s new role in the party is not clear yet, his supporters believe that he has the kind of persona and a stature that can unite the party as well as revive its fortunes. Some say that he may get a prominent position in the party’s central committee.
Senior Congress leader Gurjit Singh Aujala, also Member of Parliament from Amritsar, told reporters outside Patiala jail that Sidhu has a pan-nation appeal.
“The person like Sidhu’s character is an asset not only for the party but for Punjab as well. The situation of Punjab is for everyone to see…Sidhu’s entry at this stage will also give the party a boost ahead of Jalandhar by-election on May 10,” said Aujala.
Other senior leaders who were there to welcome him were Pragat Singh, Arvind Sekri, Lal Singh, Mohinder Singh Kaypee, Nazar Singh Manshahia, Shamsher Singh Dullo, and Navtej Singh Cheema.
Former Punjab CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal too was present. He said under new rules, Sidhu should have been released a month ago.
However, many from the current state leadership of the Congress including Raja Warring and leader of opposition Partap Singh Bajwa did not turn up to meet Sidhu, signalling that a section of the party is wary of Sidhu’s re-entry.
What of Punjab politics?
While the Congress is in the doldrums, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has yet to regain its mass base. Even as the BJP has expanded in the state, it is yet to find a foothold.
If Sidhu makes the right moves, he can pose a major challenge for the Mann-led AAP government, which is certainly facing a lot of criticism especially on law and order in the state.
Professor Harjeshwar Singh, a political observer and a history teacher, told The Wire that Sidhu has a long list of weaknesses. “Still, he is among the handful of politicians in Punjab who are honest and not yet discredited,” he said.