Navjot Singh Sidhu: Facing Googly on a Tottering Pitch

By Sudhir Kumar            

As a batsman, he had shown streaks of aggressiveness that earned him the sobriquet ‘Sixer Sidhu’ as he clobbered bowlers from opposition teams with mighty hits over the fence. It was this impetuosity that that helped him score centuries and ciphers alike. Navjot Singh Sidhu, president of Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, three-time MP, sitting MLA and a contestant for the state assembly elections, appears to have carried that trait on the political turf also. He wears his political ambitions on his colourful turbans, exuberantly expressing them though a queer mix of demagoguery and earthy wisecracks.

There are some more interesting facets to his persona. As an unabashed admirer of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, his panegyric becomes unsavoury. He also has no remorse in hugging that country’s Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Back home, he has a trait of mocking and mimicking political leaders. When he was in the BJP, he mocked Congress leader Dr Manmohan Singh as ‘Mauni Baba” (silent saint), and ridiculed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal by imitating his coughing sound. It is altogether a different matter that Sidhu has now switched his allegiance to the Congress party after leaving the BJP and also tried to hobnob with the AAP in-between, which proved futile.

There is another trait of Sidhu, a seasoned gladiator who is mercurial in his political allegiance. He has indulged in audacious defiance of the Congress High Command (read the Sonia clan) at one point of time and genuflected before Sonia Gandhi in almost the same breath.

The mind game of Sidhu is difficult to gauge. Is he a political gadfly or a conscience keeper of his party in Punjab, or a past master in peddling populism? Surely, he is unpredictable like a chameleon, and the top Congress leadership is aware of his unbridled political ambitions.  That is why they decided to clip his wings by denying him the chief ministerial saddle if the party wins the February 20 elections to the 117-member assembly.

It was on February 6 that Rahul Gandhi announced incumbent Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi as the party’s nominee for the post, much to the chagrin of Sidhu who has also been coveting it for quite some time. However, hours before the announcement by Gandhi, Sidhu issued a statement that he would abide by the high command’s decision. The Congress decided to back Channi for two reasons: he has largely held the faction-ridden Punjab unit of the party together after taking over the reins from 79-year-old Captain Amrinder Singh in September last year. Secondly, he fitted in the caste-based electoral arithmetic to a T.

Channi is a Dalit Sikh while Sidhu is a Jat Sikh, and these are the two major groupings in Punjab. Dalits comprise 32 per cent of the state’s three crore-plus population while powerful Jat Sikhs account for around 22 per cent. Channi can consolidate Dalits in his favour, and also enlist support of other castes. That was the reasoning of the party High Command in Delhi. However, this is also a fact that neither Dalit Jats nor Jat Sikhs have voted en bloc, if the voting pattern of previous elections is any proof. In fact, the Jat Sikhs have been voting both for the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). The pitch has been further queered with the AAP declaring Bhagwant Mann, a Jat Sikh, as its CM face.

Even before the February 6 announcement, Sidhu had an uneasy feeling that his applecart could be upset. So, he threw the gauntlet, with a usual dose of theatrics, at the high command by saying that the “people at the top” want a weak chief minister who can dance to their tunes. He also asserted that the onus for electing a good chief minister is only on the voters. “If a New Punjab has to be made, it is in the hands of the CM. You have to choose the CM this time,” he said.  

Even after the announcement that effectively scuttles his chances of becoming the CM if the party wins the elections, Sidhu sought to upstage or tried to put pressure on the High Command by releasing his 13-point ‘Punjab model’ before that of the party’s official poll manifesto. It draws inspiration from Guru Nanak’s philosophy of ‘terah-terah’ and ‘Sarbat Da Bhala’ and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s vision to empower panchayat and urban local bodies, he wrote on social media. “The new system scuttles all theft, erases mafia from Punjab, fills coffers to double them for people’s welfare,” he tweeted.

The 13-point model consists of Governance Reforms, Income, Kissani/ Farmers, Women Empowerment, Employment & Labour Reforms, Health Care, Teachers/Education, Industry, Skilling & Entrepreneurships, Law & Order, Digital Punjab, Environment & Civic Amenities, and Social Welfare (Including NRIs welfare). In his manifesto, Sidhu has promised to pay back outstanding debt and boost Punjab’s annual revenue by Rs 50,000 crore. On the employment front, it envisages creation of five lakh jobs in the next five years for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labourers in urban areas.

Sidhu may have, willy-nilly, accepted Channi as the CM candidate, but he is stewing in a sullen silence. One indication of it is the barrage of accusations that his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu and daughter Rabia have been hurling against the High Command’s decision.

“As a daughter, I want to say that the person who is so charismatic and honest could not become the CM face. Maybe the party high command had some compulsion. But you can’t stop an honest man for long,” said Rabia, who studied fashion designing in Singapore. In particular she took strong exception to Channi being announced as the CM candidate because Punjab wants a ‘poor CM’ candidate. “He is a crorepati. You will find Rs 133 crore in his bank,” she alleged.

Navjot Kaur concurs with his daughter. “He (Channi) is richer than us; his (IT) returns also show that. He has a huge bank balance, which is more than us, and so he is not a poor person,” she said, while describing her husband as a “hero” who would have transformed Punjab within six months.

Before declaring Channi’s name, Rahul Gandhi had said, “People of Punjab said we need a chief minister who is from a ‘gareeb ghar‘ (humble family), who understands poverty and hunger. It was a tough decision, you (people) made it easy.”

The fulminations from Sidhu’s spouse and daughter in the public have brought to the fore the dissidence within a fractious Congress party that is scrambling to show a united face. At the moment, Sidhu appears to have bitten more than he can chew. His acid test will be the results of the elections to be declared on March 10.

Surely, the stakes are enormous for him in the Amritsar East seat where he is pitted against Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) strongman Bikram Singh Majithia, who has left the Majithia constituency (from where he won thrice on the trot in 2007, 2012 and 2017 with impressive margins) in favour of his spouse. Majitha harbours a strong grouse against Sidhu, holding him responsible for the recent FIR accusing him of involvement in drug trafficking, a charge he vehemently denies. Thus, only a win will decide Sidhu’s relevance and sustenance in the state politics.  

A major roadblock on the highway of Sidhu’s ambition is that he does not have many friends in the party even though he was largely responsible for the unceremonious exit of Amarinder Singh, who had opposed his elevation as party president of the state unit. But he could not muster enough support from all those legislators who had helped in overthrowing Amarinder Singh as the name of Channi was announced. Sidhu also realises that without the Congress party, he may not possibly go far enough. At the same time, the party is also trying to keep him in good humour. Party MP Ravneet Singh Bittu said Sidhu would get the post of ‘Super CM’ if the party retains power in Punjab. But that is not the only ‘if’. If the party wins and if Channi also wins, the dice will still be heavily loaded against Sidhu. Channi has already tasted the elixir of power, and he will not let it go easily.

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