- Sidhu went to Pakistan to attend Imran Khan's swearing-in ceremony
- He was criticised for embracing Pakistan's army chief
- Sidhu said the army officer talked about peace
Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Punjab minister who travelled to Pakistan to watch 'friend' Imran Khan take over as Pakistan Prime Minister, prophesised a positive change in Islamabad's approach towards India. "He will be taking the positive direction... and positive anything is better than negative nothing," Mr Sidhu told NDTV in an exclusive interview.
In his victory speech last month, Imran Khan had favoured improving ties with India and pledged to take two steps if India takes one.
For his oath ceremony on Saturday, Mr Khan had invited three of his contemporaries from his cricketing days, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Navjot Sidhu.
Mr Sidhu, who, like Imran Khan had joined politics, was the only one to have showed up. Mr Khan had him seated in the front row with Pakistan's top leaders. Later, he gave him a warm, bear hug, thanking him for making the trip.
But another hug at the oath ceremony appeared to have offended some people back in India. This one was with the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Mr Sidhu said the three defence services chiefs had to introduce themselves to the guests seated in the front row.
At one point, the Army Chief walked up to him. The conversation started with small talk.
"I am a General who wanted to be a cricketer," Gen Bajwa told Mr Sidhu before the topic moved to more serious issues.
"He said, Navjot, We want peace," Mr Sidhu told NDTV about the conversation.
This wasn't the first time that the army chief had spoken of peace and dialogue with India.
But Delhi hasn't been entirely convinced with these public pronouncements because it has picked up nothing to indicate that the Pakistan army had stopped supporting terror groups.
In his conversation with Mr Sidhu, the army chief sought to indicate that he meant it.
"On his own", the army chief told Mr Sidhu that Islamabad would open the corridor to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur on the 550th birth anniversary in 2019 of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion. The shrine is built at a place believed to be Guru Nanak's final resting place.
"It was a dream come true," Mr Sidhu said.
The army chief went on. "We will even think of doing better things," Mr Sidhu said, quoting the army officer.
The cricketer-politician said he prays that India takes that one step. "This is a change and any change will bring hope. Hope sees the invisible and conquers the impossible," Mr Sidhu said.
Sikh groups in India have been pleading with the NDA government for some time to hold talks with Pakistan to open the corridor during next year's celebrations. They contend that the two governments had agreed to a corridor to the shrine just two-three km from the India-Pakistan border in 1998 but never implemented the decision.
Mr Sidhu, who had initially joined the BJP and represented Amritsar in parliament before a falling out with BJP leaders led him to the Congress, said he would rather ignore the criticism in India over his visit.
"My thought process has always been very positive. I want to swim in the blue ocean that has space for everyone... But mostly, all I see is red ocean," he said.
"Let us shun the red ocean," he said.
Analysts believe that Imran Khan's first priority would be to focus on the looming economic crisis and expect Pakistan to either seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund or seek support from China.
On what could be expected from Prime Minister Imran Khan, Mr Sidhu said he wasn't going to be someone who was going to compromise on anything. He listens to everyone but has the clarity of thought on what needs to be done.
"He will actually take the tough path... That tough path will be actually progressive," Mr Sidhu told NDTV, underlining that Imran Khan wasn't going to take short cuts and was ready to take decisions that would hold the country in good stead in the long run.
But as he attended the oath ceremony in Islamabad, the BJP in Delhi and elsewhere lashed out at him for taking up the invite to go to Pakistan. Haryana minister Anil Vij called it "an act of disloyalty" and sought action against the Congress leader. In Delhi, BJP spokesman Sambit Patra called it a shameful act.
Mr Sidhu, who had earlier quoted former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's conviction that India and Pakistan should improve relations to counter his detractors,on Saturday cited the Vedas to underline the importance of keeping communication channels open.
"According to the Vedas, when there is no communication, there is suspicion and then lack of trust happens," he said, an oblique rebuttal to the BJP. He also recalled the ancient philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the whole world is one family) that is often cited by the ruling party at the centre and prime minister.