Navjot Singh Sidhu owes much of his career to his wisecracks and one-liners. But for the last few weeks, he sounds bitter and abusive. He feels betrayed by the Congress high command. He is lashing out at his boss and political rival, Captain Amarinder Singh. Perhaps he should take into account that he himself will turn into a laughing stock if he does not regain his sense of political timing.
Sidhu, for the last few months has opened a floodgate of attacks on the Punjab Chief Minister, the most recent of which includes calling Amarinder Singh a liar. After months of revolt from Sidhu, Singh is in Delhi and meeting Sonia Gandhi. It's also certain that a decision will soon follow on how to handle the epic battle between the two Punjab leaders. Sidhu, who quit as minister in 2019 after a controversial visit to Pakistan, has made it clear that he wants to be the state Congress president and he won't accept anything less than that. It's tough to imagine the party bosses agreeing to that.
The Punjab elections are eight months away. The Congress, till Sidhu erupted, appeared reasonably well-placed. The Akali Dal, which governed for ten years, from 2007 to 2017, along with the BJP, is a discredited lot, and despite forming an alliance with the BSP, a bounce back at this time seems unlikely. There is no denying the fact that the Dalit community commands almost 32% votes in Punjab, but the BSP can't claim the entire amount. In the early 1980s, BSP supremo Kanshi Ram had started his political journey for the upliftment of Dalits from the villages of Punjab. In the 1990s, the BSP had a chance to emerge as a powerful political force in the state but as luck would have it, he clicked more with UP Dalits, and with a clever stitching of alliances, the BSP formed the government five times in UP. Punjab was neglected. So to think that the Akali-BSP alliance will do wonders in these elections is illogical. Due to the farmers' agitation and the way the Modi Government has dealt with them, BJP leaders are running for cover in Punjab. People are very angry with them. The Akali Dal sensed this a while ago and broke its alliance with the BJP after a very long association. It will be a miracle if the BJP manages to win anything at all in the assembly elections.
The wonder kid of politics, AAP, which was poised to make a major political upset in the last election by winning Punjab (it placed runner-up, to the surprise of many), is again working hard but it is majorly handicapped by its inexperience and non-understanding of Punjab politics, which are far more complex than those of AAP's home ground, Delhi. Religion plays a very important part in Punjab. The politics of Sikh identity, laced with the radicalism of a marginalised few, a history of violence and terrorism, and the demand for Khalistan makes Punjab politics heavily layered. In 2017, it was universally assumed that AAP would sweep the election, but it ended up winning only 20 seats; the Congress, which had been written off by pollsters, suddenly surged ahead and formed the government. AAP's performance in the coming election is tough to predict, given the recent past.
Sidhu's rebellion should be understood in this context. He wants to position himself as an alternative to Amrinder Singh. He is undoubtedly much younger than the Captain, reasonably popular with the people, is perceived as an honest leader, and is an acknowledged crowd-puller. His problem is that he is in a hurry and is a loud mouth. A long time ago, a very seasoned politician in Madhya Pradesh had told me that for true success in politics, one needs the patience of a crane and should wait for the opportunity to drop the second leg; if one gets the timing wrong and runs after opportunities, then the possibility of being overrun by the opportunity itself is very strong.
Temperament has been Sidhu's big drawback. He had the talent to become a legend in cricket. He was rated highly as an opening batsman, had a good record in one-day matches, but due to his egotistical nature, he could not rule the game. He is the only Indian cricketer who left a cricketing tour mid-day and returned from England because he felt he was not treated well by the team management. Mohammad Azharuddin was the captain then. Sidhu then tried his hand at cricket commentary and also became a star in a hugely successful reality show; then he jumped into politics, joined the BJP, became an MP - and very soon, he felt slighted there too; so he ditched the BJP, toyed with the idea of joining AAP on the eve of the assembly elections in 2017, was not able to get the better of Arvind Kejriwal and so, he finally met Rahul Gandhi. He joined the Congress but felt he was offered an insignificant ministry in the new government and has since been trying to promote himself as indispensable.
His shrill campaign against Amarinder Singh is costing him supporters. Partap Bajwa, the quintessential Amarinder-hater, has also left him and was seen cozying up to the Captain. So, Sidhu has four options: join the BJP, join AAP (assuming it's open to his arrival), float his own regional party, or remain with the Congress and wait for a better opportunity. To go to the BJP at the moment will not be a politically smart move. The BJP is in dire straits due to the farmers' agitation. I am not sure if AAP will welcome him and offer him a leadership role. Though Kejriwal has announced that a Sikh will be the Chief Ministerial candidate for AAP, Arvind Kejriwal would like that someone to be a candidate whom he can control. Sidhu is anything but a puppet. He can toy with the idea of floating his own party. But with a man of his nature at the helm, the party will not have a long-term future. To run a party, one needs to have a cool head with a long-term vision, and be trusted by the people.
Ideally, Sidhu should lie low in the Congress and wait. Age is on his side, but will he be that patient?
(Ashutosh is Author and Editor, satyahindi.com)
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