Cricketer turned politician and TV comedian Navjot Singh Sidhu has emerged as the X-factor in the run-up to the Punjab Assembly elections next year, following his dramatic resignation from the Rajya Sabha a few days ago. While there is intense speculation that the erstwhile swashbuckling opening batsman, known for his wit and ready repartee, may join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Congress, worried by his immense popularity, is making a last minute bid to woo him. Sidhu, in fact, enjoys the envious position of being the most sought after figure outside the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party fold and is expected to influence the final outcome of the aggressively contested elections.
Sources said that Sidhu may address a press conference on Monday to divulge the reasons for his disenchantment with the BJP, on whose ticket he was elected as a Lok Sabha member from 2004 to 2014. He is extremely upset with the BJP’s continued support to the Shiromani Akali Dal in general and the Badals in particular. He has accused the state government of being both corrupt and inefficient and had wanted the BJP to sever its links with the Akalis who came to power in 2007 and 2012 primarily because of the seats won by the saffron brigade.
It is evident that Sidhu has calibrated his moves with astute consideration and by renouncing a six-year Rajya Sabha seat, he has sent a strong signal that he was not hankering for any position. Therefore, he is likely to continue with the same spirit and has in his negotiations with the AAP leaders refrained from demanding a price for his support. In political terms, it is clear that if he joins AAP, he would do so without any expectations of being projected as the Chief Ministerial face of the party. Sidhu would want to create a perception that he was not after power, but was desirous of serving the people of the state. In the process, he would attempt to replicate what Sonia Gandhi did in 2004, when she declined the Prime Ministership and gave the impression that she had made the sacrifice to serve the common people. It is another matter that her reasons for not accepting the august office was the pressure mounted by her children, who expressed serious security concerns, given that their father Rajiv as well as grandmother Indira Gandhi had been assassinated.
Sidhu is aware that people’s sympathy normally goes to those who shun power and not run after it. He is conscious of his iconic status, clean image and massive following amongst the younger generation in Punjab. It is not without reason that even Captain Amarinder Singh, seen as the best man to take on the Akalis, has extended an invitation to him to join the Congress, citing his family’s longs association with the grand old party. Sidhu’s father Bhagwant Singh Sidhu was both a freedom fighter and Congress sympathiser, who also served as Punjab’s Advocate General in the Darbara Singh government in the early 1980s. Sherry, as Navjot Sidhu is fondly called by those close to him, grew up in his parental home in Patiala’s posh Yadvindra Colony and attended the Yadvindra Public School. He later went to Mohindra College, a very renowned institution.
If sources are to be believed, Manpreet Singh Badal, the estranged cousin of Sukhbir Singh Badal called up Sidhu soon after he quit and advised him to move to the Congress where his wife could possibly be accommodated as the Deputy Chief Minister in the event of the party winning the polls. Sidhu reportedly made no commitment and left everyone guessing.
Though AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal complimented Sidhu on his resignation from the Rajya Sabha, he too is conscious that many of his party leaders who have chief ministerial ambitions are unhappy with the development that is likely to have wide ranging ramifications. Bhagwant Singh Mann, Lok Sabha MP from Sangrur who has been in the news for his video compromising Parliament’s security and the AAP state convener Sucha Singh Chottepur have taken great pains to dispel the impression that Sidhu was going to be the party’s Chief Ministerial candidate, even though the ordinary worker would want this to happen.
The AAP’s opponents, who had been indulging in false propaganda by showcasing Kejriwal as the potential CM candidate in Punjab too are worried since the cricketer-turned-politician’s support to AAP would demonstrate that Kejriwal’s shifting to the state was impossible. The idea of spreading misinformation on Kejriwal was to gain advantage in the Jat Sikh strongholds that a Bania from Haryana was seeking to occupy the top position in the state. This mischief now stands nipped in the bud and even if AAP does not announce any candidate as its Chief Ministerial face, Sidhu would be its most credible and reputed mascot during the campaign.
Sidhu’s disillusionment with the BJP commenced when he was asked by the party to vacate his Amritsar seat for Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in the 2014 elections. Till then, Sidhu had enjoyed very cordial relations with Jaitley and never thought that he would be unseated when the poll bugle was blown. Sidhu had made Amritsar his home and while contesting from there in 2004, he had declared that he was no longer a resident of Patiala but had decided to move his base to the holy city. To drive home this point, he ensured his wife, Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu contested an Assembly seat from Amritsar. Consequently, he decided not to campaign for the BJP. His belief was that Sukhbir Badal was threatened by the rise of a Jat Sikh in the BJP and had plotted his exit from Punjab politics.
Sidhu remained uncharacteristically silent for nearly two years and the BJP sensing that he would be of great value to it during the Punjab polls decided to nominate him to the Rajya Sabha. Sidhu accepted it after being assured by top leaders that he would be accommodated in the Cabinet during the reshuffle. According to his friends, he was even guaranteed that he would be allotted the portfolio of Sports and Youth affairs which was held by Sarbananda Sonowal before the latter’s election as the Assam Chief Minister.
Informed sources said that Sidhu was both appalled and dismayed when the reported promise of his induction was not kept and his name figured nowhere. As it was, he was already upset on being exiled from Punjab, it being very close to his heart and now the second breach appeared to have unsettled him. He made repeated attempts to reach out to both the Prime Minister and the party president but apparently got no response. Meanwhile, some people close to him, who were to be included as office bearers in the state, were also kept out. The last straw on the camel’s back was when some of his supporters, who put up his posters in Tarn Taran, were expelled from the BJP by the state president Vijay Sampla. The extreme provocation was far beyond what he could take and Sidhu declared his resignation from the Rajya Sabha. According to his wife Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu, the Rajya Sabha resignation implies that he had also quit the BJP though she still remained with the party.
Dr Sidhu was also critical of the Akali-BJP government. She said that her husband wanted to stand by the people of Punjab who loved him. The last word on the Sidhu issue is yet to be heard.