The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leadership has informed cricket legend turned TV idol Navjot Singh Sidhu that he could not be the Chief Ministerial face of the party in the Punjab Assembly elections slated for early next year. However, he was further informed that he could support the AAP in the fiercely contested combat against the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance and the Congress. Sidhu, in no uncerta in terms, has been conveyed that the party could at best accommodate him or his wife in its list of candidates, but both would not be given the AAP nomination as it was against the existing policy. In addition, he was told that his supporters could not take for granted that they would be distributed AAP tickets. In other words, the criteria for granting tickets would be the eligibility factor and the natural corollary would be that the party workers would get preference.

A dejected Sidhu, who was hoping to strike a major political bargain, thus sought more time to think. AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, in a series of tweets on Friday, clarified his party’s stand. He conceded that his meeting with the erstwhile cricketer last week had remained inconclusive and Sidhu had made no demands. Significantly, Kejriwal stated that his respect for Sidhu would always remain intact irrespective of whether he joined the party or not, thereby leaving the issue open to interpretation that the talks had ended in a stalemate.

The AAP is confident of doing exceedingly well in Punjab and Kejriwal himself is under immense pressure to shift base from Delhi to Chandigarh, provided the party comes to power. Sidhu’s entry into AAP as its primary leader in the state is also being opposed by Bhagwant Singh Mann, the Sangrur MP, and AAP convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur. It is obvious that both believe that Sidhu could push them out of any reckoning given his star status.

Sources in the AAP said that Sidhu and his wife, Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu, a BJP MLA from Amritsar, lacked political clarity. They were nebulous over their future course of action and had been either talking in riddles or were exploring the possibility of how to extract the maximum from the party’s leadership. “Ideally speaking, we would want him to be with us, but we cannot give him any assurance that he would be made the Chief Ministerial face of the party. It is likely that we may not project anyone as the CM nominee as a matter of strategy. He will have to have full faith in Kejriwal and join AAP without any preconditions. The party will take a call on his fate subsequently,” a senior AAP functionary stated.

On the other hand, the Congress has sent feelers to the noted sportsman and urged him to join the grand old party, given that his father and other members of his family were closely associated with it. Manpreet Badal, the estranged cousin of Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, has publicly stated that he was ready to walk barefoot to Sidhu’s residence for him to come on board.

However, the former swashbuckling batsman is faced with a huge dilemma. It is obvious to everyone in Punjab that it would be Captain Amarinder Singh, who would be projected as the Congress’ Chief Ministerial face, thus leaving the matter non negotiable. Secondly, the best that could be sought from the Congress was the Deputy Chief Ministerial berth for his wife, Dr Navjot Kaur Sidhu, a demand not easy to fulfil. Simultaneously, Sidhu could be assured that he would be the Congress nominee from Amritsar, his former seat, in case Captain Amarinder Singh, the sitting Lok Sabha member from there becomes the Chief Minister. In the event if the Congress was to lose the polls, there is every possibility that Captain Amarinder Singh may retain his Lok Sabha seat and consequently give up the Assembly seat he is expected to win from his home turf of Patiala.

Soon after his resignation from the Rajya Sabha last month, which took political circles by surprise, Sidhu had emerged as the “X” factor in Punjab due to his exceptional popularity amongst the youth. His act of quitting the Upper House, where he had been nominated by the NDA government, had provided ample indications that he would part ways with the BJP to chart his own destiny. However, in the unfolding political scenario, Sidhu has been left in the lurch by the very same people who had given him a categorical guarantee at that crucial stage. Despite his overwhelming popularity, he has been reduced to the status of a pariah in the state politics.

There has been intense pressure on him to float his own party, but it is unlikely that he would do so given that there is paucity of time and resources to organise a new political set up. The Swaraj Abhiyaan, a breakaway group of the AAP recently announced that it was considering contesting the polls in Punjab. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan may try to rope in Sidhu to help them acquire a locus standi in the state on one hand and erode the AAP’s chances on the other.

In the Olympic season where several stateless athletes from countries such as Syria and Iraq are competing under the banner of Refugee Olympic Athletes, Sidhu may end up contesting the Punjab polls as an insider, who has been forced by compelling circumstances to be the outsider.

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