New Delhi: Former Indian opening batsman and popular Punjab politician, Navjot Singh Sidhu appears to be in a defiant mood and has aggressively started targeting Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, leading to speculation that he may be exploring options outside the Congress.

Recognising the political ramifications of the High Court’s order, quashing the findings of the Special Investigation Team headed by Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, into the Bargari and Behbal Kalan sacrilege incidents of 2015, Sidhu has insinuated that the ruling dispensation was trying to save the perpetrators, the Akalis in this instance.

While several Punjab politicians such as Pratap Singh Bajwa have blamed the Advocate General, Atul Nanda, of deliberately not putting up a good legal defence of the SIT, Sidhu has gone a step further and asked how the Advocate General could be held responsible when he was answerable to his political boss.

The dissident leader has evidently lost patience after remaining silent for a long period of time during which the Congress high command has repeatedly tried to get him appointed as the state Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief, but has not succeeded because of the resistance from the Captain. Other than the PCC chief’s post, Sidhu would have been satisfied had he been accorded the status of the Deputy Chief Minister, with both Home and Self Government portfolios. This the CM would not allow either.

Therefore, after a huge controversy erupted in the aftermath of the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashing the SIT probe and the subsequent resignation of senior police officer Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh, Sidhu has apparently found a burning political issue. The Akalis lost power after the sacrilege episodes as they were unable to control the political damage and many Punjab politicians feel that this matter would test the political acumen of the current Chief Minister as well.

What is worrying the Congress high command is that any attack on the Captain by Sidhu amounts to an attack on the party as well and thus is causing acute embarrassment to the cadres. On the other hand, the central leadership is concerned over its diminishing influence on the affairs of the border state. There are moves that were already on to also look for an alternative other than Sidhu for the PCC president’s position. In this connection, the names of Vijay Inder Singla, a Punjab Minister said to be close to Rahul Gandhi, Pratap Singh Bajwa and Rana Gurmit Sodhi are doing the rounds.

There is also thinking in some quarters that Sidhu would be appointed as the PCC president despite the Captain’s resistance with two working presidents, one Dalit Sikh and one Hindu to balance the political equations in the state. However, a clear picture would emerge once Harish Rawat, general secretary in-charge of Punjab, who is recovering from Covid-19, is fully fit.

Sidhu is viewed in Punjab as the most charismatic leader after the Captain and is the only one other than the CM, who enjoys a grass roots connect in the three regions of the state—Malwa, Doaba and Majha. The temperamental politician is also viewed as a rare political entity who does not hanker after power; he had quit the Rajya Sabha with his full term remaining and later resigned as a minister following differences with the Captain.

The options before Sidhu are limited unless he joins hands with Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party and decides to contest, instead of his present constituency in Amritsar, from Patiala against the Chief Minister. The second option is to exploit the sentiments over the sacrilege incidents and come out openly in support of the agitating farmers before launching a regional party in the state.

If the second option were to materialize, Sidhu may get support from even opponents of the AAP such as Yogendra Yadav, who is deeply involved in the farmers’ stir, Rakesh Tikait and the Sarna brothers, Paramjit and Harvinder, who controlled the Delhi Gurdwara politics for many years, and were at one stage in the inner circle of former SGPC chief, Gurcharan Singh Tohra. He would further get the backing of all the Congress and Akali candidates who do not get the tickets for next year’s Assembly elections.

There have been several conjectures over Sidhu’s return to the BJP, which seems extremely remote, particularly after the Centre’s stand against the Punjab farmers. The former cricketer had met senior BJP leaders in the middle of last year, but once the farmers came out on the streets that conversation ended. The BJP, in any case, would need an ally since it does not have more than 50 to 60 candidates to field in Punjab, which has a total number of 117 seats.

The complex Punjab political game is also being impacted by the fact that seven Rajya Sabha seats from the state would get vacant next year. These include the seats held by Naresh Gujaral, Ambika Soni, Pratap Singh Bajwa and Sukhdev Dhindsa. Incidentally, Dhindsa and Ranjit Singh Brahmura have broken off with the Shiromani Akali Dal and are planning to start another political outfit after dissolving their current splinter groups. How much impact they would have on the state’s politics is to be seen.

In the meanwhile, the Captain would have to do some very tightrope walking to consolidate his own position after he reviewed his earlier decision and has decided to lead the Congress effort in 2022. Sidhu and many others have been accusing him of being soft on the Akalis, but then the battle-scarred veteran of many political confrontations has always come out with an ace at an appropriate time.