Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan appears to have ruffled many feathers in the Indian state of Punjab, when he singled out senior Congress leader and his cricketing days’ buddy, Navjot Singh Sidhu, and heaped lavish praise on him during the ground breaking ceremony for the visa free corridor, from Gurdwara Darbar Saheb in Kartarpur to the Dera Baba Nanak shrine. Sidhu, like Imran, is a maverick politician and manages to stay in the limelight on some pretext or the other.
The love fest between the one-time, on field archrivals, is bound to have long term political ramifications in Punjab, with Sidhu, in the eyes of a large segment of population, emerging as the sole leader who has been able to secure this concession for the Sikhs from his friend, Imran on the momentous occasion of Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th birth anniversary celebrations.
It is another matter that earlier in the year, the Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh had got a unanimous resolution passed in the Assembly in support of this demand, which was first made a decade ago by Paramjit Singh Sarna, a prominent Delhi Sikh leader. Several other well-known Sikhs and Akalis too have been urging successive governments to provide access to the pilgrims.
The preferential treatment to Sidhu, on the Pakistani soil, was at the cost of two Union Ministers, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, daughter-in-law of former Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Hardeep Singh Puri, who were both present on the occasion. In fact, the discord between Sidhu while he was still with the BJP and the Akalis had its roots in the strong reservations that the Badals had over his projection, particularly because like most of the top Akali leaders, Sidhu too is a Jat Sikh. His popularity was viewed as a challenge to Sukhbir Singh Badal, the heir apparent to his father.
Therefore, the Badals have been his most vocal critics and never spare any opportunity to assail him whenever an opportunity arises. Kartarpur Saheb visa corridor is both a political and religious issue and the Akalis realise that Sidhu has stolen a march over them. On its part, the BJP too attempted its hand at wooing the Sikhs when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, referred to the collapse of the Berlin wall, while announcing his government’s decision granting permission for the visa free corridor.
Prompted by the supporters of the ruling party, several TV channels tried to decode Imran’s praise for Sidhu and his general comments as a conspiracy by Pakistan to dislodge Modi as Prime Minister. Nothing could have been more outlandish given that democracy in India is not brittle and Modi is the Prime Minister because he enjoys both the backing of the Indian Parliament and the people. Imran’s intentions of pushing the peace agenda, appears on the face value, to be genuine and sincere, but till attacks by Pakistani trained terrorists continue on the Indian territory, no forward movement may take place.
If symbolism is taken seriously, then the ground breaking ceremony at Kartarpur Saheb may have its share of problems, particularly so far as the latent Pakistani agenda goes. The foundation stone was shaped like a kirpan, the revered religious and sacred symbol of the Sikhs, but what became disturbing was that the Pakistani army’s court of arms was embossed on top. The intention, if interpreted through a political lens, is that Pakistan wants to win over the Sikhs through this seemingly generous gesture, which appeals to the Sikh sentiments and emotions. The issue is not as simple as it looks.
Sidhu may have won accolades, but he has to, henceforth, tread his political path with great caution. His restlessness cannot lead to his immediate elevation and therefore he must choose his words with care while speaking from any platform, whether in India or abroad. Captain Amarinder Singh has given him a long rope and has chosen to disregard his transgressions which included a well thought through advice of not going to Kartarpur Saheb as long as soldiers on the Indian side get killed by the actions of the Pakistani army. One can only speculate that the Chief Minister must have been under tremendous pressure to drop the former cricketer from his Cabinet, but being a seasoned politician, he has allowed the matter to pass.
However, Sidhu continues to be defiant, and fails to acknowledge that the grand victory of the Congress in the Punjab Assembly polls was on account of Amarinder Singh’s leadership, and his reach-out to all sections, particularly the Sikh peasantry. He is in total command and therefore to nurse ambitions of dislodging him, would have grave consequences for Sidhu as well as the Congress.
In an uncalled declaration, Sidhu hailed Rahul Gandhi as his captain, a clear attempt to undermine Amarinder Singh, “whom he saw as a father figure” and by implication not his leader. While virtually demonstrating his proximity to Rahul (and the family), he sent a message to the state leadership that he enjoyed the political patronage of the Congress high command and thus was on a firm ground. Having won the hearts and minds of the Sikhs, Sidhu is clearly positioning himself as the number two in the Punjab government, thereby laying down a succession plan, post Amarinder.
Sidhu needs to understand that politics demands a Sunil Gavaskar kind of innings, long and steady. Not the swashbuckling kind he played during his heydays. Between us.