Punjab Congress: The Importance and Trouble of Being Navjot Sidhu
Not being a ‘politician’ in the traditional sense is key to Sidhu’s appeal but also his main weakness.
"He's walking out on another Captain", "He only plays on the front foot" — cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu has been receiving more than his share of cricket clichés on social media, due to his ongoing tussle with Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
Meanwhile, the three-member panel appointed by the Congress president is likely to reach out to Sidhu soon and try and end the impasse in the state.
It remains to be seen whether they manage to convince both sides.
So far, offers of ministerial positions or even the rank of Deputy CM has failed to impress Sidhu.
In some of his recent interviews, Sidhu lamented that he was being treated like a "showpiece".
- So why is Sidhu upset?
- How much does he matter in Punjab politics?
- What options does he presently have?
These are some of the questions that we will try to answer in this story.
Why is Navjot Sidhu Upset?
Sidhu is an interesting figure. Despite changing parties once, he has been with the ruling party/coalition in Punjab almost consistently since 2007. He was with the BJP till 2016 and the Congress from 2017 till date, but has been in the Opposition, nationally, the entire period.
Almost throughout this period, he has been at loggerheads with the state government in Punjab — he was a strong critic of the SAD, especially the Badals even when his party was in alliance with them. And his tussle with Captain and his loyalists also began soon after the Congress came to power in 2017.
This track record would make it appear that Sidhu has perpetually been in Opposition in Punjab.
“He revels in being the in-house Opposition. Even his so-called clean image is because he always criticises and never takes up any responsibility, even when given the chance,” an MLA from the pro-Captain camp, told The Quint.
In the present tussle with Captain, the gist of what Sidhu has been saying in his interviews in the English and Punjabi media is that the Punjab government is working in pretty much the same way as the previous SAD-BJP regime, particularly regarding its failure to tackle the drug menace, sand mining mafia, corruption, and farmers’ woes.
Most significantly, Sidhu has flagged the failure of the state government in bringing to book those behind the 2015 sacrilege cases at Bargari and the subsequent firing on protesters at Kotkapura.
These are both important lines of criticism and do reflect some failure on part of the state government. While on some of the fronts it can be argued that Sidhu could have continued in the Cabinet and tried to make a difference, but as far as the sacrilege cases are concerned a great deal of blame does lie with the CM who also holds the home ministry.
How Much Does Sidhu Matter in Punjab Politics?
He is without doubt the second most popular leader in the Congress, after Captain Amarinder Singh. He's the only one besides the CM, who can claim to have some kind of statewide appeal. All the other leaders are mostly popular in their constituencies or in specific sections.
According to an India Today poll, before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 16 percent of people in Punjab picked Sidhu as their CM choice, behind only Captain at 32 percent and Parkash Singh Badal at 24 percent. This made him the most popular leader in his generation, ahead of SAD’s Sukhbir Badal or anyone from AAP.
At that time, Sidhu’s popularity was also on the rise due to his intervention on the Kartarpur Sahib corridor issue, a long-standing demand of the Sikh community in India.
Sidhu used his personal equation with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and contributed to the opening up of the corridor, giving Indian Sikhs access to the place where Guru Nanak spent the last two decades of his life.
What also works for Sidhu is his relatively clean image and that he isn’t seen as a career politician. Instead, he has made his name first as a sportsperson and then as a TV personality.
Having been in politics for 17 years now, Sidhu is also untouched by the legacy of the 1980s and 1990s, which is considered a dark phase in Punjab’s politics. But his critics argue that “Sidhu is not a politician” and “take people along” or “can’t get work done”.
His image as a TV personality and his occasionally over-the-top statements have also contributed to this perception. This perception has no doubt harmed Sidhu’s chances to be Punjab’s CM.
What Options Does Sidhu Have?
Sidhu would ideally like to be appointed president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress committee. This would send a clear signal that he may be next in line for the CM's chair, after Captain.
If Sidhu is made PCC chief, he would naturally have a bigger say in ticket selection, and therefore have the support of a larger number of MLAs in case the Congress wins the election in 2022.
But if denied this role, Sidhu doesn’t have a very clear endgame within the Congress. Joining Captain’s government as Deputy CM won’t guarantee that he would be made his successor and on the other hand, he would have to pay the price for the anti-incumbency against the government.
Captain is adamantly against Sidhu being given the PCC chief’s position. Sidhu’s recent statements against the CM has also not helped his cause.
A halfway measure could be Sidhu being made the chief of the campaign committee, but even that may not be acceptable to him.
It is also clear that Captain, who has hired Prashant Kishor as an advisor for the elections, doesn’t want any arrangement in which anyone other than him is projected for the CM’s chair, even as a future prospect.
It would be difficult for the party to create common ground between these two positions unless one of the two leaders compromises his present position.
The second option for Sidhu is the Aam Aadmi Party, where the situation isn’t very different. While AAP has been careful not to criticise Sidhu too harshly and it may even be ready to welcome him, it is unlikely to offer making him the CM face.
Both the central and state leadership see Sidhu as being too independent-minded to be made CM and a number of state leaders have ambitions of their own.
The best case scenario for Sidhu is if either the Congress or AAP realises that they can’t win without him and gives him what he wants. But if that doesn’t happen, Sidhu might have to alter his own plans.
Going back to BJP will be political suicide given how it has become discredited in Punjab due to the farm laws, even though Sidhu’s main bugbears during his stint in the party are no longer in the equation — the Akalis and Arun Jaitley.
The third option for Sidhu is to form his own party by breaking away elements from the Congress, bring in disgruntled elements from AAP, SAD, BJP and maybe even align with smaller parties and also induct prominent individuals who are presently not in politics.
There’s no doubt that such a move will generate a great deal of excitement.
In Punjab, there is a strong desire for change and space for a purely Punjab-centric regional party that is separate from the old order.
But there is very little time to build a cadre across the state that can compete with the strong election machinery and more importantly, the resources of Congress and SAD and to some extent AAP.
Previous such experiments like Manpreet Badal’s Punjab People’s Party or Sukhpal Khaira’s Punjabi Ekta Party achieved very little success. Despite its shortcomings and disunity, AAP has been a relatively more successful third alternative.
On his part, Sidhu also seems to have missed the bus in this respect. He had the chance to create such an alternative several times in the past — before the 2012 elections when he was disgruntled in the BJP, or before the 2017 polls, or even last year, that would have given him time to build his party.
To use a cricketing analogy, Sidhu’s fate now lies with the third umpires in the Congress.
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