It used to be a common plotline for older Hindi films - that a character comes back after many years in jail and finds that the world has changed completely. But for Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu and Punjab politics, even ten months proved to be long enough.
So much has happened in the last ten months in Punjab - Sidhu Moose Wala's assassination, AAP's defeat and Simranjit Singh Mann's win in the Sangrur bypoll, Captain Amarinder Singh joining BJP, resignation of AAP ministers, mini-exodus from the Punjab Congress, the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Zira Morcha, the rise of Amritpal Singh and the subsequent crackdown against him - just to name a few developments.
Navjot Sidhu was away through all these developments - a sharp contrast to 2021 when Sidhu was dominating the headlines in Punjab.
This piece will look at three aspects:
Why Sidhu may have been lucky to be in jail
What's the space for him within the Congress presently?
Why should he be contesting the Lok Sabha elections and from which seat?
Why Navjot Sidhu May Have Been Lucky to be in Jail
Though imprisonment is difficult to go through for anyone, at least politically Navjot Sidhu may have been lucky to be away in jail for the last ten months. There are a number of reasons for this.
In the run-up to the 2022 Assembly elections, Sidhu did become one of the objects of public anger against the then ruling Congress regime. He was seen arrogant and a source of instability for the government.
His defeat in the elections and subsequent incarceration may have absorbed a some of the negativity that existed towards him then.
He is also fortunate to have been in jail at a time when there has been an increase in public anger against politicians in Punjab, especially following Sidhu Moose Wala's assassination.
The AAP government's popularity reduced after this but it didn't lead to any revival in the Congress or the Shiromani Akali Dal-Badal.
Rather the main gainer was SAD-Amritsar and Simranjit Singh Mann, reflecting an increasing disenchantment with mainstream parties and politicians.
This vacuum may also have contributed to the rise of Amritpal Singh outside the sphere of mainstream politics.
Being in jail, Sidhu escaped this phase.
Space for Sidhu Within the Congress
Amid this churn in Punjab and also the exodus from its own ranks, the priority of the Congress leadership has been to somehow survive and retain the Opposition space.
After Sidhu's resignation as Punjab Congress chief, the party gave the reins to young Gidderbaha MLA Amarinder Singh Raja Warring. Senior leader Partap Singh Bajwa was made Leader of the Opposition, Sukhjinder Randhawa has been accommodated as the party in-charge for Rajasthan while Sukhpal Singh Khaira has become the party's Kisan wing chief.
Former CM Charanjit Channi has been abroad for the most part.
While the Warring-Bajwa arrangement may have helped the Congress survive for now, it doesn't represent any new idea or plan for Punjab.
Warring and Ludhiana MP Ravneet Bittu, in fact, seem to be recycling an old strategy of the Congress of focussing mainly on security and trying to consolidate the Hindu minority of the state.
Bajwa is efficient in highlighting AAP's alleged failures but beyond a point can't help the Congress grow.
The only exception to this is Sukhpal Singh Khaira, who takes a pro-Punjab, pro-Sikh position even to the extent of going beyond the party line.
For instance he called for restraint during the recent crackdown on Amritpal Singh, even as his party's state leadership supported the operation.
But Khaira too, has a limitation. He is seen as way too pro-Panthic in a party that is anything but that. Party insiders also say that Khaira's posturing may be suitable for his seat Bholath, known to be a Panthic seat, and not in line with the Congress' social coalition which is greatly dependent on Hindu, Ravidasi and Ad-dharmi votes.
Some feel that Navjot Sidhu could give the Congress something extra. Unlike Khaira who comes from an Akali family, Sidhu is not traditionally a Panthic politician, having been only in Congress and BJP.
However, he won goodwill among devout Sikhs with the key role he played in the opening up of the Kartarpur Corridor.
Subsequently, he also became one of the most vocal leaders demanding action against those guilty in the 2015 sacrilege cases.
On the other hand, Sidhu is also known to practice many Hindu rituals and is a devotee of Mata Vaishno Devi.
Then despite his incarceration, Sidhu has a clean image. He has been accused of shooting off his mouth and being arrogant, but never of corruption.
He also speaks of a plan for Punjab and about its pressing challenges like the debt burden.
If handled correctly and weaned out of his idiosyncrasies, Sidhu could be a leader in the Punjab Congress who can grab the attention of voters.
Why Fighting 2024 Lok Sabha Polls is the Best Option for Sidhu
Captain Amarinder Singh had been sidelined in the Congress but once again grabbed the centrestage after he defeated BJP's Arun Jaitley in Amritsar in the middle of the 2014 Modi wave.
If Sidhu wants to have a shot at the CM's chair in 2027, he needs to repeat what Captain did.
There's no way the party is making him Punjab Congress chief again in the near future. Any central position isn't likely to interest Sidhu beyond a point. This leaves only one possibility - fighting the Lok Sabha elections.
Finding the right seat for Sidhu will be an interesting experiment. One seat may be most suitable but let's go through a process of elimination.
Sidhu's seat Amritsar is already represented by Gurjeet Aujla, who may not be keen on making way for Sidhu.
The same may hold true for the neigbouring seat of Khadoor Sahib, whose MP Jasbir Singh Dimpa has patched up with the party after a brief sulk.
Ravneet Bittu in Ludhiana is well entrenched in the constituency so no question of replacing him. Three seats - Fatehgarh Sahib, Jalandhar and Faridkot - are non-options, being SC reserved seats.
Among Congress-held seats, that leaves Anandpur Sahib (held by Manish Tewari) and Patiala (held by Preneet Kaur).
Patiala may be tempting, given that Sidhu is originally from here. But organisationally, Congress is struggling here. They had to bypass the district during Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra, just due to organisational constraints.
Though not ideal in terms of demography, Anandpur Sahib is an option but would largely depend on what the party leadership's equation is with Manish Tewari.
Then there are five seats which the Congress lost, of which four are unreserved - Sangrur, Bathinda, Ferozepur and Gurdaspur.
Sangrur is likely to be a battle between AAP and SAD-Amritsar's Simranjit Mann.
Bathinda may end up being between AAP and SAD-Badal's Harsimrat Kaur.
Ferozepur could also have the same problem but it may be tempting for Sidhu to take on one of his prime targets - Sukhbir Badal. However, Congress has zero MLAs in Ferozepur. Therefore it will be a difficult seat.
The best option for Sidhu may be Gurdaspur. Here's why.
Six out of nine Assembly segments in Gurdaspur have Congress MLAs.
The present MP - actor Sunny Deol of the BJP - is hugely unpopular and will be replaced. AAP doesn't have a strong face in the seat.
It is also symbolic that the Kartarpur Sahib corridor - Sidhu's biggest achievement as a politician - begins from Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur.
The only question is if Congress would be open to a Sikh candidate from the seat. Six out of the past seven elections have been won by Hindu candidates in the seat.
This, however, is a later step. First, there are more immediate challenges for Sidhu.
In the weeks to come, the challenge for Sidhu would be to navigate what is a changed political landscape in Punjab. His first visit is to meet the parents of Sidhu Moose Wala in his village. Justice for Moose Wala is an issue having broad consensus in Punjab.
The more tricky question for Sidhu would be what's his stand going to be on the ongoing crackdown in Punjab and on Amritpal Singh? Will he tilt more towards Bittu-Warring's pro-national security line or Khaira's pro-Panthic line?
Sidhu has been out of sight, out of mind not just for the public and media but also party workers. It will take some time for him to get back his bearings.