Soon after 40 CRPF personnel were killed in a car-bomb in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama on 14 February, right-wingers on social media went after an unlikely target: Punjab minister and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu.
They demanded that Sidhu be sacked from the Punjab Cabinet, in which he’s the minister for tourism and local bodies, as well as from The Kapil Sharma Show that he’s a part of. They even threatened to boycott Sony TV, the channel which airs The Kapil Sharma Show.
They accused Sidhu of being "pro-Pakistan", due to his friendship with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, which went back to their careers as cricketers.
The campaign extended offline as well with the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) demanding his removal from the Cabinet. On Monday, 19 February, they shouted slogans against Sidhu in the Punjab Assembly, even going to the extent of calling him a traitor. This sparked a verbal altercation between Sidhu and Akali Dal MLA Bikram Singh Majithia, who is also the brother-in-law SAD president Sukhbir Badal.
But Sidhu has responded in the manner that he knew best as India's opening batsman: by going on the front-foot. In a series of tweets, he accused the BJP government of incompetence in the fight against terror and questioned the party for not taking measures to protect security personnel in Kashmir.
Rise in Sidhu’s Popularity
Sidhu’s aggression stems from his confidence that the SAD-BJP’s tirade won’t affect his popularity in Punjab. In fact, it may even benefit him.
In the last three months, Sidhu’s popularity has witnessed a steep rise in Punjab. According to the India Today Political Stock Exchange in October 2018, four percent of people wanted him to be the next chief minister of Punjab. This increased to 16 percent in January 2019, a four-fold jump in just three months. According to India Today, this is the biggest rise for any leader in any state in their survey.
In comparison, the popularity of Captain Amarinder Singh, former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, and Sukhbir Bada,l has dipped.
So while English and Hindu TV channels might consider Sidhu a liability for the Congress, the perception in Punjab is, in fact, the opposite. Despite a decline in Captain’s popularity, the satisfaction level with his government has gone up. And the main reason for this is Sidhu.
Kartarpur Sahib Factor And Punjab’s Take On Indo-Pak Ties
The sudden rise in Sidhu's popularity is largely due to his efforts towards the construction of a corridor at Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, where Guru Nanak spent the last days of his life.
Located in Narowal in Pakistan's Punjab province, Kartarpur Sahib is just 3 km away from the Indian border. There has been a long-standing demand from Sikhs in India that a corridor be built providing access to pilgrims from the Indian side without a visa.
Sidhu revived the demand by raising it with Imran Khan and Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Bajwa when he attended the former's swearing-in ceremony. Khan and Bajwa both agreed to the construction of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor. It was a victory for Indian Sikhs – and Sidhu was seen as the hero.
According to India Today's political stock exchange, 42 percent of people in Punjab credit Sidhu for the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, as opposed to 15 percent who give the credit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and 14 percent who attribute it to Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh.
This is unlikely to change after the Pulwama attack. In fact, with Indo-Pak ties worsening, many Sikhs would see Sidhu as the only leader who has the will to save the Kartarpur Sahib corridor from being put on the back-burner.
There's another element to this: Despite having a disproportionately large share among India's armed forces, the people of Punjab are significantly less hawkish when it comes to Pakistan.
This could stem from the cultural affinity with West Punjab as well as the fact that many important Sikh places of worship are in Pakistan, such as Guru Nanak's birthplace Nankana Sahib, Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hassan Abdal, and Kartarpur Sahib. Many Sikhs in Punjab also fear that any deterioration in ties between India and Pakistan would make it difficult for them to go to these places of worship.
This uniqueness of Punjab's position on Pakistan can be seen in the findings of the Lokniti-CSDS survey in December 2016. The survey was conducted less than three months after the terror attack at Uri and the retaliatory surgical strikes by India, and two months before Assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
According to the survey, voters in Punjab were least likely to attach importance to "surgical strikes" as well as "nationalism" as election issues, compared to Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Political analyst Tridivesh Singh Maini, who teaches at the Jindal School of International Affairs, says that Sidhu’s stand is informed by popular opinion in Punjab.
“While certain bigoted ultra-nationalists are hounding Sidhu for his utterances after the Pulwama attack, what he said is not wrong. Coming from a border state and being an MLA from Majha, he knows better than certain armchair commentators the suffering of families who lose their young sons every third day as a result of tensions with Pakistan,” Maini said.
Interestingly, Sidhu was one of the first politicians to visit the families of the CRPF martyrs from Punjab who were killed in the Pulwama attack.
Political Vacuum in Punjab
Sidhu's rise is closely related to the falling popularity of the Badals. This is evident in both the Akali Dal's defeat in Panchayat elections in Punjab, as well as the exit of senior leaders like Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, Rattan Singh Ajnala and Sewa Singh Sekhwan from its the party. The decline of the Akali Dal and the implosion within the Aam Aadmi Party has created a vacuum among Panthic Sikh voters in Punjab, who sense the absence of any credible alternative in the state.
There is immense public anger against the Badals over the Bargari sacrilege incidents and the subsequent police firing at protestors in Behbal Kalan and Kotkapura, during their tenure. And Captain Amarinder Singh is being accused, even by some of his party colleagues, of going soft on the Badals in the sacrilege and firing cases.
The altercation with Majithia may also help Sidhu as the former is disliked by many Punjabis, who accuse him of being involved in the drug racket in the state.
According to senior journalist Jagtar Singh, the Sidhu-Majithia spat in the Punjab Assembly was more about the flak Captain is facing from his own party colleagues, particularly Sidhu and cooperatives minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa.
“The Congress factionalism at the top surfaced as the House was adjourned with both Sidhu and Randhawa saying it was because of (Captain’s) kid glove treatment that encouraged Bikram (Majithia). They had supporters among the MLAs too,” wrote Jagtar Singh.
By championing an important Sikh cause like Kartarpur Sahib, Sidhu has gained some traction among Sikh voters. The smear campaign after the Pulwama attack could have an impact on his centrality as a Congress campaigner in Hindi-speaking states, but his popularity in Punjab is unlikely to fall anytime soon.