Speculations over the political fate of cricketer-turned-commentator and a comedy show judge-turned-politician, Navjot Singh Sidhu, had been doing the rounds for over two years, ever since he had declared himself out of the race for seeking re-election to Lok Sabha from Amritsar.
His running battle with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the coalition partner of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Punjab, and dim prospects in the Modi government at the Centre could have triggered his decision to look for other options. He has always liked to hog the limelight and his latest decision to quit Rajya Sabha is bound to create waves.
What Triggered Sidhu’s Exit?
The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and its stellar performance in Delhi, followed by an impressive debut in Punjab winning all its four Lok Sabha seats had added grist to the mill that Navjot Singh Sidhu was headed for the new party. AAP, desperate for a face to lead its campaign for the Assembly elections due in Punjab, had been assiduously cultivating him. Therefore it did come a shocker to everyone concerned when Sidhu accepted a nomination to the Rajya Sabha a couple of months ago.
The expectation then was that the BJP, in its bid to keep him away from leading the AAP in Punjab, had offered him a Rajya Sabha seat to be rehabilitated later in the union ministry. This, however, did not happen during the recent ministry expansion and reshuffle. In fact, no new minister was taken from Punjab, which is going to polls in February next. Instead, another Sikh – SS Ahluwalia, who is from West Bengal – was included in the ministry, effectively ending Sidhu’s prospects.
This could be the trigger behind Sidhu resigning from the Upper House but the build up to the decision had been in the works for quite some time.
After winning the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat three times in a row, Sidhu had been expecting handsome rewards. However, his running battle of supremacy with Minister Bikram Singh Majithia ensured that he was kept in an embarrassing situation. Majithia is the brother of Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal and brother-in-law of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Majithia considers himself the Lord of Majha region, of which Amritsar is an important part. He and Sidhu had not being seeing eye-to-eye and Sidhu had developed an aversion for the Akalis.
So much so that he publicly declared that he would neither contest elections nor participate in any campaign till the BJP parted ways with the SAD. Accordingly, he had made known that he would not contest the Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar. Majithia and the Akalis, very sure of their capability in the area, advised Arun Jaitley to contest Lok Sabha elections from the constituency and assured him victory even if he did not visit the area. As it turned out, the Congress put up an ace with former Chief Minister and popular leader Captain Amarinder Singh, who trounced him.
Mr or Mrs Sidhu, Who Will be Face of AAP in Punjab?
The BJP, aware of the popularity of Sidhu and the attempts by the AAP to woo him, had been trying to keep him in good humour. His MLA wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu was made Chief Parliamentary Secretary, a post equivalent in status to a minister of state in the Badal government. However, she too has remained highly critical of the Badals and had often been speaking on behalf of Sidhu while he himself had been maintaining a stoic silence.
With his running battle with the Akalis in the state and closure of prospects at the Centre, Sidhu evidently found himself in a limbo. AAP, which had been eagerly looking for a face in Punjab – believed to be its biggest handicap – found Sidhu with his ‘clean record’ an ideal candidate.
The question that is still being debated is whether he or his wife would contest he assembly election given the AAP declaration that only one member of any family can contest elections. Sidhu can campaign across the state while his wife contests the election or it could be vice versa.
Skeletons in Sidhu’s Cupboard
Sidhu’s entry into the political scenario in Punjab has certainly changed the dynamics in the state elections, with the AAP plugging its weakest link.
But his political opponents are not likely to take things lying down. Akalis are ready with a dossier against him. They are set to look for skeletons in his cupboard. One of the issues that he shall have to answer is a murder case against him. He was convicted in a case of murder emerging out of road rage and his appeal is now pending before the Supreme Court. The political rivals are also likely to point out his poor track record in Lok Sabha and failure to utilise his MPLAD funds effectively.
Whatever his role in AAP and the final outcome of the three cornered elections, his entry into the fray can neither be ignored nor dismissed by his political rivals. Much would depend on how he effectively counters the allegations by the Akalis and the Congress, but he is bound to be a major factor influencing the final result.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Chandigarh)