The Navjot Sidhu riddle Congress needs to tackle in troubled Punjab

The Navjot Sidhu riddle Congress needs to tackle in troubled Punjab

Seven weeks ahead of the completion of his year-long jail term in a 1988 road rage case, Navjot Singh Sidhu walked out of Patiala Central Jail, on Saturday (April 1), all guns blazing against the ruling BJP at the Centre and Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann, while asserting that his political loyalty remains with disqualified Congress MP Rahul Gandhi.

Yet, by all accounts, it isn’t the cricketer-turned-politician’s rivals from the BJP or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), who seem concerned about Sidhu’s next moves but those from within his own party, the Congress.

The former Amritsar lawmaker’s release from prison comes at a time when Punjab, whose stability and prosperity Sidhu has been a trenchant votary of, is caught in an unsettling political and social flux. A worrying resurgence of pro-Khalistan sentiments – evidenced in the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll victory of Sikh hardliner Simranjit Singh Mann last year and now in the ongoing manhunt for Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh – have reignited fears that Punjab may be sliding back in time to the militancy years of the 1980s.

Punjab’s political vacuum

The Bhagwant Mann government’s bumbling response to the challenges facing Punjab, particularly on the law and order front, and the fast-gaining perception that the CM has ceded his autonomy on running affairs of the state to his party boss Arvind Kejriwal has, per various political commentators, substantially eroded the electorate’s confidence in AAP within a year of the party registering its unprecedented assembly poll victory.

The AAP had bagged 92 of Punjab’s 117 Assembly seats in the polls held last March, decimating legacy parties such as the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP.

Also read: A road rage episode that caught up with Navjot Singh Sidhu

A year later, with the AAP’s credibility taking a hit while the Congress, Akali Dal as well as the BJP continue to struggle to recoup from their electoral losses, Punjab hangs in a political vacuum.

“The scale of mandate that AAP had won last year and the manner in which all traditionally entrenched leaders were routed showed the extent of frustration across Punjab against its political leadership. With AAP’s governance proving to be even worse than that of the previous governments, that frustration is now being taken advantage of by radical elements like Simranjit Mann and Amritpal Singh. When people lose faith in the political class, be it those in power or in the Opposition, they begin to look at more radical options for solutions…this is always an ominous sign of even more disturbing times to come,” former AAP MLA and veteran journalist Kanwar Sandhu told The Federal.

A changed man?

It is in this backdrop that Sidhu, whose unvarnished projection of himself as the sole warrior for the progress of Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiyat had often made him a divisive political figure even among his peers in the Congress, has now walked free from Patiala jail.

In the hours preceding his release from prison, while hundreds of his supporters as well as a section of senior Congress leaders such as Amritsar MP Gurjeet Aujla, MLA Pargat Singh, Ashwani Sekhri, Lal Singh, Mohinder Singh Kaypee and Shamsher Singh Dullo waited patiently outside the jail to welcome Sidhu, the mercurial leader’s son, Karan Sidhu, told reporters that the imprisonment of 10 months had given his father plenty of time for “meditation and introspection”.

Karan said the Sidhu who would walk out of Patiala jail would be a “changed man” from the one his supporters had, so far, known.

However, when Sidhu finally came out of jail – he was to be released at around noon but was finally let out shortly before 6 pm – it seemed like the son had misread his mercurial father’s mood and intent. In his characteristic style of attacking rivals with a stinging linguistic flourish, Sidhu scorched the BJP and Bhagwant Mann with his comments.

Also read: Navjot Sidhu released from Patiala jail; takes potshots at Centre, AAP

‘Nefarious conspiracy afoot’

In a barely-veiled swipe at “dictator” Narendra Modi, Sidhu said India’s democracy was “in shackles” while alleging that a nefarious conspiracy was afoot to “impose President’s Rule in Punjab”.

Though he did not speak directly about Amritpal Singh, asserting that he would speak about Punjab’s law and order situation at length after meeting the family of slain singer and Congress politician Sidhu Moosewala, Sidhu indicated that in his view, the tensions triggered by the provocative utterances of the Waris Punjab De chief were a BJP ploy. “Where Hindutva does not work; where the minority community is in a majority – be it Kashmir or Punjab, a fictitious law and order problem is manufactured through non-state actors to polarise voters. Then police action is launched to claim that peace has been restored,” Sidhu said.

The former Amritsar East MLA also took on Bhagwant Mann, though asserting that the CM was his “younger brother”, and Kejriwal. “You (Bhagwant Mann) said so much before forming government; why did you fool the people. You sold dreams which turned out to be flop…you are CM only on paper; you are seen only in newspaper advertisements… I say to both Modi and Mann, if you weaken Punjab, you will face consequences. No government can remain empowered after weakening Punjab,” Sidhu said.

Strident support for Rahul Gandhi

Then came his fulsome praise for Rahul. “Whenever dictatorship came to this country, a revolution also came and today, I say the revolution’s name is Rahul Gandhi…Debate and dissent are essence of this democracy, but attempts are being made to suppress the Opposition’s voice… I stand like a rock with Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and every Congress worker to fight against this oppression”, Sidhu said.

Given how a listless Congress has shown no appetite to reclaim the electoral territory it lost to the AAP a year ago, Sidhu’s voluble attack at the Punjab CM and the Prime Minister, should have been lapped by his party as an indicator of the organisation’s fighting spirit.

Moreover, since the Congress is currently at a crossroads in wake of Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from Lok Sabha and the threat that he may not be able to contest the 2024 general elections, if his conviction in a criminal defamation case isn’t stayed, Sidhu’s strident support for Rahul should have been widely publicised by his party.

Congress party’s muted response 

The muted response from the Congress, particularly in Punjab, to Sidhu’s release from jail and the comments he made, thereafter, expose a nervousness within the party over the imminent return of its former Punjab unit chief to active politics, a year before the next Lok Sabha election.

Also read: Navjot Sidhu to walk out after 10 months of ‘rigorous imprisonment

That there is no love lost between Sidhu and an influential section of party leaders, both in Punjab and nationally, is an open secret. This had played out at great electoral cost to the Congress during last year’s Punjab polls, when Sidhu’s temper tantrums and unbridled political ambitions – especially to become CM – almost single-handedly contributed to his party’s humiliating defeat.

Congress insiders still blame Rahul and Priyanka for the morass that the party sank into months before the Punjab election, when the duo first emboldened Sidhu to rebel against CM Amarinder Singh but only to eventually deny Sidhu the chief ministerial chair when Amarinder was booted out of office and replaced by Charanjit Singh Channi.

What followed in the run up to the Assembly poll was a skirmish between Channi, who Rahul wanted to turn into the Congress’s newest posterboy for Dalit empowerment, former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar or some other party leader on one side and Sidhu on the other.

The statements Sidhu made upon his release from prison make it clear that he plans to jump right back into the rough and tumble of politics despite his wife, former MLA Navjot Kaur Sidhu, currently battling an invasive cancer.

This hasn’t enthused Sidhu’s detractors within the party. Congress sources told The Federal that the party’s Punjab unit chief, Amarinder Singh Raja Warring – a Rahul appointee who replaced Sidhu after the Congress’ Punjab defeat – had to practically be forced into putting out a perfunctory tweet welcoming Sidhu’s release from jail.

This wariness against Sidhu, a senior party leader told The Federal, is largely on account of “Sidhu’s inability to work as a team player, his stubborn attitude and tantrums and his compulsive behaviour of showing off his proximity to Rahul and Priyanka, while giving no respect to any other party colleague, senior or junior”.

Back in the political game

Despite these reservations that many in the Congress have against Sidhu, what seems to be a united view also is that as a prominent Sidhu detractor and former minister in the Amarinder and Channi cabinets told The Federal – that “his commitment to Punjab is genuine and he has a support base across the state that can still be used to revive the Congress”.

The party’s Punjab unit is currently abuzz with rumours that Rahul and Priyanka, despite being unhappy with Sidhu’s antics during the Punjab poll campaign, want to rope in the unpredictable leader for a prominent role in the party.

The Congress, in Punjab, has been hollowed out by the BJP, which has attracted within its fold over a dozen former Congress stalwarts – including Amarinder Singh and Sunil Jakhar.

It has also been proved that the faith Rahul showed in Channi – both as a leader who could yield incremental votes for the party from the Dalit community within and outside Punjab and as a colleague, who would repay the favour of being made CM through a strident display of loyalty to the party and its first family – was highly misplaced.

For months following the Punjab rout, Channi sequestered himself abroad. He didn’t even speak out when Rahul and former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi were being summoned for days by the Enforcement Directorate for questioning in the National Herald case. Though he did make a fleeting guest appearance when Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra entered Punjab, Channi has largely refrained from making any strident displays of loyalty to the Congress and the Gandhi family.

The other leaders the party handpicked to stabilise the Congress’s sinking ship in Punjab – Raja Warring and leader of Opposition Partap Singh Bajwa, both Rahul confidants – too have failed to yield the desired results. The dire straits that the Congress finds itself in in Punjab are bound to allow Sidhu, still popular among the masses and just as vocal as before, to imply – overtly and tacitly – that Rahul, Priyanka and party chief Mallikarjun Kharge should trust him over others to script a Congress revival in Punjab.

That any such suggestion by Sidhu would be resisted by his Punjab Congress peers is a given. How the Congress’s central leadership responds to this new Sidhu riddle could, however, very well determine the party’s immediate political future in the only north Indian state that had, in 2019, ducked the Modi wave to overwhelmingly vote for Grand Old Party.

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