The politics of brinkmanship may get one loads of media attention but seldom pays off in realpolitik. That's the hard lesson for BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu after his much-touted fast-unto-death plan went awry within hours of his theatrical announcement on taking the 'satyagrah' route to press the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government to accept his demands for a time-bound execution of "stalled" development projects in Amritsar and for return of the funds diverted from the local Improvement Trust's coffers.
On Saturday morning, Sidhu squeamishly called off his "fast-unto-death", flaunting chief minister Parkash Singh Badal's assurances as a fig leaf for his less-than-glorious retreat.
So, what made Sidhu back-off? Or, to put it bluntly, how was Sidhu tamed? The answer lies in a well-calibrated, backroom strategy of threat and tact deployed by both Akali and BJP leaders in tandem, taking the wind out of Sidhu's sails overnight.
In fact, both Akali and BJP top brass have been seized of tactics to rein in Sidhu since he unleashed a political offensive three weeks ago, accusing the Badal government of delaying or derailing his pet projects for development of the constituency that has returned him to Lok Sabha thrice.
Having been "missing" from Amritsar for a good eight months to meet his commercial commitments in cricket and comedy shows, Sidhu latched onto the "discrimination pitch" as his best ploy to counter his detractors, more in the BJP, taunting him for playing truant. Implicit in his no-holds-barred political attack line, tinged with a Sikh religious angle, was also an attempt to resurrect his fallen stock among his constituents.
Hoping to portray himself as a gutsy crusader for the cause of Amritsar, Sidhu went into an overdrive with his anti-Badal tirade that left Akalis fuming and the BJP flummoxed. When the state saffron leaders failed to mollify him, national BJP president Rajnath Singh was forced to play the peacemaker. While the BJP's top-rung leaders managed to assuage the hurt feelings of Akali supremo Parkash Singh Badal and even get him to pro-actively redress the sulking MP's grievances, Sidhu was kept out of the loop in a clear signal that his own party wasn't bemused by his political indiscretions.
But, Sidhu didn't take the hint. In less than a week after the Rajnath-Badal meeting, Sidhu upped the ante with his "fast-unto-death" threat, hoping such dramatic gesture would not only embarrass the ruling SAD-BJP coalition, but would also project him as "a fighter" for the cause of the holy city and thus earn him a groundswell of public support. But, the maverick MP had bitten more than he could chew.
In a slew of counter-moves triggered by his threat, the SAD-BJP government set up firm deadlines for the Amritsar projects and also outlined other development works in the Lok Sabha constituency that Sidhu had never talked about. Piloting the checkmate-Sidhu move was deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal who even roped in state BJP chief Kamal Sharma, local bodies minister Anil Joshi and Amritsar mayor Bakshi Ram Arora. Simultaneously, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal shot off a letter to Sidhu, asserting that the diversion of Amritsar Improvement Trust funds - the centerpiece of the BJP MP's campaign - was legal and an old practice.
With the state BJP leadership firmly on the government side, Sidhu's isolation even within his own party couldn't have been starker. But, it was a tough message from both Rajnath Singh and Shanta Kumar, in charge of Punjab BJP affairs, that forced Sidhu to pipe down. Both counselled Sidhu not to cross the proverbial Lakshman Rekha. "We are more than convinced that our MP has no case at all," said a top BJP leader.
Within hours of his threat, Sidhu's three-week-long charade ended on an anti-climatic note, showing him more as a political stuntman than a mature and pragmatic leader. The showdown has not only diminished his standing within the BJP, it has, more importantly, wrecked his ties with the Shiromani Akali Dal whose support has been crucial in his hat-trick victories to Parliament. In the end, Amritsar may have gained from his latest shenanigans, but Sidhu decidedly is a loser. From now on, Amritsar will be a sticky wicket for him.