A dramatic stroke that Navjot Singh Sidhu, the cricketer-turned-politician, played on Monday by resigning from the Rajya Sabha has a potential to trigger a seismic shift in the political pitch of poll-bound Punjab.
His exit from the Upper House, in less than three months after being nominated by the Narendra Modi government, is sudden. But not entirely unexpected, considering how Sidhu found himself hitting a political cul-de-sac in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that launched his political innings and sent him to the Lok Sabha thrice from Amritsar.
More than his estrangement with the BJP, it was an alluring Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that hastened his rupture from the saffron party. The stage is now set for a formal announcement on his most ambitious gambit as the spearhead of the AAP’s race for power in Punjab.
Having struck a behind-the-scene deal with the AAP in the last couple of weeks, Sidhu shrewdly chose the timing of his switch. He resigned on the very first day of the monsoon session of Parliament, leaving the BJP red-faced.
The symbolism in his move was not lost on political pundits as it coincided with Arvind Kejriwal’s penance pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. As the news about Sidhu’s exit broke, the AAP - beleaguered by the manifesto fiasco over last two weeks - could barely conceal its glee on the pre-scripted move.
In Sidhu, the AAP sees a prime mover and mascot to take it close to the victory pedestal in the three-horse race in Punjab.
The new developments portend worries for the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP combine and the Congress. Despite a false bravado in their statements, BJP and Akali leaders admit privately that Sidhu has a potential to change the electoral dynamics and dent their prospects in the state.
So, what makes Sidhu an important factor in Punjab? “He has a star value and a sharp political acumen. Both traits make him an uncanny crowd puller,” a senior Akali leader said.
A Jat Sikh with moderate moorings, 52-year-old Sidhu has age on his side. Most crucially, Sidhu represents what the AAP is riding on in Punjab – a deep-seated public disenchantment with traditional political parties and a bubble of hope.
Equally, if not more, crucial are his unquestionable anti-Badal credentials – a reputation he has assiduously and aggressively built by taking the ruling Badal clan head-on. “Sidhu is widely seen as a fighter against the Badals. He wears that on his sleeve as badge of honour,” a Punjab BJP leader said.
That’s one USP which the AAP would hope to exploit to the hilt as its entire campaign is centred on attacks against the Badals.
In fact, the genesis of Sidhu’s exit lies in his long drawn-out face-off with chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, his son and deputy Sukhbir Singh Badal and revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia. At the centre of the power games were the supremacy in the Majha politics.
With Sidhu playing hardball on issues of development funds for Amritsar, he quickly fell out with the Badals, who saw him a rising political star in the constituency at the nerve centre of Sikh politics.
It’s an open secret that the Badals plotted the move to cut Sidhu to size before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and managed to persuade Arun Jaitley to contest from what they had pitched as a cakewalk for the senior BJP leader. That also soured Sidhu’s ties with the BJP beyond mend.
Though Sidhu self-exiled himself from Amritsar and went into a silent mode, his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu, BJP MLA and chief parliamentary secretary has been a thorn in the flesh for the ruling alliance. Outspoken and acerbic, she has been a one-person opposition with her ambushes that have left the ruling alliance scurrying for cover.
Political observers also count on Sidhu’s clean political career – a tag that could lend much firepower to his electoral spiel. Known for his eccentric and ego trips, Sidhu, however, is not without his blind spots.
But, if he follows the script and jumps onto the AAP bandwagon, Sidhu will be a man to be watched in the shape-shifting politics in the run-up to the assembly elections in Punjab.