A dramatic stroke that cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu played on Monday by resigning from the Rajya Sabha has a potential to turn the political pitch in poll-bound Punjab.
His exit from the Upper House, in less than three months of being nominated by the Narendra Modi government, is sudden. But, it’s not entirely unexpected, considering how Sidhu found himself hitting a political cul-de-sac in the saffron party that had launched his political innings and sent him to the Lok Sabha thrice from Amritsar. More than his estrangement with BJP, it was an alluring Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that hastened his rupture from the mother party. The stage is now set for a formal announcement of his most ambitious gambit as the spearhead of the AAP’s race for power in Punjab.
Having struck a behind-the-scenes deal with the AAP in the last couple of weeks, Sidhu chose the timing of his switch shrewdly. He resigned on the very first day of the monsoon session of Parliament, leaving the BJP red-faced.
The symbolism in his move was also not lost on political pundits, as it coincided with Arvind Kejriwal’s penance pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. As the news of Sidhu’s exit broke, the AAP, beleaguered by the manifesto fiasco over the 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 a three-horse race in Punjab. The new development portends worries for both the Akali-BJP combine and the Congress. Despite a false bravado in their statements, the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal leaders admit privately that Sidhu has a potential to change the electoral dynamics and dent their prospects.
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,” says a senior Akali leader. A Jat Sikh with moderate moorings, Sidhu (52) 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 built assiduously and aggressively 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,” says a Punjab BJP leader. That’s one USP that the AAP would hope to exploit to the hilt because its entire campaign is centred on attacks against the Badals.
The genesis of Sidhu’s exit lies in his long drawn-out face-off with chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, and revenue minister Bikram Singh Majithia. At the centre of the power games was the supremacy in the Majha politics. With Sidhu playing hardball on the issues of development funds for Amritsar, he fell out quickly with the Badals, who saw him as a rising political star in the constituency , which is the nerve centre of Sikh politics.
To cut Sidhu to size before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Badals persuaded Arun Jaitley to contest from what they had pitched as a cakewalk for the 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, Dr 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 one-person opposition with her ambushes that left the ruling alliance scurrying for cover.
Political observers also count on Sidhu’s blotless political career — which could give firepower to his electoral spiel. Known for his eccentricities and ego trips, Sidhu, however, is not without his blind spots. But, if he follows the script and jumps on to the AAP bandwagon, he will be a man to be watched in the shape-shifting politics of Punjab.