The prospect of cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Sidhu joining the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) set off tremors in the Congress camp, but the party not only betrayed the signs, its Punjab chief Captain Amarinder Singh went ahead and invited him to join the Congress.
As the party waited anxiously for Sidhu’s next move, many state leaders admitted that a sulking Sidhu’s pact with AAP will add a new spin to the game. But it found solace in the conclusion that it will “hurt the ruling Akali-BJP alliance more than the Congress”.
The party that has so far been targeting AAP for not having “any credible CM face from Punjab like Capt Amarinder” may suddenly lose the very slogan to beat it with, in case Sidhu joins the rookie party. Even as announcement of Amarinder’s name as CM candidate is awaited, the AAP may announce Sidhu as its face and the Congress “trump card” may well go unnoticed when finally played.
But party strategists believe not all that creates “media frenzy” works at the ballot box.
“The announcement of Kiran Bedi as Delhi CM candidate by the BJP too created a lot of buzz. But in the elections, the BJP was packed off in three seats. Even as Amritsar MP, Sidhu was called as the ‘missing MP’. If he was so popular, why did he not prove his mettle by contesting from some other seat in Punjab after being denied Amritsar? As a hyper-articulate person, Sidhu has the knack for going overboard. The social media is already buzzing with how he praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and spoke against Arvind Kejriwal,” they said.
Congress leaders contend it is the BJP that should be worrying more as Sidhu was its “only credible Sikh face in Punjab” and the party also needs Sikh votes to win its traditional seats. They say he may even emerge as the rallying point for disgruntled Akalis.
“It is the ruling alliance that needs to worry as Sidhu will slice away Akali-BJP votes. The Congress has no reason to be perturbed. He has been in Punjab politics for 15 long years. If he could harm the Congress, he would have done so by now. The announcement of his resignation hasn’t come as a surprise to us. It was all in the making,” said senior Congress leader Manpreet Badal, once a close friend of Sidhu. When Manpreet had launched the People’s Party of Punjab, there were reports that Sidhu would board his friend’s ship. But Manpreet now says, “He never had the guts to do so.”
Though Amarinder says Sidhu is a “better CM face for Punjab than Delhi CM Kejriwal”, he believes Punjab is no batting pitch for a cricketer. “Playing cricket and being part of comic shows on television is good. But governing a state is a different ballgame,” Amarinder adds.
Many in Congress dub Sidhu as a “maverick politician who is prone to flip-flops”. But they too believe his appeal cuts across sections be it youth, intellectuals and the educated class as no charges have ever come to stick on him. No wonder, the party will be eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court verdict on the road rage case against Sidhu that is expected during the run-up to 2017 polls.
Cong gets think time
The Congress is also taking comfort in the timing of Sidhu’s exit. Senior leaders believe his resignation over an adverse verdict of the Supreme Court on the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal issue would have made him a hero. Having come at a time the AAP was wanting a face-saver in Punjab after the manifesto gaffe, it has given it think time to devise its counter-strategy.
But it will unfold only after the AAP names Sidhu. “Had the AAP played the Sidhu card after Amarinder was named as the Congress CM candidate, it would have been more lethal. The Congress will now put its dice on the table at the right time. It also remains to be seen if at all Kejriwal would name Sidhu as the CM face. What will happen to all the Sucha Singh Chhotepurs, Bhagwant Manns and Sukhpal Khairas in AAP? Will they all work under Sidhu’s command?” party sources wonder.
Hailing from his hometown Patiala, Amarinder will for the first time have a formidable challenger from his home turf, who like him, has pan-Punjab appeal and has represented Amritsar in Majha as an MP. That Sidhu is younger to Amarinder and competes with him in Badal-bashing only makes the challenge more daunting. It may even hit Captain closer home if disgruntled Congressmen and Akalis in Patiala see a common friend in AAP.
The first reaction of Amarinder, who was keen to have the latter on board with him not very long time ago, was that Sidhu would be “just another comedian in the AAP pack”. He, however, decided to hold his horses till the latter’s foray into Arvind Kejriwal’s party was formally announced.
Sources close to him said Amarinder is not sure if Sidhu, whose family has had old ties with the Congress, had decided to hop on to the AAP bandwagon. If he does, it will still take Amarinder — who says he has seen Sidhu growing up and playing cricket in Patiala — and Sidhu time to attack each other as sworn enemies.