Navjot Singh Sidhu Image Credit: PTI

Travelling in and around Amritsar last week, I discussed the upcoming Punjab assembly election with a cross-section of voters. Let’s cut to the chase and be honest: in my assessment, as of now, the Aam Aadmi Party is comfortably winning the state. The Congress has a few weeks to work some wonders.

As part of these conversations I asked people what they thought of top Punjab politicians. Captain Amarinder Singh, Sukhbir Badal, Bhagwant Mann, and the latest entrant into the top league, Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi.

They were unhappy with Captain. They were OK with the idea of Bhagwant Mann as chief minister despite allegations of alcoholism. As for the Badals of the Akali Dal, all their past sins are forgotten except one: the sacrilege incidents and the subsequent police firing on protesters.

The name of Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, the state’s first Dalit chief minister, lit up the faces of Dalit respondents across Dalit sub-castes. His appeal seems to be not just on account of caste but also class, the poor are impressed with his rags to riches story. He is the Aam Aadmi, the common man.

Comic relief

But when I would ask about Navjot Singh Sidhu, many would start laughing. This happened not once or twice but several times in both rural and urban areas. In 15 years of being a professional election tourist, I have never seen a leader elicit such a reaction.

The common complaint was: we never know where Sidhu stands. “Even a bicycle has a stand,” said one voter, “Sidhu has no stand.”

This image is in large part because of his recent “resignation” from the post of president of the Punjab Congress. He won this coveted post in July. By the end of September, he said he was resigning.

This move seems to have gone down poorly with voters, even though Sidhu said he was resigning because the new Chief Minister had made poor appointments that made people question the Congress’ commitment to bringing justice to sacrilege cases and to probity in public life.

The Congress is currently considering whether it should accept or reject his resignation. It’s been over two weeks and the matter hangs in the air, typical of the Congress.

CVoter, an election surveyor, did a poll in September and found that 20% respondents wanted Sidhu as chief minister. They conducted another poll after Sidhu’s ‘resignation’ and found that only 7% wanted him as CM. His loss was CM Channi’s gain, who now has 20% respondents wanting to see him as CM again.

The rebel in power

Why didn’t people like Sidhu’s resignation? After all, he said he wasn’t going to compromise on issues of public interest. Such sacrifice should be lauded by voters. Instead they are laughing at him.

The problem is not just a perceived inconsistency — the cycle without a stand — but Sidhu’s inability to mature as a leader. The cricketer-turned-politician positioned himself as the enfant terrible of Punjab politics when he took on the Akalis while being a member of the BJP, an Akali ally.

But he has continued to be the agent provocateur, the anti-establishment David taking on all the Goliaths single-handedly, even after joining the Congress party.

Some voters explained to me the problem with this: as a leader of the ruling party, he is expected to get things delivered, not to keep criticising his own party. In other words, Sidhu needed to grow into the role of a responsible leader of the establishment.

First he fought with Captain Amarinder Singh and left his cabinet after two years of being a minister. Then he positioned himself against Captain. He was eventually made party chief. When Congress replaced Amarinder Singh with Charanjit Channi, Sidhu said he’s resigning. Every move of his comes across as desperation to become chief minister. My way or the highway.

When Sidhu made Kejriwal’s mistake

Ironically, Sidhu today is in the same boat as Arvind Kejriwal found himself in 2014. After becoming Chief Minister of Delhi, he continued taking to the streets and being an agitationist against the central government. After 49 days of being chief minister, he resigned. He said he was resigning because the Centre wouldn’t allow his laws, but everyone could see the real reason was to chase more power, fighting the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

To overcome this blunder, Kejriwal had to repeatedly apologise to Delhi’s voters. That’s how he won 67 of 70 seats in the 2015 Delhi assembly elections.

In Punjab today, Sidhu’s angry young man image goes very well with the Aam Aadmi Party. There is thus a lot of speculation that he could go to AAP as their CM face. That’s highly unlikely since Arvind Kejriwal cannot take the risk of any mass leader becoming the Chief Minister of Punjab and questioning Kejriwal’s authority over the Punjab unit of AAP.

Yet the speculation over Sidhu and AAP hurts his image. People expect him to do it because he is seen as, well, a cycle without a stand.

A cat has nine lives

This is not to say Sidhu has nothing going for him. He has some charisma, is seen as being honest (no corruption allegations yet), equally woos Hindu voters while championing Sikh causes.

Sidhu can still reinvent himself, but in the upcoming elections his “resignation” self-goal may cost him dear.