Amarinder Singh, Navjot Singh Sidhu
At odds with Punjab CM Amarinder, Navjot Singh Sidhu Image Credit: PTI

Navjot Singh Sidhu walked out of India’s 1996 cricket tour of England citing differences with captain Mohammad Azharuddin. Now retired from cricket, the 57 year old was all set to walk out of the Congress party because of his differences with Captain Amarinder Singh, the powerful Chief Minister of Punjab.

With elections barely seven months away, the Congress party has finally given in to Sidhu’s daily temper tantrums, which would put a two year old to shame, by making him the state chief of the Punjab unit.

The deal comprises of Amarinder Singh, 79, being the party’s face in the upcoming assembly elections and Sidhu as the party chief with four “working presidents” under him. The term “working” has never been as accurate because apart from campaigning, Sidhu can’t really be bothered about the real work that elections entail.

Caste equations of Punjab politics

As both Sidhu and Singh are “Jat Sikhs”, the Congress party has come up a formula that will ensure that a deputy president is a Dalit, another a Hindu (from a total of 4 working presidents) to balance the complex caste equations of Punjab politics.

The opposition Shiromani Akali Dal has also factored the caste equations and entered into an alliance with Mayawati, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Mayawati will contest on 20 assembly seats while the SAD will contest on 97 seats. The alliance was announced last month. Out of 30 million (population of Punjab), nearly one third — 32 per cent are Dalit voters as per the 2011 census.

The Punjab Congress has been plunged in a crisis for more than three months as Sidhu kept up the public display of angry emotion.

One day it was a tweet praising the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for appreciating Sidhu’s talent. Another day it was something else. A turncoat from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Sidhu joined the Congress in 2017 after a long flirtation involving secret meetings with Arvind Kejriwal.

Prashant Kishor — in his then avatar of political consultant — had persuaded Sidhu that the Congress was a better bet.

Harish Rawat, the Congress general secretary in charge of Punjab, was a visibly relieved man as he confirmed the contours of the fresh deal and praised Singh for saying publicly that he would accept anything that interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi wanted him to do.

A bigger platform for Sidhu

Rawat made a point about Sidhu’s ambitions and his need for the large platform that the Congress gave him and asked him to work with Singh.

This comes after the Gandhi family literally had “sessions with Sidhu” to get him to reconsider his public revolt against Singh. Sidhu took full advantage and tweeted picture of his “long meeting” with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who has an apparent soft corner for him. Eventually Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president, also met Sidhu and signalled that the Gandhi family was fighting in his corner.

Effectively the two siblings are now saying they are in charge and will tell the regional satraps what to do. The Gandhi siblings have also signalled that after the upcoming assembly elections, Singh should take voluntary retirement and Sidhu will be his successor.

Singh, who is the only mass leader the Congress is left with in north India, had to make a trip to Delhi to meet the three member committee set up to look into Sidhu’s grievances.

The factors behind the public face-off with Singh was the anti-incumbency he faces because of a series of broken electoral promises including the dire electricity situation in the state. The Congress is betting on the fact that presenting a fresh face — Sidhu — will enable them to wipe the slate clean.

Sidhu has also managed to get quite a few Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and Members of Parliament (MPs) on his side.

When experience collides with ambition 

A Punjab MP told Gulf News, “Amrinder is an ageing lion. He can still roar but, does not have teeth anymore. Politics is a ruthless business. Sidhu is the future of the party. That is what we are telling Punjab.”

Will Singh and Sidhu be able to work together? Extremely unlikely. Sidhu has overweening ambitions yet can’t seem to be consistent with his political job. As a minister in Singh’s government earlier, he insisted on doing his comedy show on television claiming he needed it for his style of living.

Singh went public with his anger when Sidhu made a trip to Pakistan in 2018 for the swearing-in of Imran Khan and famously hugged the Pakistan Army chief, General Bajwa. Sidhu rudely shot back, “which captain? He is a captain of the Army but, my captain is Rahul Gandhi. It is he who sent me to Pakistan.”

Sidhu resigned from Singh’s cabinet after a reshuffle of portfolios in 2019 with the resignation letter addressed to Gandhi.

In private, Singh refers to Sidhu as the “joker in the pack” and sources close to him say it is up to the Gandhi family to ensure that Sidhu does not cost them the Punjab elections. Singh also made it clear to Sonia that he will insist on his way in ticket allocations.

So have the Gandhis solved the Punjab crisis or exacerbated it? 

And what next for the Congress? The Punjab elections are set to become a battle royale as the former Maharaja of Patiala (Amarinder Singh is a former royal from Patiala) squares off against the SAD (besides tackling Sidhu).

In this mix the junior members of the Gandhi family are ready to jump in and revel in disruption. An aggressive Rahul Gandhi (his recent remark: leave the party if you are scared or support the RSS) is part of the same take charge.

Punjab results will show the success or failure of this bold new strategy.