Navjot Singh Sidhu Image Credit: PTI

To understand why Navjot Singh Sidhu has resigned as the chief of the Congress party in Punjab, we have to understand who he is politically in Punjab.

Sidhu is one of those few rare politicians who moved from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the floundering Congress party. The traffic is usually the other way round.

A successful cricketer in his time, he retired from the pitch in 1999. By 2001, he became a popular cricket commentator, grabbing attention for his unique one-liners that came to be known as “Sidhuisms”. This made him a suitable choice for trite comedy TV — he was soon a judge on comedy reality shows and even participated in Bigg Boss.

The comedy career gave Siddhu a flippant image which makes people outside Punjab wonder how he could be taken seriously as a politician.

Sidhu joined the BJP in 2004. The BJP was, until recently, an ally of Punjab’s Sikh-led party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, or SAD. In other words, Sidhu was a member of the Akali-BJP alliance that ruled Punjab from 2007 to 2017. In these ten years, the SAD became hugely unpopular for alleged corruption, mass availability of narcotics, and the usual economic issues of industries, farmers, and youth.

In this time, Sidhu quietly positioned himself as a champion of the people’s aspirations. The guy who would speak up about what the people felt. The leader who felt unencumbered by party affiliation in calling a spade a spade. This image he still has, though the extent of his popularity as of today could be a matter of debate.

When Sidhu was the X factor

Despite being nominated to the upper house of the Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, by the BJP, Sidhu quit in 2017 to join the Congress before the assembly election.

This was an election where the newbie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was pitching itself as the fresh outsider representing the common man, taking on the established political elites, clubbing Congress and SAD and BJP together as part of the problem. In such a chessboard, Sidhu would have been a perfect fit. If the AAP had taken Sidhu and declared him as their chief ministerial candidate, they would have swept the election.

But the AAP’s insecure leader Arvind Kejriwal wanted to win the election in his own name and did not want to create a regional satrap who could challenge Kejriwal’s authority. Sidhu joined Congress, making Captain Amarinder Singh’s victory much easier.

Captain Amarinder Singh became chief minister and did not get along with an ambitious Sidhu. He quit as a minister in the Captain’s cabinet in 2019. This wise decision has helped him retain the image of the people’s rebel who refuses to enter into a Faustian bargain with power.

The sacrilege cases

One of the issues that made the SAD government extremely unpopular was the “sacrilege” cases. This refers to three incidents in 2015. A “Saroop” or original copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest book of the Sikhs which is kept at the centre of any Gurudwara, was stolen from a village in Faridkot district in June 2015.

In Sikh religious politics this was an earthquake. That wasn’t all. Posters came up with blasphemous words, threats, and challenges to find the stolen holy book. Torn pages were discovered a few days later.

Huge protests erupted in Punjab. On two incidents, the police fired at the protesters. In the second such incident, two people died.

The SAD government was accused by political opponents of being responsible for these incidents, and for doing precious little to bring the culprits to justice.

By 2021, chief minister Amarinder Singh had become unpopular, accused of not doing much with the opportunity given to him. Among the things he’s accused of not doing, is not being able to bring closure to the sacrilege cases.

Retired hurt

Since Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi are not known to be fond of Amarinder Singh, they found the right opportunity to show the 79-year-old Captain his place. Sidhu was made party chief and before Captain could swallow the insult, he was ousted.

The Congress played well at this point, giving Punjab its first Dalit chief minister in Charanjit Singh Channi. This was a smart move, as the Congress could do with some new Dalit voters to make up for the loss of votes to the general unhappiness with the indifferent government it ran.

As party chief, Navjot Singh Sidhu wasn’t too perturbed by Channi as CM. Sidhu thought this was the perfect opportunity for him to launch a campaign projecting himself as the new messiah who would take on the issues of drugs, corruption, the sacrilege cases, and generally not be afraid of unleashing the long arm of the law on the Akalis. Captain was seen to be too soft on the Akalis.

Three bad appointments spooled the Sidhu narrative

So far so good. But CM Channi made three appointments that absolutely nobody in his party is able to defend. These three appointments make it difficult for Sidhu to do the kind of campaign he was planning.

The first was the elevation of a corruption-tainted MLA as minister, namely Rana Gurjeet Singh. It is bad enough that Channi did not induct Sidhu’s favourites. But this was adding insult to injury.

The second was the appointment of lawyer APS Deol as the Advocate General of Punjab. Deol has defended Sumedh Singh Saini in court. Saini was the Director General of Punjab Police when the police fired on anti-sacrilege protesters.

He was in jail in another case and recently got bail. So strong are Sikh sentiments on this issue that making APS Deol the Advocate General is being projected by some as proof of the Congress being in bed with those responsible for the sacrilege cases.

The third is the appointment of Iqbal Singh Sahota as the new Director General of Punjab Police. Sahota headed a Special Investigation Team on the sacrilege issue in 2015, and allegedly gave a “clean chit” to the then Akali government and the police.

Sidhu is right in arguing that these three appointments make it difficult for him to run a campaign that promises to be pro-people. Please note that Sidhu is not the only one criticising these three appointments.

All opposition parties have criticised them too, and no Congress leader of any faction or stature is able to defend them. This is what Sidhu meant when he wrote in his resignation letter, “The collapse of a man’s character stems from the compromise corner.” These are the compromises Sidhu was unwilling to make.

In a video Sidhu has put out, he has said (rough translation), “People who gave a clean chit to the accused in the sacrilege cases have been rewarded. One who got bail for an accused is now Advocate General. Those who took away children of Punjab’s mothers have been rewarded. There’s a nexus of tainted leaders and officers. You can’t change the system by bringing back the same people.”

In this case, Sidhu’s objections make sense not only from his own perspective but also that of the Congress party.

Sidhu vs Channi

Beyond these three appointments, Sidhu can’t also be happy about the appointment of SS Randhawa as deputy chief minister with the Home portfolio. Sidhu sees Randhawa as a rival as both belong to the same dominant Jatt Sikh community.

Meanwhile, chief minister Channi, with just five months to warm his chair, is projecting himself as a leader of the common man, as opposed to the inaccessible princeling the Captain was. Punjab has 33% Dalit voters who are unable to find a political voice in a Jatt Sikh-dominated state.

It is possible that Sidhu also fears Channi becoming too big for his boots, and staying on as chief minister, should the Congress win the election in March 2022.

Sidhu could well say — assume the worst about me, but what about the facts of these tainted appointments? It is now for the Gandhi family to answer that very relevant question.