Punjab Cong leaders wary as Sidhu takes fresh guard

While many write Sidhu off for his mercurial nature and for ‘playing into the hands’ of his errant advisors, one cannot ignore the potential he has to turn things around for himself and for the party in Punjab. Will the party high command repose faith in him? A report by Aayush Goel

While Punjab hangs in a political vacuum, senior Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu has walked out of jail holding a placard of  “right intention for Punjab and Punjabiyat.” Sidhu has made a re-entry when AAP government’s credibility is taking a daily hit while Congress, Akali Dal and BJP continue to struggle to recover from their electoral losses. 

AAP had bagged 92 of Punjab’s 117 assembly seats in the polls held last year, decimating traditional parties such as Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP in the process. Though it’s a perfect timing for his second innings but with the state scenario having changed completely, everybody wonders – Is Sidhu still relevant? Though he has been away just for 10 months but they have proved to be a long time both for Sidhu and the state’s political scenario. This has been an eventful period for the state which saw  Sidhu Moose Wala’s assassination, AAP’s defeat and Simranjit Singh Mann’s victory in the Sangrur Lok Sabha by-poll, former CM Capt Amarinder Singh switching sides with BJP,  Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, Zira Morcha, the rise of Amritpal Singh and the subsequent crackdown against him, while Sidhu was away. The man who ruled headlines in 2021 was out of sight and out of mind all this while. 

And now when he returns, he faces an acid test both within his party lines and outside. While many write him off for alleged mercurial behaviour, instances of indiscipline, ego tussles and army of errant advisors, one cannot turn blind eye to the potential he has to turn things around for himself. For the unversed, Sidhu was the first and probably most successful political detractor of the mighty Badals of Shiromani Akali Dal. The man dethroned ‘Raja sahib,’ as the former Congress leader and Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh is fondly called. 

He became a leader of masses by putting forward a Punjab-centric agenda and raising people’s hope. Sidhu’s 13-point ‘Punjab Model’, which he had posted on Twitter in the run up to the assembly polls, focused on governance reforms, income generation, women’s empowerment, healthcare, teacher’s issues, industry, law and order, entrepreneurship, digital governance, environment, farmer’s issues and social issues, including NRIs’ welfare. But he was rejected and lost to AAP’s Jeevanjyot Kaur from the Amritsar East assembly seat.

Has he turned over a leaf?

As Sidhu’s son talked about the introspection and meditation his father did in prison, everybody waited with baited breath glued to TV for the 2.0 version of Sidhu. He walked out after hours of delay. He appeared different having lost oodles of weight and restyled his mustache but the moment he spoke, one knew nothing had changed in intent or intensity. Back with his signature stinging linguistic treasure, Sidhu lashed out at the BJP and Bhagwant Mann-led AAP government. Calling PM Narender Modi a dictator, Sidhu said India’s democracy was ‘in shackles’ and he was destroying the state’s harmony to ‘impose President’s Rule in Punjab’. Though cautious not to make any controversial statement about Amritpal, he said that the tensions triggered by the provocative utterances of the Waris Punjab De chief were a BJP ploy to polarise voters. Lashing out at CM Bhagwant Mann for being a dummy, CM Sidhu said he had befooled people. “You sold dreams which turned out to be a flop. You are a CM only on paper who is seen in the media. I say to both Modi and Mann, if you weaken Punjab, you will face consequences,” he said at a media interaction.

Cold shouldered

While he is training guns at BJP and AAP but it’s not they but Congress leaders who have put their guards up against him and even opposition feel he is their problem. “Nope, Sidhu is no challenge to us but to his own party and it is evident from their cold response to his return. Whatever he says is a desperate attempt to gather media attention. He has been out of sight all this while, so he has no idea what the government has achieved. He has no major political achievement as MP or legislator or PPCC chief. He is just a one man show. He has created troubles for every party he joined. We have nothing to worry,” says AAP chief spokesperson Malwinder Singh Kang while talking to Tehelka. 

The words seem to be true as the party unit in Punjab is giving a muted response to Sidhu’s release from jail. No big party leader was seen outside jail or even talking about his releases. Sources claimed that Congress Party Chief Raja Warring who replaced him had to be pushed to put out an official tweet. He has been casual and disinterested in talking about him. Party leaders are yet to work out a way to deal with the return of its former Punjab unit chief just a year before the next Lok Sabha election. 

Many blame him for the party’s humiliating defeat in previous state elections owing to his alleged temper tantrums and unbridled political ambitions to be a CM. The party leaders blame Channi Sidhu fall-out for their defeat.  Sidhu was appointed Punjab Congress president ahead of last year’s assembly elections and the party gave in to his request to remove Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister. Singh had then left Congress to form own party, which later aligned with the BJP. He was eventually inducted in the BJP. 

While Sidhu expected to see himself as CM, Rahul Gandhi chose Charanjit Singh Channi as Dalit poster boy which rattled Sidhu and the party headed for an internal war. Amidst the crisis congress won only 18 seats out of 117 while AAP rose to power with 92 seats. Former Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa says, “We have been doomed even before 2022 and trying to pull things together. We don’t want more trouble by giving reins to him or listening to him”. When contacted, senior party leader and LoP Pratap Singh Bajwa refuses to even talk about him. “I have nothing to say about Sidhu or his kind of politics,” he says. “He is not a party man but has a compulsive urge to show his proximity to Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Everywhere he went it was the same. He was self-centred and that’s what ruined Punjab congress. We are scared and can’t trust him. He is not a team player, ” said a senior Congress party office bearer. Despite these reservations that many in the Congress have against Sidhu, the party is abuzz with reports that a prominent role in the party is in offing for him. 

Political experts feel that giving him an important position is inevitable as Congress in Punjab has been hollowed out by the BJP, which has attracted within its fold over a dozen former Congress stalwarts – including former CM Captain Amarinder Singh and former Punjab Congress President Sunil Jakhar apart from several former Congress MLA’s.

Sidhu on a meeting spree

“You can jail me, intimidate me, block all my financial accounts but my commitment for Punjab and my leaders will neither flinch nor back an inch,” Sidhu said on social media while posting a picture of him with Rahul and Priyanka.

Unfazed by the response from his state party colleagues or rivals, Sidhu is out and about to get back in the game. Ever since his release he has been on a meeting spree with party high command in New Delhi. The latest meeting has been with party chief Mallikarjun Kharge. Soon after his meeting with the Congress president, Sidhu hailed him saying “credibility thy name is Mallikarjun Kharge”. Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh was also present there. 

He also met Congress General Secretary (Organisation) KC Venugopal, and praised him as a wise man. “A conversation with a wise man is worth months of education…pillar…of strength to the organisation, Wise counsel to the party,” Sidhu tweeted. 

Prior to this, he met former Congress President Rahul Gandhi and General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. He described Rahul as his “mentor” and Priyanka his “friend, philosopher (and) guide”.