Navjot Singh Sidhu’s cross-border “hug diplomacy” would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful political innings.

Sidhu would now hope that his cross-border “hug diplomacy” would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful political innings. Rest assured, his rivals would be throwing a barrage of bouncers and yorkers his way.

Several of his Congress colleagues now say former India opener Navjot Singh Sidhu is not a team player and that the Punjab minister is trying to out-captain the Captain. The spirited showman – who has also delivered witticism-dripping cricket commentary, judged TV comedy shows, been a Bigg Boss contestant, and also appeared in films – finds himself firmly under the political spotlight and appears to be reveling in it, with his eyes fixed on the “Man of the Match” prize.

Sidhu’s aggressive shot play on the political pitch to project himself as a successor to Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has raised the hackles of people in the party and sparked internal ferment.

Buoyed by his visit to Pakistan for the groundbreaking ceremony of the cross-border Kartarpur Sikh pilgrimage corridor, Sidhu, after returning to India, ostentatiously expressed his faith in his party chief. “My captain is Rahul Gandhi and Captain’s (Amarinder Singh’s) captain is also Rahul Gandhi,” he proclaimed.

The remark drew battle lines within the Congress, and cabinet colleagues even demanded his resignation. Sidhu, who quit the BJP in September 2016 and joined the Congress in January 2017, had disregarded the chief minister’s advice to review his decision to go to Pakistan after getting a personal invitation from Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Trouble mounted for Sidhu when a photograph of him with Khalistani leader Gopal Singh Chawla went viral on social media, and critics called him out for hobnobbing with the militant suspected of involvement in a grenade attack on a religious gathering in Amritsar.

File image of Navjot Singh Sidhu.

Punjab’s rural development and panchayat minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa, revenue and rehabilitation minister Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria and sports minister Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi led the chorus of demands for his resignation. Many other ministers said Sidhu’s remarks were uncalled for and he should apologise to Captain.

The attacks by those who owe allegiance to the chief minister are aimed at keeping the former batsman, whose big-hitting ability earned him the sobriquet Sixer Sidhu, away from any attempts to project himself as the next top leader of the party in Punjab and also to keep them in the Captain’s good graces.

Sidhu’s previous visit to Pakistan in August — when he hugged the country’s army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa (who promised him opening of the Kartarpur corridor) invited much criticism for the minister from rivals. But he also managed to charm many in Punjab’s Sikh community as the route holds massive religious significance for them. The Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur is believed to have been built on the site where Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, died in the 16th century.

Sidhu, as well as state finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal who joined the Congress in 2016 after dissolving his own People’s Party of Punjab, were both seen as potential successors to Captain Amarinder Singh. Badal, who is the paternal cousin of Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal, had disassociated himself from SAD following a rift. He formed the PPP before the 2012 Assembly polls, but the party was not even able to open its account. Manpreet Badal, who was initially in the limelight owing to his reported closeness to Rahul Gandhi, has since lost some of his sheen.

Senior political analyst from Punjab, Jagtar Singh, says while both Sidhu and Badal are in the race, the final pick will be made by Rahul. “Both the leaders have different styles of working and both are close to Rahul. However, if the party wins 8-10 seats in the Lok Sabha polls, out of a total 13, we will not see any change in the leadership before the next Assembly polls,” he said.

Singh said that while Sidhu’s statement had triggered a controversy, he later back-pedaled and professed that Captain was like a father figure to him.

Many Congress leaders including the Member of Parliament from Ludhiana, Ravneet Singh Bittu, erected hoardings stating “Punjab Da Captain Sadda Captain (Punjab’s Captain is our captain)” to take on Sidhu’s statement that his captain was Rahul Gandhi. These attempts were also seen as an outpouring of resentment of those leaders who failed to shape themselves as political heirs to Captain Amarinder Singh and do not want Sidhu to take that place. Sidhu, who would previously visited Ludhiana frequently, cut down on the trips as most of the local MLAs united against him.

Senior Congress leaders in the state are also worried about the appreciation that has come in for Sidhu, even from some political opponents. Veteran Punjab politician Ranjit Singh Brahmpura, who was expelled by SAD in November, said the opening of the Kartarpur corridor was due to the ingenuity of Sidhu and his personal relations with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. “The credit for Kartarpur corridor goes to Sidhu,” said Brahmpura, who floated a new party on 2 December in concert with some other expelled SAD leaders, and plans to put up a new political front in Punjab.

On 3 December, a special resolution was passed in a Punjab cabinet meeting chaired by Captain Amarinder Singh, appreciating the Narendra Modi-led central government for opening of the corridor. Surprisingly, Sidhu, who considers that his hug worked wonders, did not find any mention in this declaration made by his own government.

What is disconcerting for some senior Congress leaders is the fact that Sidhu, despite jumping over from the BJP just ahead of the 2017 Assembly polls, managed to leapfrog many staunch MLAs from the state’s ruling party to bag a cabinet post.

A rival camp of Captain Amarinder Singh within the Congress led by former party state chief Pratap Singh Bajwa has also been applauding Sidhu. Bajwa said Sidhu had gone to Pakistan in his personal capacity and there was no need to criticise him.

Narinder Kumar Dogra, professor in the political science department of Patiala’s Punjabi University, said Sidhu might have got some indications from the party high command because of which he is presenting himself as the successor of Captain Amarinder Singh. “Captain has a good hold on politics in Punjab. As a result, Sidhu is well aware that he can only present himself as his future heir. But he is definitely building the base,” said Dogra.

Sidhu would now hope that his cross-border “hug diplomacy” would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful political innings. Rest assured, his rivals would be throwing a barrage of bouncers and yorkers his way.

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