POLITICS

Can Sidhu Be The Game Changer For AAP In Punjab?

As the ruling Akali Dal faces strong anti-incumbency, Sidhu is thus well placed to be an anti-Badal face.

19/07/2016 8:01 AM IST | Updated 19/07/2016 8:46 AM IST
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File photo of cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu prays in front of the Golden Temple, after his victory in Amritsar, India, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007.

The Aam Aadmi Party took everyone by surprise yesterday when Navjot Singh Sidhu announced his resignation from the Rajya Sabha. When Sidhu went to the upper house as a nominated member, it was being thought his negotiations with the Aam Aadmi Party were over. In fact, the AAP was very unhappy that Sidhu had used them as a bargaining chip with the BJP to go to the upper house.

Sidhu is learnt to have been vying to become a minister, and when he wasn't given a job in the recent cabinet expansion, he seems to have changed his mind again.

Sidhu vs Amarinder

But why is Sidhu such a big deal for the AAP? Outside Punjab, Sidhu is known as a cricket commentator and television comic who appears on the Kapil Sharma show. But within Punjab, Sidhu is a serious political contender who has managed to cast an independent anti-Badal image of himself. As the ruling Akali Dal faces strong anti-incumbency, Sidhu is thus well placed to be an anti-Badal face.

Within Punjab, Sidhu is a serious political contender who has managed to cast an independent anti-Badal image of himself.

It is widely held that the Aam Aadmi Party is the strongest contender for the 2017 Punjab assembly elections. They have everything going for them, but the Congress had one trump card: Captain Amarinder Singh.

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Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Amritsar MP Capt Amarinder Singh during a dharna against drugs and law and order situation on June 13, 2016 in Jalandhar, India.

The AAP's strong line of local leaders such as Bhagwant Mann, Sucha Singh Chotepur and others didn't seem a match for the Captain. Amarinder and his strategist have been using this to the hilt to displace the AAP. Now, with Navjot Singh Sidhu, the AAP has a strong Jatt Sikh face.

Whether or not Sidhu (or his wife) is formally declared the chief ministerial candidate, he will likely become the face of the party, countering Captain Amarinder Singh. With witty repartee and strong anti-Badal credentials, Sidhu has the potential to counter the perception that only Amarinder Singh is worthy of being Punjab's 'Captain'.

When in 2014 Amarinder Singh defeated Arun Jaitley in the Amritsar Lok Sabha, he had conceded that Sidhu would have been a tougher opponent. "Had he (Sidhu) been there, I would have had a difficult fight. At the moment there is no fight," Amarinder had said.

Sidhu will also help the AAP counter its image as a party doing business with neo-Khalistanis. In a state with 40 per cent Jatt Sikhs, Sidhu as the Sikh who does not trim his beard is the right fit for the AAP.

"Had he (Sidhu) been there, I would have had a difficult fight. At the moment there is no fight."

Sidhu's namesake wife, Navjot Kaur Sidhu, could also prove to be very useful for the AAP. As Sidhu may face allegations of a murder case he's been convicted in (it is in appeal before the Supreme Court) it may well be that his wife contests a seat from Amritsar.

Sidhu vs Majithia

As Amritsar's Lok Sabha MP from 2004 to 2014, Sidhu managed to carve out his own standing in Punjab politics. His nemesis came from not his own party but its alliance partner, the SAD. Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia has been MLA since 2007 from the Majithia constituency in Amritsar. He is the state's revenue minister, brother-in-law of deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal, and accused by rivals of being the kingpin of Punjab's drug menace.

Majithia is known as the "gernail of Majha", the northern region of the state that comprises the districts of Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Amritsar and Taran Taran. Majitha saw Sidhu, a Jatt Sikh in the BJP, as a political threat. In 2014, Majithia allegedly teamed up with some BJP leaders to make sure that Sidhu was denied a Lok Sabha ticket.

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Indian Punjab Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia (C) carries the Guru Granth Sahib following a religious punishment for altering a Sikh hymn to include the name of BJP candidate for Amritsar in India's general election Arun Jaitley at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on May 14, 2014.

Once close friends, Sidhu and Majithia fell out over the Amritsar municipal elections in 2013. Sidhu had accused Majithia of wresting the mayor's seat from the BJP. Since then, the spat has been quite public. Sidhu did nothing to help Arun Jaitley's 2014 campaign in Amritsar. He virtually went out of politics, making it clear to the BJP leadership it had to break the alliance with the SAD.

Sidhu went rogue in 2013 itself, openly speaking against the Akali government as soon as he realised he wasn't getting to keep his Lok Sabha seat. He attacked the Akali-led government for allegedly blocking funds for development projects in Amritsar.

While the BJP was considering breaking the alliance in early 2015, it chose to not to do in the face of the Akali Dal's anti-Delhi posturing in a sensitive state where memories of the Khalistan insurgency are still alive.

Sidhu also feels used by the BJP in Haryana, where political calculations necessitated that the Akalis and the BJP were on opposite ends. The Haryana elections made the relations so bitter that the Akali government even withdrew Sidhu's security cover.

After 2014, pundits were writing his political obituary. But Sidhu's anti-Badal posturing at a time when SAD's anti-incumbency has been at its peak, helped him become ever so important in Punjab politics.

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