CHANDIGARH — The Congress’s inability to bridge the widening rift between Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and his cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu is prompting concerns that the leadership paralysis at the national level is now trickling down to the few states where the grand old party is in power.
With Rahul Gandhi yet to publicly reconsider his decision to step away from his post as Congress party president, Punjab state Congress leaders told HuffPost India they were struggling to control Sidhu, who has openly questioned the authority of the Punjab CM.
On Thursday, Sidhu, who is the minister of local government, tourism and culture in Punjab, escalated his ongoing confrontation with his Chief Minister by skipping a cabinet meeting and holding a media interaction at the same time, where he presented a report card of his achievements.
Chief Minister Singh has publicly blamed Sidhu for the Congress’s loss in at least 5 seats in the state. In his press conference, Sidhu denied this, saying that he has been a performer and that his department had been unfairly singled out.
“Sidhu is like an unguided missile who repeatedly hits his own home. He has caused us much harm in the Lok Sabha polls,” said a senior Congress party leader in Punjab, who also described the mercurial cricketer-turned-TV host-turned politician as a “be-lagaam ghoda”, or a horse without a harness.
While the Chief Minister was a popular man, he was struggling to contain Sidhu, the leader hinted darkly, because, “there are some allegations against Punjab CM which need to be investigated.”
All of this makes Punjab a fit case for the famed Congress High Command to set in and set things straight in the state — except the High Command appears consumed by its own existential crises.
Opposition politicians have pounced upon the rift, and have been quick to note that Sidhu has been a man of many parties.
After retiring from cricket in 1999, Sidhu joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and was elected to the Lok Sabha from Amritsar in 2004. He resigned two years later in 2006, when he was convicted of homicide in a 1998 road rage incident by the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
He contested Lok Sabha by-elections in 2007 and regained his lost seat after the Supreme Court suspended his sentence. He again contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and retained his seat. But in 2014, the BJP asked him to vacate the Amritsar seat for Modi-loyalist Arun Jaitley — who proved so unpopular that he lost amidst a Modi wave.
Sidhu and his long-time friend and Indian Men Hockey’s former Captain Pargat Singh formed a new political front —‘Awaz -E-Punjab’ or Voice of Punjab—and entered into negotiations with Aam Aadmi party’s national convener Arvind Kejriwal. When negotiations with AAP failed, Sidhu and Pargat Singh joined the Congress.
“His only problem is that he is too aggressive and unable to control emotional outbursts, traits unlikely of a sportsman and a politician but then no one is perfect in this world,” Pargat Singh, now a Congress MLA from Jalandar Cantt, told HuffPost India. “He should maintain calm and sort out things with the Punjab CM.”
Not Quite A Congressman
Congressmen in Punjab say Sidhu has struggled to build bridges with his latest political bed-fellows.
“Sidhu doesn’t like to be friendly with his fellow cabinet colleagues and loves to stay aloof,” said Tejinder pal Singh Bittu, Former general Secretary of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) and former Chairman of the Jalandhar Improvement Trust. “He rarely hosts any social gatherings at his place or was invited by the Congress leaders at his place.”
He was sent to burn the Congress Lanka ahead of the 2019 electionsBhagwant Maan
The largely Sikh leadership also seems a bit weirded out by Sidhu’s reverence for Hindu gods — particularly Shiva. He believes in astrology and conducts “yagnas” each day, to the point that Congressmen now joke that he leaves his palatial home only after consulting one of the five Pundits who conducts daily rituals at his residence.
All of which has sparked predictable rumours that Sidhu is looking to jump ship again, and most likely back to the BJP where he once began his political career. He is unlikely to be rehabilitated in the near term, given that a photograph of him hugging Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa Sidhu formed a pivotal plank of the BJP’s social media war against the Congress.
Yet that hasn’t stopped tongues from wagging.
Bhagwant Maan, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MP from Sangrur, described Sidhu as the BJP’s Hanuman. “He was sent to burn the Congress Lanka ahead of the 2019 elections,” Maan told HuffPost India. “For BJP, it was important to weaken Congress in the state.”
For now, the Singh-Sidhu feud appears far from over. On Wednesday, June 5, The Tribune reported that Chief Minister Singh was considering a cabinet reshuffle. Sidhu, the newspaper reported, might be one of the ministers to lose his portfolio.