The appointment of Navjot Singh Sidhu as the president of the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee following his relentless and open attack against Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh and public adulation of other parties would be nothing but amusing if not the cricketer-turned-commentator-turned-comedian-turned-politician had drummed up the humongous support of a majority of state MLAs in his favour today. While the wisecracker spent 13 years in the BJP, five in the INC, and flirted with the idea of joining the AAP in the interregnum, his switch to the oldest party in 2017 when the Parkash Singh Badal government was surely on its way out had an obvious and an implicit reason. With Arun Jaitley around, the BJP was reportedly not allowing Sidhu to go all out in his attack on the Badal family for their alleged acts of corruption. The party ruling at the centre was also wary of an anarchist, pro-separatist party of Arvind Kejriwal occupying power in a state bordering Pakistan. The BJP leadership thought adding heft to an already strong Amarinder Singh at that point would tilt the scales decisively in the favour of the INC, and it did. The decision became easy when it was observed that the victory of margin that Sidhu enjoyed in his first-ever win from Amritsar had been declining successively through subsequent polls. Anyway, the champion of the INC victory in Punjab was nevertheless Singh — just as, for all the charm of Sachin Pilot, Ashok Gehlot was a much bigger player in Rajasthan.
Curiously, Sidhu, having secured a state cabinet berth now, went after the chief minister rather than ensuring that his bête noire Sukhbir Badal, his wife Harsimrat Kaur and brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia never taste power again. The Punjab chief minister, looked upon favourably even by BJP supporters due to his patriotic persona, opposed Sidhu’s visits to Pakistan as much as a nomination for the wife of the latter in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The INC went on to win eight of the 13 Lok Sabha seats from Punjab, giving itself 15% of the party’s total Lok Sabha strength of 52. Despite that, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra threw their weight behind Sidhu — either because they have never been comfortable with a regional stalwart or for some other reason their questionable wisdom alone can decipher. Having got the cue, Punjab Congress MLAs, a bunch of sycophants like their counterparts across the country, queued up behind Sidhu. Now with his opportunism, immaturity, lust for power, a soft corner for his wife, absence of team spirit and no track record of public service, the new Pradesh Congress chief is going to make the BJP’s task in hand relatively less daunting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, with whom the Akalis have severed ties when their demand for a rollback of agriculture-reforming laws was not entertained, is seeing the departure of the SAD from the NDA as a blessing in disguise. As Hindus turn identity conscious only when squeezed into a numerical minority, in Punjab, where politics does not quite consider Sikhism a branch of the ancient religion of India, the BJP stands in good stead in 2022. Its prospects would turn brighter if it could garner the support of dera-going Dalit and OBC Sikhs who are ostracised from gurudwaras. In contrast, Punjab Congress now looks glaringly like a Jat Sikh party, which is bad electoral optics.
The clichéd commentary that Sidhu never quite subscribed to the Congress ideology is, however, also specious. None lesser than India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has stated on record that his party had no such thing as an ideology. It only had a “vision”, he had famously said. Furthermore, in this age of constantly shifting political loyalties, Sidhu alone cannot be singled out for deliberate negligence with which the leaderships of different parties approach turncoats. But the wedge driven into Punjab Congress runs deep. It will not be too much of a stretch to see in Amarinder Singh a future Mamata Banerjee, Himanta Biswa Sarma or YS Jaganmohan Reddy who had, frustrated by the Nehru-Gandhis at different points in time, carved their own respective, successful paths. With most MLAs supporting Sidhu, however, chances are higher that a humiliated Singh would measure his future in the BJP that might gladly embrace him. The turn of events today may be bad news for the INC; it is good news for a caste-inclusive, pro-nation Punjab.