Despite criticism, Sidhu's 'hug' has proven to be a masterstroke
As the “hug” controversy continues on the Indian political turf, the cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu has scored maximum brownie points when it comes to the game of political perceptions and public image. He stands out as the politician in Punjab who has amassed maximum political dividends from the controversy that encapsulates first going for the investiture of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and then hugging the Army chief of the neighbouring country General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The message that has gone down the line among the masses is that by one single act, Sidhu has divided vertically the entire polity of Punjab, including his own Congress party. The criticism by the Congress leaders opposed to Sidhu's act is being construed by observers as nothing but plain 'political insecurity' on a non issue. The Opposition parties stand split and on a sticky ground.
The possibility of opening a corridor to Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak is the masterstroke of Sidhu's visit to Islamabad and his interaction with General Bajwa. Several political observers contacted by this reporter pointed out that what needs to be kept in mind is that most Punjabis, particularly Sikhs cannot ever think of severing ties with the neighbouring country where shrines like Nankana Sahib, Katasraj temple and Kartarpur Sahib are located.
“It would be like any country severing ties with Saudi Arabia or the Vatican and telling the people of Muslim and Christian faiths to forget about visiting Mecca or Medina and Vatican City. No political party in Punjab can even utter a word on these lines.
Neither does the hyper-nationalism which is the flavour of Indian politics at present carry any substance when it comes to attacking Sidhu for visiting Pakistan. Imran Khan calling him a messenger of peace is not an empty statement as sooner or later the two sides will have to sit across the table to sort out the issues and Sidhu's visit can be a start to the process. Political observers point out that Imran inviting cricketers Sidhu along with Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev while not extending the same to his other cricketing contemporaries from other countries simply points out to the fact that he conveyed a special message towards engaging India.
After criticising Sidhu for hugging General Bajwa, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh too raised the issue of Kartarpur Sahib corridor with the union government. Amarinder has sought the personal intervention of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in seeking access from the Pakistan government to enable devotees to visit the historic Gurudwara in Kartarpur.
In a letter to the Union minister, he urged her to take up the matter with her Pakistani counterpart for having the corridor from the International Border to Kartarpur opened for the duration of the celebrations of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. “Kartarpur is located across the river Ravi at a distance of around 4 km from the International Border near Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district.
Amarinder noted that the 550th birth anniversary of the first Guru, who breathed his last in Kartarpur, is being observed in November 2019. He pointed out that one of the historical demands of the Sikh community has been to have access to the revered Gurudwara Sahib in Kartarpur. “The government of Punjab has been requesting government of India time and again for taking up the matter with the government of Pakistan for a corridor from the International Border to Kartarpur,” he added.
He said that in pursuance of the long-standing demand, former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had made an announcement to this effect at Amritsar on September 1, 2004 on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Prakash Utsav of Guru Guru Granth Sahib. He had reiterated the same during his subsequent visits to Punjab in 2005 and 2006. However, despite best efforts this has not materialized.
Earlier, Amarinder had said that Sidhu hugging the Pakistani Army Chief was not a nice gesture and was completely avoidable. He said Sidhu should have avoided indulging in such a gesture when Indian soldiers were getting killed every day on the borders. He underlined that after all, it is the Army Chief who gives the orders to kill, with the soldiers merely following the same.
As far as the Congress opponents go the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) castigated Sidhu on expected lines of their brand of nationalism despite the fact that it was none other than their poster boy and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had gone and hugged former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during the latter's birthday celebrations in 2015.
The SAD leadership lambasted Sidhu for insulting families of martyrs by hugging General Bajwa. Party leader Dr Daljit Singh Cheema said the very visit of Sidhu to Pakistan at a time when the nation was in mourning after former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's demise was in bad taste. “Sidhu went ahead with the visit and violated all known protocols of not attending any celebratory function during official periods of mourning,” he said.
However, the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) state chief Bhagwant Mann did not reportedly find anything wrong with Sidhu's “Punjabi” gesture.
Coming back to the political dynamics within the Congress, it is no secret that efforts have been on in the past also to corner Sidhu within the Punjab cabinet and the party. He has been cold shouldered on several occasions. Much to the disliking of many people, he has emerged as one of the poles in the party and many see him playing a greater role in the party affairs in the days to come. Some observers even see him along with finance minister Manpreet Badal as a possible successor to Amarinder. His closeness to the party high command is another factor that brings discomfort to many in the party.
Despite being cornered, he has been saying that he would not stop from raising his voice on issues. At the same time he has been saying that he respects and honours Amarinder's decisions.
Meanwhile, the hug controversy has transcended media borderlines as write ups have started targeting Amarinder's relations with his Pakistani friend Aroosa Alam. These are indications that the hug controversy is there to stay for sometime.