High on Sherry: How Navjot Singh Sidhu will benefit the Congress in Punjab
Being a batsman, Navjot Singh Sidhu understands the importance of timing his strokes. Aptly then, his induction into the Congress is seen as a perfectly timed stroke. The Congress is looking to fully exploit this celebrity with the gift of the gab in the Punjab assembly election campaign.
State Congress president Amarinder Singh has already announced that Sidhu would be one of the party's star campaigners, apart from being the candidate from Amritsar East constituency earlier represented by his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu.
While Navjot Kaur, along with hockey Olympian Pargat Singh, had joined the Congress last month, her husband's induction was postponed, reportedly on the suggestion of the party's election strategist Prashant Kishor. He was looking for the most opportune moment for Sidhu's entry so that his joining gives a fillip to the party's campaign. It's believed that this uncertainty over the former cricketer's induction has worked to the advantage of the Congress, not least because Sidhu has been getting a lot of press. There are also reports that he was keen on joining the party in the presence of Rahul Gandhi.
Sidhu is being seen as one of the most prized catches of the Congress in this election season. Much to the relief of the Congress poll machinery, he did not join the Aam Aadmi Party as was being speculated when he resigned as a BJP Rajya Sabha MP. He reportedly had a series of meetings with AAP leaders, including Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, but his entry into the party did not materialise.
"Had he joined AAP at that point of time and had AAP held a series of rallies with him as the key speaker, we would have had to pack up our bags," said a Congress leader.
AAP leaders, including Kejriwal, have lately been claiming they had offered Sidhu the deputy chief ministership if they took power, but he declined. They are implying that the Congress has offered him "something more", that is, the chief ministership. Kejriwal has been claiming that Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is annoyed with Amarinder and would dump him after "using him for campaigning". Amarinder has denied this, claiming that there has not been a discussion even about making Sidhu the deputy chief minister.
There's no doubt that Sidhu would be a crowd puller for the party when he starts touring Punjab, something he had stopped doing for the BJP after the party refused to renominate him for the Lok Sabha election from Amritsar, and instead fielded Arun Jaitley. The now finance minister got a drubbing from Amarinder despite the "Modi wave" sweeping the country.
Not just in Punjab, Sidhu's absence from the campaign trail was felt by the BJP in the Delhi and Bihar as well. In both states, the party got a thrashing from, respectively, AAP and the alliance led by Nitish Kumar.
Sidhu's popularity in Amritsar will be to the advantage of the Congress in the Lok Sabha bypoll, which will be held on 4 February along with the assembly election. The seat fell vacant when Amarinder resigned in the wake of the Supreme Court invalidating Punjab's law terminating the Satluj-Yamuna Link canal pact with Haryana. All Congress MLAs had also quit from the assembly.
Interestingly, Jaitley has maintained a stoic silence on the Amritsar bypoll. Amarinder had recently challenged the finance minister to contest the bypoll, and let it be a referendum on the demonetisation brought about by the Modi government. There have been tongue-in-cheek pieces in newspapers about Jaitley also maintaining a silence over Sidhu's induction into the Congress.
No party has announced a candidate for the bypoll so far. In fact, the BJP is yet to declare candidates for even the 23 assembly seats it will be contesting in alliance with the Akali Dal. There are reports that the Congress might field former central minister Preneet Kaur if Sidhu contests the assembly election.
The BJP's ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, though has quite vocal in attacking Sidhu. The party said the former cricketer cannot save the "sinking ship" of the Congress party.
Manjinder Singh Sirsa, who is an adviser to Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal, said "people are surprised to see the daily circus in the Congress", which is now "begging" the former cricketer to contest the election to boost its chances. Claiming that the Sidhu couple can do no good to the Congress, Sirsa said politics was nothing like hosting a "laughter show", a reference to Sidhu's work in television comedy shows. Playing down Sidhu's charismatic personality, Sirsa claimed it was the Akali Dal which had helped him win the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat in 2009. If the Congress fields him in this election, Sirsa claimed, Sidhu will "bite the dust".
Sidhu's biggest drawback is that he has not taken a stand on any of the contentious issues in Punjab - desecration of holy books last year, terror attacks in Dina Nagar and Pathankot, the sharing of river waters, or more recently, demonetisation. It is, however, expected that he will speak on all these issues once he gets going in the new party.