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Navjot Sidhu in Rajya Sabha: BJP's damage-control exercise

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 23 April 2016, 17:42 IST
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The silence

  • In 2014, BJP denied sitting MP Navjot Singh Sidhu a ticket from Amritsar, choosing to field Arun Jaitley, who lost
  • Since then, Sidhu has maintained a stoic political silence, not even campaigning for the party

The nomination

  • On 22 April, the Centre chose Sidhu as one of seven Rajya Sabha MPs in the nominated category
  • Political observers say this is a well-calculated damage-control move by the BJP

More in the story

  • What led to Sidhu\'s disenchantment?
  • The AAP link, and why the BJP moved fast to nip it in the bud

Navjot Singh Sidhu has been away from the political mainstream for a while now, ever since he was overlooked for a ticket from Amritsar in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014.

But now, by offering him a Rajya Sabha seat in the nominated category, the BJP brass has made a clear attempt to placate him. The party leadership is desperate to retain him and his wife, Navjot Kaur Sidhu, knowing full well that it cannot afford to let them walk into another party ahead of next year's Assembly elections.

Recently, there have been rumours that the Sidhus would join the Aam Aadmi Party, which is something the BJP wants to prevent at all costs.

Also read: New Rajya Sabha members: Modi govt makes last-minute changes to list

Why is Sidhu indispensable?

The cricketer-turned-politician is a popular icon amongst the youth in the state. He has contested three parliamentary polls, one of them a by-poll, and has emerged victorious on all three occasions from Amritsar.

His track record has been clean, and there has been no occasion when his integrity has been questioned.

Observers point out that he is the 'engine' that can lead to the growth of the BJP in the state.

"In Punjab, the party needs a Sikh face. Otherwise, the party is generally known as the party of Hindus; one that is concentrated only in the urban pockets of Punjab. Sidhu is the only Jat Sikh with a mass appeal," said a senior journalist who has been covering Sidhu since he contested his first Lok Sabha poll in 2004.

To grow beyond its urban Hindu voter base in Punjab, the BJP needs Sidhu as its Sikh face

In the last four Assembly elections in Punjab, the BJP has contested 23 of the 117 seats, with its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, contesting the rest. The BJP's best performance came in 2007, when it won 19 of the 23 seats, with the number being reduced to 12 in 2012.

"If BJP loses Sidhu, its face in Punjab, it would be limited to 23 seats in the state, and will lose a lot of acceptance," the journalist said.

Also read: Why staying with Akalis will help BJP in Punjab

Rising disenchantment

Ever since he was asked to leave his Amritsar seat to pave the way for 'para trooper' Arun Jaitley in 2014, Sidhu has maintained a stoic political silence.

He reportedly refused to campaign for Jaitley or contest from any other seat. Jaitley got a drubbing from Congress' Amarinder Singh, despite there being a BJP wave across the country that saw the party coming to power under the leadership of Narendra Modi.

The irony was that like Jaitley, Amarinder too had come from outside, his home constituency being Patiala.

Observers point out that Sidhu's problems with the Akali leadership in the state began when he started criticising finance minister Bikramjit Singh Majithia for ignoring his constituency just ahead of the 2014 polls. His wife is an MLA from Amritsar (East) constituency.

Sidhu did not campaign for Arun Jaitley in Amritsar during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls

There is a point of view that the Akalis wanted him out of Amritsar, and were very confident that they could help anyone win the seat. It was based on this confidence that Jaitley was fielded from the seat.

Navjot Kaur, meanwhile, continues to attack the Akali government in the state on various issues.

Sidhu has not even been campaigning for the BJP, a far cry from the times when he used to be a star campaigner.

"He was their star campaigner, given his oratory skills, his cricketing background, his television presence and his clean record. His not campaigning for the party did hit its poll prospects," says political commentator Baljit Balli.

The party tried to placate him by offering him a post in the National Commission for Minorities, which he is learnt to have refused.

Why didn't BJP make him contest RS polls?

There is a great deal of speculation as to why Sidhu was not fielded for the recent Rajya Sabha polls. The party chose to give the seat to the much lesser-known Shwet Malik.

Observers say that despite being a blue eyed boy of both Modi and BJP's national president Amit Shah, Sidhu could not be fielded.

One of the reasons cited is opposition from Jaitley and his supporters, who continue to hold Sidhu's decision not to campaign for him as a cause for his loss in the 2014 polls.

The general perception among the public is that Sidhu would have won the Amritsar seat if he had contested or even campaigned aggressively for the party.

Also read: Amritsar BJP MLA Navjot Kaur Sidhu sits on indefinite hunger strike

Why nominate him now?

On 1 April, Navjot Kaur posted on social media that she has quit the party. This, coupled with reports of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal calling a brain storming session with the AAP leaders from Punjab in the national capital, led to speculation about the Sidhus joining AAP.

Sources said it was after this incident that the BJP leadership at the top level went into damage-control mode.

Navjot Kaur had met Modi in March, and had apprised him about her concerns over the continuing BJP-Akali alliance.

Modi's tweet in October last year wishing good health to Sidhu - while maintaining silence over the Dadri lynching - was also seen as an attempt to placate a sulking Sidhu.

A well-calculated move

Balli believes that the BJP has made the correct move. "They have a person who is eminent and also a refined politician. They can now use him for campaigning in the forthcoming polls, including those in Uttar Pradesh. Even if he does not campaign for the Akalis in Punjab, his own party would definitely benefit from his presence. It is a well-calculated damage control exercise ahead of the polls," he said.

Observers feel that the Sidhus joining AAP would have been a death blow to the SAD-BJP combine in the state.

Sidhu's wife Navjot Kaur has been critical of the BJP-SAD alliance, and wants the party go it alone

"We cannot afford to lose Sidhu. If he goes, the party leaders can very well sit at home instead of wasting time preparing for the polls," a BJP leader told this correspondent some time back.

"We know that they [AAP] have been approaching Sidhu consistently," said another leader. There were even rumours that Sidhu might be the chief ministerial candidate of AAP.

Navjot Kaur has been constantly demanding that the BJP part ways with the Akalis, and go it alone in the Assembly polls. This is a recurring theme among party cadres, who claim that the number of seats given to the BJP by the Akalis must be increased, and these seats should be spread all over the state, instead of the urban pockets of mainly Doaba and Majha areas.

But at the same time, a section of party leaders point out that the delay in announcing a new state BJP president in Vijay Sampla hardly leaves anytime for such preparations.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

Also read: Navjot Singh Sidhu hospitalised, has a clot in deep vein

First published: 23 April 2016, 17:42 IST
 
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