On a day when AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal was seeking penance at the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, a political drama was unfolding in New Delhi that could change the course of Punjab politics ahead of the state assembly elections.
The resignation of popular cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu from the Rajya Sabha less than three months after he was nominated to the Upper House of parliament by the BJP government at the Centre has opened up the political scenario in Punjab once again.
With a senior AAP leader confirming that Sidhu and his wife Navjot Kaur Sidhu — a Punjab BJP legislator who is also the chief parliamentary secretary (just below a minister) in the Punjab government — were all set to join the Aam Aadmi Party before the assembly polls, the sudden resignation of the BJP MP has cleared a lot of things.
The AAP, which is posing a serious challenge to the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and the opposition Congress in Punjab ahead of assembly polls, due nearly next year, could well be on course to crown Sidhu as its chief ministerial candidate.
The AAP’s confidence in Punjab is not misplaced. It was Punjab’s electorate which gave entry to the AAP in the Lok Sabha in the 2014 elections. The party won four Lok Sabha seats — all from Punjab, which has a total of 13 in the lower house.
Sidhu, three-time Lok Sabha member from Amritsar, had been slighted by the ruling dispensation in Punjab — the Shiromani Akali Dal and its alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — in the past few years.
The Sidhu couple has been critical of the Akali Dal-BJP alliance government in Punjab headed by the country’s oldest Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal.
A popular Jat-Sikh face, Sidhu paid the price of his run-ins with Punjab’s dominant Badal family. He had verbal duels with the Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal and his powerful brother-in-law Bikram Majithia, who is the younger brother of Union Food Processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal.
In recent months, political grapevine had it that Sidhu was in talks with the AAP and even the Congress. There was no strong denial or confirmation of this from any side. But the BJP put the speculation to rest by nominating the chirpy Sidhu, who is a popular TV celebrity and cricket commentator, to the Rajya Sabha.
In the AAP’s scheme of things, Sidhu fits the bill quite well. He is known as an honest and upright political leader, is outspoken, has a popular appeal, connects well through his speeches and is a Jat-Sikh face — all ingredients for a good chief ministerial candidate in Punjab.
Having ridden piggy-back to power with the Shiromani Akali Dal since 2007, the Punjab state BJP has resigned itself to playing second fiddle to the Akalis.
As Punjab’s political scene is heating up for the assembly polls, everyone knows that the state is headed for a triangular showdown among the Akali Dal, Congress and the AAP. The BJP is nowhere as a standalone entity.
The problem for the BJP in Punjab is that it is led by a bunch of leaders who have little or no standing in state politics, leave alone having any recognition at the national level.
The party leadership, in the past few years, deliberately chose to ignore and even embarrass its best known face in the state, the thrice-elected Lok Sabha member Navjot Singh Sidhu.
In the 2014 general elections, the BJP chose to dump Sidhu and fielded Arun Jaitley, now the powerful Finance Minister in the Modi government.
Jaitley, pitted against Congress stalwart and former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, lost badly by a margin of over one lakh votes. This was Jaitley’s maiden foray into popular electoral politics and he started with a big loss.
Sidhu had refused to campaign for Jaitley, whom he called his political mentor.