The Punjab minister for local government, tourism, cultural affairs, archives and museums, Navjot Singh Sidhu explains why he joined the Congress, bats for Rahul Gandhi’s ‘clean-hearted’ politics, accuses Badals of having run a gundatantra, and insists there is no conflict of interest in him appearing in a TV show.
Man Aman Singh Chhina: Why did we see such a bitter fight in the Gurdaspur (Lok Sabha) by-election?
Loha lohe ko katata hai. Aag aag ko katati hai, kanta kante se nikalta hai. Jab saanp katata hai toh uska antidote vish hai, koi Saridon nahin (Iron cuts iron, fire douses fire, thorns are picked out with thorns. The antidote to snakebite is poison, not Saridon). In a democracy, it is a government by the people and for the people. What the Badal government (previous Shiromani Akali Dal led-Punjab government) did was make a government for the family. Thirty ministries were controlled by the Badal family. They are autocrats, they thrashed those in their way, robbed whoever they saw and assaulted anybody who protested. They ruled with a danda (baton). It was not loktantra (democracy), it was gundatantra. They ruled by fear.
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Man Aman Singh Chhina: What led to your differences with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)? Was it something personal with former Punjab minister Bikram Singh Majithia?
I won three (Lok Sabha) elections in Amritsar (as a BJP candidate). I won them two governments. But when the Modi wave came along, they tell me to fight from Kurukshetra. Why? Because Sidhu would have won for the fourth time (in Punjab). I tell Majithia, ‘You are not a politician. You are Sukhbir da sala (Sukhbir’s brother-in-law ). And you talk about me?’ I’ve played cricket for 20 years, ruled television for two decades. TV is merciless; if you are not good enough, you’re finished in no time. I have conducted 1,500 motivational speeches, charging `15 lakh for each. I have done films. By the time I was 45, I had accomplished everything I had aspired for. I have done all this on my own. What are you? Sukhbir da sala. The people of Punjab understand.
Nirupama Subramanian: There are allegations against a Punjab minister, that he had front men in an auction for sand mines. As someone who opposes corruption, what is your take on this issue?
There was a probe (by the Justice Narang inquiry commission). The law says you are not guilty until proven so. My take is clear. The department is not with me. It is entirely up to the chief minister because the department (of Industries, including mines) is with him. The chief minister is the supreme commander. If he says it was a fair probe, we believe it. If it was my department and even if it was my son, I would have punished him. All are smaller than Punjab.
HINA ROHTAKI: The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) wrote to the government to take action against former museums director NPS Randhawa (Museums is with culture department, of which Sidhu is minister) for facilitating the smuggling of heritage furniture and other antiques out of Chandigarh. What is the government doing?
The fellow is a thief. Crook. The DRI has written a 1,200-page report on how he sent them pictures of antiques, on how he transported them to America. One antique he sold for 3.45 lakh dollars. He sent pictures and sold our things to Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The vigilance department is not with me. I wrote to the chief minister that the guy be dismissed. This department should actually be given to the CBI for further investigations. That kind of greed has to be punished. I do not know what is happening on the Vigilance front. If nothing happens then I will lodge an FIR as tourism minister. The vigilance department is with the chief minister. If anyone can order an inquiry in this case, it is the chief minister. I cannot do it. I have written to him three times.
Man Aman Singh Chhina: What went wrong between you and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal?
Chidiya ke jitna dil tha uska (His heart is the size of a bird’s). He is so insecure, and he was hell bent on becoming the Punjab chief minister. I went to him, a four-time MP went to him. He said don’t fight the election. That is a joke. I mean you fought one election. In your second election, you were defeated by Mr Modi by 1.5 lakh votes and you are telling a four-time MP to not contest elections? How am I going to help Punjab if I am not going to be an MLA? Do you think I have a magic wand that I will remain outside, correct everything with my blessings?
Nirupama Subramanian: What made you join the Congress?
Let me clear the fog. I asked Kejriwal sir about what my role was going to be. He said, ‘Sidhu, you join us’. I said, ‘How can I just do that? I have left everything for the sake of Punjab’. He said, ‘Sir, I am going for Vipassana (meditation). You join in the meantime’. I told him I will not join like this.There were 200 leaks about the meeting I had with him… A leak here, a leak there; a story here, a story there. Kejriwal said, ‘Ok Mr Sidhu, you campaign for us for seven-eight days, we will field your wife as a candidate in the elections. Then you can leave’. My friend Bunny was with me. He said what do you mean. Is this a joke or what? You know you are talking to a four-time MP. You don’t want him to fight the elections? I just walked off. My friend said, ‘He wants to be the chief minister. How did we get caught in this mad house?’. I went back and slept it off. I had 10-12 missed calls. It was a guy from Colors (TV channel). He said Priyankaji (Gandhi Vadra) wanted to meet me. I said I just returned from meeting Kejriwal, how can I meet her? My friend Bunny came in the evening and said let’s go meet her. There was a huge difference between meeting Kejriwal and Priyankaji. It was like chalk and cheese. You could believe her. I was not promising her anything; she was not promising me anything; it was just a meeting. Ghulam Nabi Azad sir was there. It was such a beautiful experience that suddenly the faith came back. Rahul bhai called me up three or four times. Not a single leak. Not a single person was aware that I had met him. He was so candid. I have never seen a more cultured, clean-hearted man in politics.
Man Aman Singh Chhina: Is he better than Narendra Modi?
Let’s not talk about Modi. There’s nothing dodgy about Rahul. He told me there were a few men in his party who didn’t want me to join. He said, ‘Brother, I can’t help it. I adore you, but I cannot handle it’. Prashant Kishor visited me almost 40 times. Finally, he said, it wouldn’t be possible without you. He made me speak to Rahul Gandhi. Then the AAP began coming up with all sorts of things. Earlier, they were not keen on making me an MLA. Durgesh (Pathak, then the AAP pointsman for Punjab) then approached me and said we will make you deputy CM. I said tell me who is your CM. Gradually, I began to trust Rahul. Believe me, on the renaissance of Rahul Gandhi. You mark my words, the day he steps out, people will trust him. I can assure you. I told him, ‘I trust you completely. I do not want anything from you’.
Nirupama Subramanian: Has that moment come for Rahul Gandhi?
I think a day will come when he will lead the Congress and lead it for a long, long time. I would say the renaissance of Rahul Gandhi would be the renaissance of the Congress, the revival of the Congress. It is already happening. You see he doesn’t have a glass jaw, he just marches on. If I can say one thing about Rahul Gandhi, it is that character is not made in a crisis. It is exhibited in one. Leaving all power at that time (giving up the chance of becoming Prime Minister in the 10 years that the Congress ruled), and standing up when the Congress is down in the dumps is the hallmark of character. He is not looking for sympathy. He is just plain and simple and looking for revival.
Varinder Bhatia: How do you see the BJP doing at the Centre?
Look, politics is an amazing game. Look at what is happening with the GST. The BJP’s biggest vote-bank is floundering. There is no place to run. It has gone from confusion to chaos. There are serious aspersions being cast on Amitji’s (BJP president Amit Shah) son. There is a turnaround. You can smell it in the air. Did you see how many people marched in Gujarat (against the GST)? It wasn’t covered by the press. It shows people are fighting within their minds. You will see results of the Gurdaspur by-election (out on Sunday), a bastion for the BJP, where in the last four elections, the Congress won only one (segment) and that too by 5,000 votes. You see the margin this time. The winds are changing. Suddenly you are seeing praise for Rahul Gandhi. Change happens fast in politics. Things can change overnight. And they have changed. There has been a total rot with the GST. Not just the GST but demonetisation too.
Kanchan Vasdev: How do you see your own position in the Congress party in the long term? Do you see yourself as a future Punjab chief minister?
I have never ever looked for positions. The Aam Aadmi Party offered me the deputy CM post two hundred times. Did I opt for it? When Ghulam Nabi Azad first met me… deputy CM. Did I opt for it? Did I stay in the Rajya Sabha? Tell me one man since Independence who gave up his Rajya Sabha seat after one month. I see myself as someone who will work for the resurrection of Punjab. And one day, I want to find Punjab restored to its pristine glory. That is about it.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: Why exactly did you leave the BJP?
The BJP wanted me to campaign for Sukhbir Badal. I told them that the man is a burden, I cannot even stand with him and his brother-in-law. I told everyone —I won’t name them — ‘You want me to campaign for this guy? The purpose of my politics will be defeated’. (The BJP) wanted me to either campaign for (Sukhbir) or move away from Punjab. I left it that very day and when I went to resign, then vice-president Hamid Ansari said he had never seen anything like it. ‘Son, six years are left. Are you under pressure?’ I said, ‘Sir, there is no pressure. You just tell me about the procedures’. He said just one line. I resigned from the Rajya Sabha.
Nirupama Subramanian: And no one in the BJP tried to stop you?
Everybody did. My phone went tak, tak, tak. You cannot even imagine. I mean there was nobody who did not try. I would have got at least 200-300 calls. There were RSS people too. Everybody tried to convince me. I said, ‘No. I will not go back now’.
Saurabh Prashar: And from the Akali Dal?
What is the Akali Dal? They (the BJP) chose the alliance with the Badals. I chose Punjab. Simple. That’s all. You think the alliance is very important; Hindu-Sikh bhaichara. But does anyone really think Akalis are for Hindu-Sikh brotherhood?
Man Aman Singh Chhina: Are you going to be on the Kapil Sharma Show when it comes back on air? As a minister, can you do that?
I am going to be on that show. There is no conflict of interest. It is a private party. I go there overnight, I shoot throughout the night, I leave office at 6:30 pm, catch the 7 pm flight, reach Mumbai at 9 pm, and we start shooting at 10 pm, which goes on till midnight. I sleep for three hours. In the morning, I take the 7 o’ clock flight and I am back in the office at 9. I work Saturdays and Sundays. My chai-mathi (tea and snacks) expenditure in Amritsar is Rs 1.5 lakh. My daughter is studying fashion in London. How will I pay for these things? If I have to be another Sukhbir Badal, then what is the point coming here? I earn Rs 3 crore a year and pay Rs 5 crore as tax. There is this property in Patiala that I will rent out. I will see if the show comes back and if it does not impinge on my duties, I will continue. It happens once a week. At times once in two weeks. Out of 365 days, 170 days are off.
Sofi Ahsan: What are the Congress’s chances in 2019?
Bright, after this chaos. Don’t you see how rapidly things are changing? It is for the people to decide. Once things unfold, I think he (Rahul Gandhi) is destiny’s child. And God is helping him. Nitin Sharma: If Navjot Sidhu had been playing cricket now… If my aunty were a man, she would have been my uncle, my dear friend. There are no ifs and buts. There is only Sidhu the Jatt. That’s your answer. Having said that, the old order changes, gives place to the new. Our era was different. Cricket was different. This is cricket in the Ferrari lane. We would score 200 in 90 overs and people would be very happy with it. Now, in 40 overs you chase 400. Who could imagine that somebody would hit a 300 in one day? (Virender) Sehwag (nearly) did it. The way they play cricket… Their fitness levels… You see Virat’s (Kohli) fitness levels. The time he spends in a gym. Even a boxer would not do it. It’s a drastic change. It’s a metamorphosis. The way cricket is changing. It is going towards entertainment.
Why do you have full crowds during IPL? And why in Test matches you don’t even have 5,000 people?
There are different products in the market. There is Test cricket which is like classical music and then IPL is like the music my son listens to. I heard it. It felt like an electric current passed through my head, and I had to shake off the earphones. Nitin Sharma: Why did Sidhuism start? Am I reading them out off a book? This is my lingo bro.
Nitin Sharma: You used to be an introvert. When did that change?
When I was playing, I was an introvert. There was this phase, that if someone came for my interview the unhappiness it brought me was more than the happiness of scoring a century. I would stutter and flutter. The change came when I started reading Swami Vivekananda’s works. And I realised whatever I was searching for was right inside my navel. I was looking outward, I had failed to look inward. That was June 1998. I gave up cricket in February 1999. By the time, I had read his first works. I would wake up at 4 am in the morning and start breathing exercises. Three months of breath control, and my life changed. The way I used to look at things changed. My health was so good, and then the inner experiences began after the cleansing. Then I was in the inner world, the world of bliss, the world of light. That is where I got these Sidhuisms, when I did not fear anyone. Did not imitate anyone. I was the original Sidhu. After 36 years of doubt, came the years of faith. I became a believer and an achiever. Playing cricket was practice, practice. There was no mental strength. Had I started meditating when I was playing, I would have scored not 17 but 42 centuries. That is the strength of the mind.