Advantage Sidhu

Ahead of polls, Congress tries to give itself a new face in Punjab. It may also have scored a self-goal.

The elevation of cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu as the Punjab Pradesh Congress president after a prolonged flaring of public hostilities between him and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh sets the stage for a difficult run-up to the assembly elections for the ruling Congress. This appointment could be seen to catapult Sidhu into the list of chief ministerial probables for the Congress, and pits him firmly against Amarinder Singh who has already declared his intent to lead the party in 2022. The two have seldom seen eye to eye ever since Sidhu quit the BJP to join the Congress ahead of the 2017 assembly elections. That attritive equation is unlikely to change given the vitriol that has poisoned their relations in the recent past, making many wonder whether the high command has scored a self-goal so close to polls.

The question also is: Why Sidhu? An answer may lie in the groundswell of opposition to, and alienation from, the traditional political parties in Punjab, the widespread charge that they are two sides of the same coin. Punjab has seen an alternation of power between the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress ever since the state was carved out in 1966. In recent times, an unmistakable yearning for a “clean outsider” has made itself seen and heard — this is what arguably led voters to give space to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that emerged as the principal opposition in the last elections, making the political contest in the state a three-cornered one. The agitation against the three farm laws only seems to have deepened this desire for a new force. The perceived inability of the Amarinder Singh regime to right the alleged wrongs done by the previous Akali government has not just stoked conspiracy theories on the ground, but also added to the search for an untried and untested political alternative. By making Sidhu its face at this critical juncture, the party may be trying to give itself a new face as it prepares for the hustings. Despite being a four-time MP, Sidhu has continued to trade on his image of being an outsider in the world of politics.

But six months is a long time. The internal wrangling in the ruling party has provided the Opposition with a weapon. Sidhu will also have to contend with the opposition within, much of it of his own making, as he sets out to fulfill the 18-point agenda handed by the high command. While it may be advantage Sidhu for now, it’s wise to remember that Amarinder Singh is an old warhorse who steered the Congress to victory when it was in the wilderness.

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