It seems a sense of entitlement lulled former cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu into believing that the Aam Aadmi Party would nominate him as its chief ministerial candidate in Punjab. Or that AAP would at least court him with ardour, fawn and fuss over him, in much the manner the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to cajole him from deserting it.
Sidhu’s sense of entitlement springs from his privileged upper class background. His father, Bhagwant Singh, served as the state’s advocate general. Unlike most members of his class, he didn’t feel insecure in encouraging his son to have a career in sports. He is said to have laid out a wicket at home where an assortment of bowlers – from domestic helps to mohalla boys – bowled at Sidhu to enable him hone his batting skills.
Again, unlike most cricketers of his time, Sidhu did not have to scrounge for money. In an interview to a newspaper, he claimed his breakfast included a sumptuous spread of “pork pickle and anda-bhurji of at least seven-eight eggs and paranthas.” Lunch comprised venison or mutton and dinner, chicken or partridge and non-vegetarian soup. He, however, forsook meat overnight and turned a vegetarian because of a gut-wrenching incident during a hunting trip.
Yet, there can be no doubt that Sidhu was to the manor born. It must have moulded him psychologically, made him believe he was Destiny’s child. He became a top-notch cricketer, not necessarily because he was supremely talented, but because he was blessed with the grit to surpass himself. From a stroke-less wonder, as the cricket writer Rajan Bala once dubbed him, Sidhu was stung into practicing for hours to acquire fame for hitting sixes.
It is such a pity, therefore, to see Sidhu tie himself into knots in the political arena, to fumble and bumble in projecting himself as a man destined to sweep out the cobwebs of corruption in Punjab, to provide it good governance and reverse its slide. Perhaps his own story of rise to success, of overcoming his own shortcomings, has inspired Sidhu to overreach himself.
Indeed, Sidhu appears to have committed the cardinal mistake of reposing undue faith in the narrative which stressed upon his importance in Punjab’s electoral politics. Years of staying in the limelight, of being paid handsome amounts for TV shows in which all he is required to do is to laugh without rhyme or reason, and after having won from the Amritsar parliamentary constituency three times, Sidhu assumed AAP could not but have him at the helm.
After all, the political fledgling had no state-based leader who could match Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal or Congress leader Amarinder Singh in stature. No doubt, he is recognised as a crowd-puller, has his audience in Punjab guffawing at his one-liners and jokes, but his has always been a diversion to the main political show in the state.
It is one thing to hit the spinner Shane Warne for lusty sixes – and quite another to have people mistake your batting prowess for skills at governance. Perhaps the BJP’s desperate cajoling of Sidhu gave him an exaggerated sense of his own importance. He should have done a reality-check. He would have then realised that winning from Amritsar had increasingly become an ordeal for him.
For instance, he won from Amritsar in the 2004 Lok Sabha election handsomely, boasting a victory margin of well over a lakh of votes. He, however, resigned following the High Court finding him guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder in a road-rage case that dated back to 1988. But the Supreme Court suspended the High Court verdict, paving the way for him to contest the Lok Sabha by-election from Amritsar in 2007.
Sidhu won, but his margin of victory had been reduced by nearly 30,000 votes. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the slide was even sharper – he squeezed past his Congress rival by less than 7000 votes! It is said the Akali Dal had schemed against Sidhu, wanting to vanquish the BJP MP to teach him a lesson for his relentless attacks on Badal and his son, Sukhbir.
Regardless of whether this allegation is true, Sidhu’s slender victory margin testifies to the limits of popularity. Those who laugh with you do not necessarily vote you. It also underscored the role the party organisation plays in a candidate’s triumph, his or her popularity notwithstanding.
Playing it safe
These basic facts of electoral politics Sidhu seemed to have forgotten, as he waited with breathless anticipation to be anointed as AAP’s chief ministerial candidate. What else but an exaggerated sense of importance could have had him hope that AAP would hand over the party’s reins to him? This is typical of those who are born to privileges, who believe they are entitled to enact the script written for someone.
Think of it – Sidhu didn’t have even a minor role in building AAP in Punjab. Worse, he had his opportunities, but preferred to play it safe.
Since 2014, he sulked at having to vacate his Amritsar Lok Sabha seat for Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, besides voicing his disapproval of the Akali Dal-BJP alliance in Punjab. It is indicative of his political immaturity, as also his own sense of importance, to think the BJP would sever links with a regional ally of over two decades – just to mollify him, to ensure he did not join the rivals in the electoral fray.
It is hard to tell whether Sidhu sincerely believed the BJP would pursue his line in Punjab. But what we can say with utmost certainty is that he kept his options open till the fag-end, perhaps hoping to double-check the depth of AAP’s rising popularity in Punjab before taking a call on his political future.
It is considered sensible in cricket for an opening batsman, as Sidhu too was, to see through the new ball before smacking it all around. This is precisely what Sidhu set out to do in politics. He accepted the Rajya Sabha nomination, and then generated headlines through his decision to resign from Parliament. This wasn’t so much a masterstroke as an expression of extreme caution.
And caution doesn’t necessarily pay in politics as it does in cricket. Since AAP had already built its organisational structure and established itself as a veritable front-runner in the Assembly elections, it made little sense for its leaders to have Sidhu dictate terms to them. They wished to induct Sidhu for acquiring a psychological edge, for the atmospherics, not because they thought Sidhu would guarantee them victory.
A clutch of opinion polls in July-August, for whatever their worth, showed AAP to be well ahead of all other political parties. Did it then make sense for AAP leaders to hand over the party to a man who hadn’t yet resigned from the BJP? Did it need Sidhu to improve upon its voting percentage that opinion polls have been predicting for it?
Batting for himself
Sidhu’s calculations and assumptions have gone awry. It explains why he could barely conceal his anger and bitterness against AAP in the press conference he convened to announce the formation of Awaaz-e-Punjab, which, for the time being, is expected to work as a political forum. This is perhaps a precursor to Sidhu floating a political party to fight the elections.
It is moot whether such a rag-tag political group could become a fourth front or even pose a formidable challenge to AAP, Congress and the Akali Dal. It doesn’t have an organisational structure nor is it possible to build one in five months – Sidhu simply doesn’t have the requisite experience for such an onerous task.
From this perspective, Sidhu will have no option but to depend on the BJP to enable the Awaaz-e-Punjab, or its subsequent avatar, to fight the elections. The BJP will certainly oblige Sidhu. It suits the BJP – and the Akali Dal, for that matter – to have Sidhu and his friends garner votes. Whatever they poll will be at AAP’s expense. In a triangular contest, this could make a crucial difference between victory and defeat, or so it is presumed.
But this will expose Sidhu to the charge of playing footsie with the Akali Dal-BJP alliance. As such, Sidhu has taken to emulating them in his criticism against AAP. He has likened it to the East Indian Company, and accused it of pursuing a divide and rule policy to rule over Punjab. It is a familiar communal trope. To dub AAP as an “outsider” is akin to saying it is a “Hindu party” which wants to rule over a Sikh-majority state.
This is quite a fall for a man who goes rah-rah over nationalism in cricket commentary, who forever speaks about the importance of cricketers realising they are turning out for India. This time round, Sidhu has come out to bat for himself, out of an exaggerated sense of his own importance.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.