Sidhu takes fresh guard

Sidhu takes fresh guard

Punjab 2017: By floating new party, the cricketer-turned-politician has upset the poll arithmetic

Sidhu takes fresh guard
In hindsight, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu will always figure somewhere in the electoral defeat of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley from Amritsar in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

 Not because he was in any way instrumental in Jaitley’s defeat, but his clear refusal to be part of Jaitley’s election campaign did adversely impact the outcome. That Jaitley found Capt Amarinder Singh too tough an opponent to crack, even on a seat considered “the BJP’s own” and that too during the “Modi-wave” that swept the nation, is a different story.

Years down the line, Sidhu is dominating some part of the political narrative that is fast changing in a state that faces Assembly elections in less than five months from now. Sidhu's new political outfit Awaz-e-Punjab announced this week was arguably his second choice - the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) was his first. The developments have altered the political discourse in this poll-bound border state. Punjab is poised for an interesting contest to say the least, and one that may or may not spring a surprise, but is sure to eventually redraw political alignments offering space for alternative politics to breed and thrive.

The AAP desperately needed a face for the Punjab elections and Sidhu was arguably its best bet. But with Sidhu burning the bridges after resigning from the Rajya Sabha seat abruptly in July, and now aborting all talks even with the AAP, his decisions have been constrained of choices. In settling his dilemmas, Sidhu has chosen the difficult route. The new front will arguably eat into the vote share of the AAP and other parties. The ruling SAD-BJP combine will not mind a split in the anti-incumbency votes. Inherent in the likely split of votes lies a disadvantage for any political opponent hoping to cash in on an anti-government sentiment.

Politics in Punjab, like in many other states, is largely personality driven. It needs a face. An apparent groundswell of support for the AAP ahead of elections may be real or otherwise, but the party till date has no leader who could counter the likes of octogenarian Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal or Congress strongman Capt Amarinder Singh. Sidhu could have provided the answer in whatever little way he could being a leader of the AAP. That’s now gone. Sidhu has often manifested the streak to take on challenges head-on. His rhetoric is impeccable. But having gone too far in his pursuit to rejuvenate himself from his position of ‘political self exile’ of sorts, it would not be incorrect to say that the AAP played hardball with the master batsman. Sidhu is well-versed with all the strokes and weighed all options before finalising his new political move.

Alternative political fronts have often tasted dust in Punjab. For now, the formation of such fronts, like Sidhu’s and many other socio-political groups mushrooming in the poll season, appear to have the potential of playing spoilsport. In case of a tough contest on many Assembly seats, these outfits could prove to be crucial, like Manpreet Badal’s PPP-led Sanjha Morcha. Though it won less than 5% of the vote share in the 2012 polls and failed to win any seat, the Morcha acted as a spoilsport for the Congress which had to remain out of power for another five years. The vacuum left by Sanjha Morcha now could possibly be filled by Sidhu’s outfit with the support of some other outfits in fray. The situation is fluid now. How successful will such a front be remains to be seen. But this new outfit could eventually prove to be a force to reckon with. Its core strength lies in the pick of its candidates high on winnability rating, like the existing group of four founder members. 

By shutting doors at other mainstream political parties and attempting to carve out a niche for his outfit, Sidhu has made it clear that he is not in for any bargain, at least for now. The former India opening batsman generates a mass appeal. His first win from Amritsar parliamentary seat was a rousing victory. Even after his conviction by a Punjab court, Sidhu’s winning spree would not end, until he fell prey reportedly to his own party leaders who wanted to oust him from Amritsar. 

Pound of flesh

The choice of Jaitley as a party nominee from his parliamentary seat left Sidhu with little choice but to go into hibernation. The lure of the Rajya Sabha too could not hold him for long. That Sidhu has been seeking his pound of flesh to join the AAP is something which the Arvind Kejriwal-led party  has denied. But there’s more than what meets the eye.

The AAP is a party grappling with serious problems that are escalating closer to polls. Its now a party minus Sidhu. Its state convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who is arguably credited to have built the party for two years in Punjab from the grass-root level to where it stands today, too has been axed over charges of corruption post a string operation. Half of the 13 candidates the party floated in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections have either been axed or sidelined. Half of the AAP winning MPs from Punjab – two of the four – are under suspension. One of them, Dharamvir Gandhi, has announced another rebel political outfit. Its third MP, Bhagwant Mann, who has been suspended by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha after he made a video clip of his movement en route to Parliament, is accused of alcoholism that dents AAP’s crucial election campaign plank of countering the drug menace.

The AAP is slipping on its Punjab advantage. It was dubbed as a political greenhorn then, but managed to bag 25% of the vote share - more than the BJP and the Akali Dal - in the 2014 elections. After Chhotepur’s ouster, more rebel leaders are surfacing and the party is headed for a split. Chhotepur alleges that Kejriwal and his followers are “undemocratic and autocratic”. He also calls Kejriwal “anti-Sikh”. All this will not help the party’s prospects.

Mainstream political parties in Punjab too are not ruling out the AAP’s existence on the political broad canvas at a time when the poll bugle has been sounded. This may be good news for the AAP. But it is a party bereft of a strong leadership in Punjab. No matter how much the party may claim to have a support base, much of its electoral success will depend upon a strong local leadership and not paratroopers from Delhi calling the shots.

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