Punjab sitrep: Making sense of Sidhu's shenanigans and Badal's strategy

Intriguingly, with polls around the corner, the narrative in Punjab is not farmers but Pakistan, drugs, Kashmir and Aroosa Alam
Last Updated 27 August 2021, 12:27 IST

About a month ago, Navjot Singh Sidhu was desperate to become the Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president. His supporters, 31 MLAs, including a few ministers, are now desperate for another change. They seek the removal of Amarinder Singh as the chief minister of Punjab. Harish Rawat, the Punjab Congress in-charge, has said the Congress will go to the polls under the leadership of Amarinder Singh.

Seemingly unconnected and casually made statements by two of Sidhu's advisers, Malwinder Singh Mali and Pyare Lal Garg, constitute the background of the current state of play in Punjab Congress. Mali questioned, "the need for Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution if Kashmir was an integral part of India." He also posted a sketch of former prime minister Indira Gandhi that showed her next to a heap of human skulls holding a gun. Another Adviser of Sidhu, Garg, said that "criticising Pakistan was not in our interest."

Amarinder Singh responded that Garg and Mali should advise Sidhu on Punjab Congress-related affairs and not speak about issues they didn't understand. The CM said Pakistan needs to be criticised because it sends drugs and infiltrates terrorists into India. Within minutes of this statement, a picture of Amarinder Singh's close friend Aroosa Alam, a Pakistan-based journalist, was bombarded on social media. A Facebook post followed, which read: "Those who live in houses of glass do not throw stones at others houses, Captain Sahib."

Suddenly, Mali and Garg's seemingly vacuous and casual statements turned out to be baits to draw out Amarinder Singh. And he took the bait. The remarks introduced Pakistan into the conversation and lured Amarinder Singh into it. After all, if the conversation revolves around Pakistan, Amarinder Singh will have to answer the Aroosa Alam question. Sidhu will have to answer for his hug with Pakistan's General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

However, Punjabis also credit Sidhu for accomplishing the opening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor. While Sidhu's hug with Gen Bajwa has in the past shadowed his role in getting Kartarpur Sahib opened, and even members of his party did not acknowledge this as Sidhu's achievement, the former cricketer is seen as an honest politician who can be at the helm.

Sidhu is a man in a hurry. He wants to dash to the strikers' end. But he has failed to understand that unlike cricket, in which a cricket board can change a team's skipper midway into a series, it is not usually so in politics. Ultimately, the people will vote based on the past five years of Congress rule and not on what they think of Sidhu. For that to happen, he may have to wait till 2027.

The infighting has meant that while a united Congress could have presented itself as a formidable force for the 2022 Punjab polls, a divided Congress cannot defend itself from its adversaries, who had started prepping for the elections a year in advance.

Still, under the scanner on religious sacrilege (be-adbi), the Shiromani Akali Dal announced candidates almost ten months before the upcoming polls. With voters unlikely to repose their trust in the Akali Dal on other issues, the party thought it best to fight the forthcoming assembly polls by announcing candidates much in advance. It has put its political machine to work to organise well attended public meetings and declare party candidates. It announced its first lot of eight candidates in April. After a lull because of Covid-19 restrictions, including on political rallies, Sukhbir Singh Badal released a list of another 14 candidates this month. We are still six months away from the elections to the 117-member legislative assembly.

Badal has given targets to ticket aspirants. He announces the aspirant's name as the party candidate then and there if the aspirant in question meets the target of organising a big rally. In one instance, Yuvraj Bhupinder Singh, Bibi Jagir Kaur's son-in-law who lost to Sukhpal Singh Khaira in 2017, held a rally which wasn't impressive, and Badal did not announce his candidature. Kaur is the current president of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee. Keen watchers of Punjab affairs believe that the message from Badal is clear - it is not the party that should steer the candidate towards victory but the other way round. It would seem to be an acceptance that the party is on a weak footing.

While the Akalis may not be currently strong politically, strengthening them in their cause is Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu. He is busy touring Punjab and criticising his government on unemployment, costly power, illegal sand mining, drug mafia, etc.

The third party in the fray is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The AAP has quite a presence in deeper Punjab. But it is leaderless. Party's second-term Lok Sabha MP Bhagwant Mann's background of being a comedian makes him a crowd-puller. But he hasn't graduated beyond that. A leader imported from Delhi may not go well with Punjabis unless it is Arvind Kejriwal himself. But would Kejriwal take that risk?

On Friday, Kejriwal announced that actor Sonu Sood is the Delhi government's brand ambassador for education. But is there something more to it? Is it a signal from the AAP for the Punjab polls? Sood is a Punjabi who grew up in the Moga district.

Poll issue: Farm protests or Pakistan?

But if leaders are important, so are narratives. Notwithstanding the introduction of Pakistan into the conversation, religious sacrilege (be-adbi), or even speculation around respective chief ministerial candidates, the 2022 polls will centre around the farmers' issues. The farmers are united in their cause but are not letting the cat out of the bag. The Akalis, Congress and AAP are unsure which way the farmers, a constituency that has its presence in all 117 assembly segments, might vote. Therefore, the narrative is not Kisan but Pakistan, and when they talk about Pakistan, they talk about drugs, Kashmir and Aroosa Alam.

(The writer is a Chandigarh-based journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 27 August 2021, 12:26 IST)

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