In 1996, when Navjot Sidhu walked out of the Indian cricket team midway through its disastrous tour of England, nobody knew what had set off one of the strangest antics by an Indian cricketer in history. It would be another 15 years till Jaywant Lele’s book would reveal that Sidhu’s walkout was triggered by what he perceived to be constant foul mouthing by Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin. Any other cricketer walking out of a crucial tour would have invited a potential life ban. But then as indispensable as Sidhu was to the team, the maverick cricketer was recalled six months later for the tour to West Indies.
At the moment, Sidhu finds himself in the same spot as a politician. It’s been almost two years since he resigned as minister from the Amarinder Singh cabinet after being re-assigned to a portfolio for “non-performance”. Efforts to rehabilitate him have failed despite interventions from the party’s top leadership, including Priyanka Gandhi, who is known to have a special liking for the former cricketer.
Addressing the media in his hometown Patiala, Sidhu launched a tirade against Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and accused his party of colluding with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Raising sensitive issues of the sacrilege of the Sikh holy scriptures and the subsequent police firing on protestors at Kotakpura in 2015, Sidhu accused Amarinder of failing to ensure justice for those killed by the police. In an apparent reference to collusion between Amarinder and the Badals, he said: “They indulge in mud-slinging during the day and then get together for a party at their farmhouse at night. That is why a frustrated Punjab is demanding change.”
This comes at a time when the assembly elections in the spring of 2022 are less than a year away with the incumbent Congress facing an uphill task of retaining power. Any other leader would have been roasted on the coals by the party’s two-member disciplinary committee, consisting of A K Antony and Sushil Kumar Shinde. But Sidhu is viewed as an indispensable and irascible problem child who can be coaxed out of his wayward ways with kid glove treatment.
Sunil Jakhar, former MP and president of the Punjab Congress, said: “He is needed in the party and is an integral part of the team. He feels his self-respect and honour have been hurt due to some administrative decisions. Efforts are on at the highest level, including from leaders like Priyanka Gandhi, to settle the issue soon and get him back on board.”
Sidhu presents more than just a straight batted dilemma for the Congress. For one, his ambitions for a larger role in the state and eventually national politics aren’t exactly a secret. Sidhu senses that the 79-year-old Amarinder will soon be riding into his political sunset, leaving a leadership vacuum for the party. The party’s top leadership realises the former cricketer’s utility and mass appeal. His post-cricket avatar as a hugely popular television face has made him a household name. His oratory skills and ability to whip up mass hysteria in election rallies is acknowledged as an asset. Although a polarising figure, Sidhu has proven himself to be a potent grassroots organiser, especially in his own constituency and hometown.
In 2017, Amarinder, unarguably the tallest Congressman in Punjab, had declared that he would be contesting the last election of his life. But in 2020, the party put its weight behind Amarinder again and he decided to contest the 2022 elections. Jakhar, who has onboarded Prashant Kishor to devise its poll strategy, even coined “Captain for 2022” as the party’s war cry. In many ways, this would mean playing second fiddle to Amarinder for a much longer period of time than the ambitious Sidhu had envisaged. Jakhar said: “There is no doubt that Captain will be lead us into 2022. Two horses will not pull the same cart.”
In 1996, Sidhu was pacified by Punjabi-speaking Mohinder Amarnath, who explained to him that Azhar’s name calling prefixed with “Maa ke …” was a “naughty” Hyderabadi way of calling out a loved one and not an abuse. While Amarnath’s knowledge of India’s regional colorful semantics was enough to get Sidhu and Azhar on good terms again, getting him to accept Amarinder’s authority could be a different ball game altogether for Priyanka Gandhi & Co.