‘The Congress gave four Gandhis to the country — Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul — while the BJP has given three Modis,’ Navjot Sidhu told an election rally in Rajasthan.’
‘Two of them, Nirav and Lalit, have decamped with the money, while the third sits in the lap of moneybags.’
Archis Mohan reports.
Navjot Singh Sidhu was ‘on the brink’ of losing his voice. Incredulous as it sounded, the press statement from the Punjab government on December 6 was unambiguous.
The 55-year-old Punjab minister for local government, tourism and cultural affairs had been campaigning for the Congress for 17 days nonstop. He had addressed 70 public meetings, back to back, in poll-bound Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan.
A natural showman with the gift of the gab, the turbanator had been quite a crowd puller.
Such was the intensity of his speeches that his vocal cords finally protested. Having injured them, he had now left for an undisclosed location for treatment to get his voice back.
Thankfully for his party, his voice had held till campaigning ended.
In these crucial assembly elections, which saw the Congress re-emerging as a force to reckon with, Sidhu turned out to be the party’s star campaigner.
He took on stalwarts of the Bharatiya Janata Party in his trademark style — mocking and mimicking them. Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, whom he used to swear by until a few years ago, particularly had his attention.
Videos of his election speeches on YouTube where he mimics Modi or questions him on unfulfilled promises became a rage.
With practically every candidate wanting him to campaign in his constituency, Sidhu was a man on the go.
While he was in Chhattisgarh, addressing nearly a dozen public meetings over three days right before the second phase of polling, the clamour for him to be in Rajasthan grew.
And then, candidates from Madhya Pradesh wanted him — he addressed six rallies in the state on the last day of campaigning there.
This done, he landed in Amritsar to prepare for the groundbreaking ceremony for the proposed Kartarpur corridor along with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
The 4.7-km-long corridor would connect two important Sikh shrines — one in India and the other in Pakistan — and allow pilgrims to visit, without a visa, a gurdwara in Pakistan where Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh guru, spent his final years.
From winning over crowds at dusty rallies to hobnobbing with the prime minister of a neighbouring country, Sidhu did it all effortlessly. That he is equally comfortable in Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu helped.
Not everybody, however, approved of his visit to Pakistan.
While the BJP criticised him for it, the Congress leadership in Punjab also insinuated that he was making a mistake by trusting Pakistan.
As a battle of words broke out, Congress President Rahul Gandhi sent a message to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh asking him to rein in his ministers.
Campaigning in Rajasthan and Telangana wasn’t over yet, and seeing what a phenomenon he had been in the other two states, Gandhi did not want Sidhu distracted.
Sidhu’s popularity, Congress strategists point out, lies both in his reputation as a swashbuckling cricketer who would hit sixes at will and his subsequent television persona.
“He has been a cricketer, but also an entertainer,” says a Congress leader, who is part of the party’s communication department. “His past as a cricketer makes it difficult for the BJP to question his nationalism. He gets away by ridiculing Modi while something similar from most Congress leaders does not resonate as much.”
For example, at one of his public meetings in Madhya Pradesh, Sidhu said Modi was the kathputli (puppet) of moneybags.
In Alwar in Rajasthan, Sidhu said the Congress gave four Gandhis to the country — Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul — while the BJP has given three Modis.
‘Two of them, Nirav and Lalit, have decamped with the money, while the third sits in the lap of moneybags,’ he said to loud cheers.
“He connects with people using sarcasm, humour and shayari (poetry), and people have respect for him as somebody who brought laurels to the country,” says Pintu Sangwan, a 40-year-old Congress worker from Nagaur, Rajasthan.
In Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, Sidhu had the audience in splits when he said economists around the prime minister were not arthashastris, but vyarthashastri (wasters).
It was a jibe at Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for whom Sidhu, who was earlier with the BJP, had to vacate his Amritsar Lok Sabha seat in 2014. Sidhu had won the seat thrice before that. But Jaitley couldn’t.
Sidhu was incensed when months before the Punjab assembly elections, the BJP sent him to the Rajya Sabha in the nominated category. He quit the party, discovered that the resurgent Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab was too small a place for a man of his talents, and eventually joined the Congress in early 2017.
Sidhu won over the Congress leadership and its workers with his speech at the party’s plenary session in March this year.
It is hard to imagine that this flamboyant Sikh, ever ready with repartee, could ever have been shy. But that was the case — many moons ago. In the past, Sidhu has said that he was extremely shy as a child and once fainted when told to ask students at his school to disperse after the assembly.
Sidhu might no longer be shy, but he remains temperamental.
In an interview, he said he made it to the coveted St Stephen’s College in Delhi, but quit after he beat a group of seniors with a curtain rod when they tried to rag him.
The next day he was back in Patiala to play cricket. In the initial years, while his father, Bhagwant Singh, dreamt of his son playing for India, Sidhu was not keen on taking up cricket as a career.
And when he did make his debut for India in 1983 against the West Indies, he was a disaster — scoring 20 runs in 90 minutes before being practically booed off the field. Cricket writer Rajan Bala described him as a ‘strokeless wonder’.
Sidhu once recalled seeing his tearful father trying to hide that newspaper from him. That was the turning point. He pasted that newspaper on his cupboard and got down to business.
Four years later, he made a spectacular comeback, scoring four successive half centuries in the 1987 World Cup — a feat that now had people calling him ‘sixer Sidhu’.
‘One day, Ravi Shastri handed me the Khaleej Times, saying there was something in it about me. The headline read, ‘From a strokeless wonder to a Palmgrove hitter’. It was by the same writer,’ Sidhu said in an interview.
A year later, Sidhu and a friend of his were booked for culpable homicide (not amounting to murder) in a road rage case which had led to the death of a 65-year-old man. The case haunted him for nearly 30 years and even cost him his Lok Sabha seat after the Punjab and Haryana high court convicted him in 2006. The Supreme Court finally acquitted him earlier this year.
Then, during India’s tour to England in 1996, a sulking Sidhu walked out of the team’s hotel accusing his captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, of constantly abusing him. A committee later concluded that Sidhu’s departure from England was an ’emotional reaction from a hypersensitive individual’.
Temperamental in life, on the cricket field and in politics, Sidhu, once a reticent man, did reinvent himself after retirement. He credits this transformation to meditation and vegetarianism.
A devoted meat eater, he turned vegetarian after one hunting session with a friend. They had killed a doe; when they cut her open, they found a fully formed foetus inside. Sidhu said he could never eat meat again.
Sidhu’s recent popularity has some speculating that he might be the next chief minister of Punjab. That could be so, given that Amarinder Singh will be 80 when elections are held in the state in 2022.
But then, as then British prime minister Harold Wilson said: ‘A week is a long time in politics.’