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‘Swami Vivekananda changed my life'
Tête à tête

The master of corny sayings, ex-cricketer and newly-elected MP from Amritsar, Navjot Singh Sidhu, has shown that he has oodles of political savvy too. Television’s favourite motormouth gets candid with Bishakha De Sarkar

A cheery Sunday morning has melted into a weary afternoon, and there is still no sign of Navjot Singh Sidhu. The meeting's been rescheduled so many times that I begin to fear that he has, finally, run out steam and one liners. A sudoku, a crossword and a jumble puzzle later -- just when it looks as if Sunday may well stretch to a Monday -– the bell rings, loud and incessant. This, no doubt, is the new Member of Parliament from Amritsar . Who else would press the bell like that'

Resplendent in a shocking pink turban, Sidhu storms in. He sits on a sofa and puts his shod, and no doubt tired, feet up on a table, exposing a pair of pale pink nylon socks, the kind that school girls usually wear. On television, the commentator is always dapper – and I am surprised he is not in a nice pair of Argyle socks in a shade to match his turban. But Sidhu, clearly, is a man of contradictions. On TV, he is loud and full of corny sayings that confound logic. In his central Delhi office at a multi-storeyed residential building for Members of Parliament, he is soft spoken and often introspective.

He also talks like a seasoned politician. He rattles off facts and figures to explain the fall of the Congress government in Punjab . The state has a per capita debt of Rs 13,000, he says. Investment has fallen and there are no jobs. Punjab , he rants, was ruled by the liquor and land mafia.

"It was a cash-and-carry government," he says. "There was a resentment vote because the government did nothing. 'Congress ka haath garib key saath' is a joke. The hand was a slap on the face of the people."

Sidhu, 43, has just been re-elected from Amritsar -– the only non-Congress candidate to have twice won the Parliamentary seat, a traditional Congress stronghold. Suddenly, Sidhu is not just a maverick who has talked his way into Parliament. He speaks of the price of daal – and compares it with the low rates that farm land was sold for to make way for multiplexes. He talks about focusing on education and health and the need to diversify from agriculture to the manufacturing sector. The one-liners have been put on hold.

But then, politics is something that he grew up with, for his father –- who famously veered him towards cricket -- was an MLA. "He lived and died a Congressman," he says. "He saw me play one match but never saw my comeback in the World Cup," says Sidhu, who made a forgettable 19 in his international debut against the West Indies in 1983, but scored 73 against Australia in his one-day international debut in the 1987 World Cup.

His lawyer-father doted on his only son. He wanted him to play international cricket and even started a young Yadavindra club—- named after the Patiala public school Sidhu studied in -- for him when he was eight. "But cricket was always a burden for me," says Sidhu. "I played cricket to realise a dream that my father saw."

Still, growing up in Patiala was fun. Sidhu recalls his days with nostalgia, for he hasn't gone back to Patiala -– where his wife, a doctor, and two school-going children live – to keep word that he gave the people of Amritsar in 2004.

He remembers roaming the countryside as a child, stealing mangoes from orchards. "I had a happy and protected childhood. I was a pampered kid who was born with a golden spoon in his mouth."

But he wasn't, as I'd thought, the popular wit in school -- full of pranks and practical jokes. "Actually I was so shy as a child that if there was a debate in school I used to take three days off! When I was made a school prefect and had to say 'disperse' at the assembly, I nearly fainted," he says.

That's difficult to imagine, for Sidhu is after all the man who is behind such thoughts as "You may have a heart of gold, but so does a hard-boiled egg." Just how did the transition from a tongue-tied boy to a trigger-happy motor-mouth happen'

“Swami Vivekananda changed my life,” he replies. His father had a library – with a great many books that the senior Sidhu had underlined with red ink – and in the lot were the works of the saint-philosopher. Sidhu picked up a set during his last cricket series in Sri Lanka in 1993 – and he says he ended up reading eight volumes in three days.

"I would read, and feel an electric current go through my body. I thought this was one man I had to believe in. Religion is not something that you have to talk about -– you have to practise it. I started breathing, chanting mantras – and it changed my life. I discovered my inner ocean – and the realisation that he who doesn't see god in all, doesn't see god at all."

Sidhu gets up at 4 every morning and meditates, sometimes, he says, for five or six hours at a stretch. His lifestyle is a bit of a surprise, too. Unlike most good Jat Sikhs, he is not fond of a Patiala peg with the mandatory tandoori chicken. He is a teetotaller ("my father drank my share") and a vegetarian, ever since he went on a shikar in Patiala years ago. He killed a deer and it was found to be pregnant. Sidhu never touched meat again.

That comes as a bit of a surprise, too, for compassion is not a word that people connect with Sidhu. He was, after all, the man who killed another in a fit of rage 18 years ago after a brawl over a parking slot. In December, a court sentenced him to three years in jail – leading cartoonist Rajneesh to create a comic strip about the impending sentence. "I feel sorry for Sidhu," said one of his characters. "Guys I feel sorry for are the ones who would be locked up with him for three years," replied another.

But it didn't happen. The Supreme Court stayed the conviction in January and praised the "high moral standards" that he had shown by resigning as an MP. Sidhu was free to fight for Amritsar again.

Yet anger is something that Sidhu continues to be linked with. A television anchor recalls how after the conviction he had asked Sidhu, on air, what it felt like to be called a criminal. Sidhu walked out of the show.

"Don't call me a criminal, it gives me pain," Sidhu now recites from a verse that he has penned in Hindi. "I have lit a lamp in many a storm."

Sidhu writes copious poetry, and jots down his thoughts in a notebook through the day. He doesn't have a book in him yet, for, he says, laughing uproariously, you write a book only when you are impotent. "But politics is great -– if you succeed you get rewards. If you fail, you can always write a book."

If he does write one, there will be a chapter devoted to his entry into politics. He was a fan of Atal Behari Vajpayee and had successfully campaigned for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2004, when he was in Pakistan as a commentator, a phone call came from Delhi – asking him to fight from Amritsar on a BJP ticket. Sidhu declined, pointing out that he would have to fight Congress strongman R.L. Bhatia, and that there were barely 15 days left for the poll. "Then Vajpayeeji rang me up and said: `A soldier doesn't ask his General questions – he girds his loins and jumps into the battlefield.'"

So Sidhu girded his loins, and decided to walk into Amritsar through the Wagah border from Pakistan , with two suitcases in hand. "My god, the response was terrific: there were some 25,000 people, and they carried me through and wouldn't let me down."

There is some talk about Sidhu being given a larger role to play in Punjab . "My mission is to help Sardar Prakash Singh Badal to resurrect Punjab . Posts don't matter to me. For me, politics is a mission, not a profession."

Clichés apart, Sidhu is an unlikely politician in one way – he doesn't believe in groups. His mentors – from Vajpayee to L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley to Sushma Swaraj, and M. Venkaiah Naidu to Rajnath Singh – cut across factions.

And his true inspirations, he stresses, are M.K. Gandhi and Vivekananda. Gandhi beams at visitors from a calendar in an anteroom in his office. There is also Manmohan Singh smiling from a photograph perched up on a book shelf. "I respect him, he is an honest PM -- but he is a glove in somebody else's hand," says Sidhu. There is also an angry Che peering out of a table calendar, but Sidhu has possibly never noticed it. "Che," he asks, sounding confused.

Sidhu stresses that he has no regrets. "When adversity comes, it comes with instructions in hand. It gives you an opportunity to discover your strength or lack of it. I have never become a bechara in my life."

But then, as Sidhu says, life is what happens when you have other plans.

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