Congress reins in Sidhu
The Congress high command has firmly conveyed to Navjot Singh Sidhu that no gesture of defiance or disrespect to Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh would be tolerated and that his Pakistan visit should be portrayed as a personal gesture and not a party initiative.
Sidhu’s dismissive quip about Amarinder, known as “Captain” because of his stint in the army, had angered the ex-cricketer’s fellow Punjab ministers, prompting the central leadership to quickly intervene.
Asked about Amarinder’s objections to his Pakistan visit to attend the “groundbreaking” for the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims, Sidhu had said: “Which captain are you talking about? My captain is Rahul Gandhi and he sent me the go-ahead.”
Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur too said the couple were “soldiers” of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, and not Amarinder’s.
After the rap from the high command, Sidhu described the chief minister as his boss and a father figure. He also retracted his claim about Rahul sending him to Pakistan.
Asked whether Sidhu had been pulled up, the Congress’s Punjab minder, Asha Kumari, told The Telegraph: “Why should he be pulled up? There is a general instruction to every Congress worker and leader not to show disrespect to each other. It’s a question of party discipline.”
Kumari added: “There is no particular reason to pull up anybody. The media is exaggerating the issue and creating an unnecessary controversy.”
Asked whether the high command had appreciated Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan, she said: “As a minister in the Punjab government, he should not have gone when the chief minister has taken a stand. But if he goes in his personal capacity, we don’t have to say anything. Sidhu is mature enough to use his own rationale.”
The Congress didn’t want to make an issue of a personal invite to Sidhu from friend and ex-cricketer Imran Khan who is now Prime Minister of Pakistan. But there is a feeling that Sidhu could have conducted himself with greater maturity and adopted a lower profile.
Many party seniors feel that Sidhu, known for his showmanship, overreached himself by heaping praise on Imran and delivering a lecture on peace between the two countries.
“The nature of the engagement with Pakistan has to be decided by the central government. The minister for tourism and culture of any state cannot usurp that role,” a senior Congress leader said.
“Tomorrow, if something unpleasant happens, Narendra Modi will say the Congress muddied the waters, interfered with foreign policy. The Pakistan foreign minister’s ‘googly’ remark is in bad taste and we don’t want the BJP to twist facts to say that Sidhu was part of the ugly game,” a senior Congress leader said.
Congress insiders said the chief minister had carefully analysed the complexities involved and chosen to stay away.
Amarinder had tweeted: “Welcome decision of Pakistan PM Imran Khan to build Kartarpur Corridor but will not go there for their groundbreaking ceremony unless Pak ends violence against India. As CM, I have a responsibility to Punjab & will protect it from terror till the last drop of my blood.”
He had made his displeasure at Sidhu’s visit public, saying: “I don’t stop any minister who wants to travel abroad. I said ‘yes’ to Sidhu initially. But I called him when he was in Madhya Pradesh and said he should not go. He said, ‘I have already accepted the invite’. I told him to say my chief minister has taken this stand. But he went. That’s fine.”
Some in the party have blamed the egos of both Amarinder and Sidhu, arguing that the chief minister had adopted a “nationalist stand” only because he realised that Sidhu would steal the limelight at the event.
But they agree that Sidhu, with his penchant for flamboyance, forgot he was a junior minister dealing with the Prime Minister of a hostile country, a relationship that has to be different from that between two retired cricketers.
Sidhu is charismatic and the Congress leadership acknowledges his usefulness in election campaigns. But it concedes that it’s a risk to use him in sensitive diplomatic engagements.
His acerbic jibes in recent elections have created controversies but enthralled the public as well. But the Congress realises that India-Pakistan relations are a different ball game.