Navjot Singh Sidhu at his residence in Patiala (Photo: Getty Images)
When Navjot Singh Sidhu was in school, he would often skip class on days he had to go on stage for debates or dramatics. From that time to riding an elephant through bustling streets to stage a protest against price rise, it has been a metamorphosis. Just hours before the Supreme Court ordered his year-long sentence in a 1988 road rage case, 58-year-old Sidhu was sitting atop an elephant, adorned in an embroidered red cloth, moving through the lanes of Patiala. The Punjab Congress leader held a large white placard that read “Elephant Rise in Prices”, targeting the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. Sidhu got the idea from Piloo Mody, the founder-member of the Swatantra Party, who rode an elephant to Parliament in the 1970s. This was the second time Sidhu was taking an elephant ride as a symbolic protest. The last time was around 15 years ago in Amritsar when he was a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP, protesting against the Manmohan Singh government over the rise in fuel prices.
This is typically Sidhu, cricketer-turned-humourist-turned politician, at times a maverick, on an egocentric ride. The reactions from BJP and Congress leaders, who did not want to be named, are similar—meaningless theatrics. Sidhu has, after all, rubbed both the wrong way. Ask about Sidhu, and most of his foes, friends, and friends-turned-foes clam up. And then, there is a smirk or anger or just silence. Very rarely does any of them talk about him dispassionately. A former cricketer refused to comment. A Congress leader from the state laughed, describing him as “volatile and unpredictable”. Yet, another Congress leader said he is a well-meaning person whose heart and mind are not in cohesion. A BJP leader said the only good thing he did was to ensure a Congress-mukt (free) Punjab. An old friend, who has known him for nearly five decades, said he had good intentions and a vision for Punjab, but was suspicious of everyone.
What is it that turned a “quiet, timid boy”, as described by those who have known him from his school days and when he trained to be a cricketer, into a grandiloquent, boisterous, acerbic politician, who ended up making several enemies across the political spectrum? He unleashed his ire within the party he belonged to, whether it was targeted at Arun Jaitley in BJP or Amarinder Singh in Congress.
Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Sidhu was called to the BJP headquarters, then on Ashoka Road, where the party’s Central Election Committee was finalising the candidates for Punjab. He was told that senior party leader Arun Jaitley, whom Sidhu called his “political guru”, was keen on contesting from Amritsar, a seat Sidhu had held since 2004. Sidhu agreed. But deep down, he held a grudge. Sidhu may have calmly told the media waiting outside that he had sacrificed the seat for his mentor, but equally melodramatically ruled out contesting from any other seat, saying that Amritsar was his “karmabhumi” and he had told the people that he would only contest elections from there. What remained unsaid that day resonated on the campaign trail later in Amritsar, which Sidhu entirely evaded, taking Jaitley by surprise. It was Sidhu’s wife Navjot Kaur who put it on record that he would not campaign for the party in Punjab.
When a reporter asked why he used rhymes, Sidhu said cricket commentaries, otherwise, were boring. With his oratorical skill and quick-witted repartee captivating audiences, the transition to politics had begun
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Jaitley lost to Congress’ Amarinder Singh, who it is said had cautioned his BJP rival that a non-Sikh had never won from the seat. About three years later, it was Jaitley, by then familiar with Sidhu’s hostile side, who reportedly warned Singh against taking him into Congress. Neither could abide by the piece of advice from the other. Both faced their consequences. Sidhu became their common foe. By that time, he had made many more enemies.
When he was first elected from Amritsar in 2004, he spent four-five days a week in the constituency, recalls his school classmate Major (Retd) Ravinder Gill. In 2005, Gill, who became his political advisor, organised a press conference for him in Amritsar. Sidhu hit the headlines. He had tasted blood. His presence in Amritsar started shrinking as he rushed to Delhi for The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, a television comedy series in which he judged stand-up comedians. In one episode that Sidhu was judging, Bhagwant Singh Mann, now Punjab chief minister, was a participant. When Sidhu was in Amritsar, he would hold press conferences. “We kept his presence alive and did some work on development issues for the city,” says Gill. Sidhu had to step down in 2007 with the road rage case, in which he and his friend Rupinder Singh Sandhu were booked for allegedly hitting 65-year-old Patiala resident Gurnam Singh on the head over the right of way for his car, returning to haunt him. Singh was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead. In 2006, the Punjab and Haryana high court found him guilty of culpable homicide (not amounting to murder) and awarded him a three-year jail term. Jaitley appeared as Sidhu’s lawyer in the Supreme Court, which stayed the conviction, releasing him on bail. This paved the way for him to contest the Amritsar by-election in 2007. He won again.
After the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, which Sidhu won by less than 7,000 votes, Gill, who was his election in-charge, fell out with him. “He turned against everyone who supported him. He had got a grant of ₹ 100 crore for the city from the Parkash Singh Badal government. He would make a promise to people, get media coverage and forget about it.” Recalling his school days, when they were classmates at Patiala’s Yadavindra Public School, Gill says he was very quiet, good at studies, and had an excellent memory.
Sandhu, who was Sidhu’s classmate for most of the time through school, says he lacked confidence but was sharp and could reproduce a page in one reading. According to him, Sidhu became a cricketer more because his father wanted him to. “He worked hard and was very intelligent. I used to tell him that there is a very fine line between intelligence and eccentricity.”
As a cricketer, initially dubbed by a columnist as a “strokeless wonder”, Sidhu worked hard on his batting, practising sixers from early morning for over three years. Sandhu, who was one of the bowlers during the practice sessions, recalls that Sidhu would sweat and change T-shirts half-a-dozen times, but he would not give up. At the Chandigarh Press Club in 2017, Sidhu spoke of the “Strokeless Wonder” headline, following his 19 run-debut international Test cricket debut against the West Indies in 1983, stripping him of his pride and how he practised hard making it a point to hit 125 sixes every day, even if his hands bled. At the Reliance World Cup in 1987, he scored four fifties in a row, which included 36 sixes. The same columnist wrote, “From a Strokeless Wonder to a Palm-Grove Hitter”. Sidhu was renamed “Sixer Sidhu”. This was his first transformation.
Even in the 1990s, those who have known him as a cricketer, remember him as a soft-spoken person who hardly spoke and would often be seen reading. Kirti Azad, also a cricketer-turned-politician, who saw Sidhu when he used to go to the Dhyan Chand Stadium for training, says he was a nice, quiet boy. “Around 1999, I saw him change when he started commentary using flowery language. But politics is a different ball game. You have to be available for the people.”
In May 1996, Sidhu walked out of the England tour following an argument with then captain Mohammad Azharuddin. He returned in October of the same year, for the ODI series against South Africa. By then, Sachin Tendulkar, whom Sidhu was in awe of, had taken over as captain. In his 19-year cricket career, Sidhu played 51 Tests and 136 One-Day International matches. A former cricketer, on condition of anonymity, recalls that “Sherry”, as Sidhu was called, had great faith in astrology and would carry a compass on tours to check that the direction of the bed in a hotel room was compatible with vastu.
Later, the once reserved Sidhu took to commentary, giving it a new twist with rhymes and one-liners, which came to be called Sidhuisms. As a former cricketer puts it, it seemed like all that was pent up was being unshackled. When a reporter asked why he used rhymes, he said cricket commentaries, otherwise, were boring. With his oratorical skill and quick-witted repartee captivating audiences, the transition to politics had begun. His appearance on television comedy shows, first with the Great Indian Laughter Challenge and later The Kapil Sharma Show, almost coincided with his political career. He had the gift of the gab. He could make his fans laugh. Emboldened by it, he indulged in verbosity, which often overshadowed the rest.
“He has been a non-serious politician. Wherever he went, he fought with someone. As MP of Amritsar, he did not do anything for his constituency,” says BJP General Secretary Tarun Chugh, who is also from Amritsar. In 2004, after joining BJP, Sidhu defeated Congress’ five-time MP RL Bhatia by a margin of over one lakh votes. He won Lok Sabha elections again in 2007 and 2009 as a BJP candidate, but his waning popularity was reflected in the declining vote margins and his defeat when he was Congress’ Punjab chief in the recent Assembly polls at the hands of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Jeevan Jyot Kaur. His embittered relations with friend-turned-foe Bikram Singh Majithia caught up with him as the Akali Dal leader decided to fight from Amritsar East, giving an edge to AAP. Their paths crossed again in Patiala jail, where both have been lodged. Majithia had surrendered before a Mohali court in the drug case registered against him in December 2021, in which he was accused of offences under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act. Sidhu had been demanding that the Punjab government act on the report of the Special Task Force (STF) that made claims against Majithia.
In 2014, about five months after the Modi government came to power, Sidhu had said “BJP is like a mother to me. And one never leaves one’s mother.” Less than three years later, after he quit BJP alleging that he was being sidelined, and joined Congress, he minced no words in saying, “I am a born Congressman.” After briefly experimenting with floating his own party, Awaaz-e-Punjab, he had joined Congress at the residence of party vice president Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, while Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was campaigning in the state for the Assembly election. Relations between Singh and Sidhu had soured even before he joined the party. Sidhu was given a ticket from the Amritsar East seat, which his wife, a doctor, had won as a BJP candidate in the previous election.
Sidhu locked horns with Singh, accusing him of helping the Badals of Akali Dal and Majithia, and evading action in a 2015 sacrilege case involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh religious text, in Faridkot. A close aide says files piled up on his desk as Sidhu, who was minister of local bodies, tourism, and culture in the Singh government, would refuse to sign them, suspecting that it could be a conspiracy to corner him. The Singh-Sidhu face-off intensified as the election came closer, throwing the party into open factionalism. Despite Singh’s inhibitions, Sidhu was made Pradesh Congress Committee president, replacing Sunil Jakhar, who recently joined BJP. Spurred by Sidhu, the feud got fiercer, leading to the ouster of Singh. Sidhu, who himself is said to have nurtured chief ministerial ambitions, tweeted after Charanjit Singh Channi was made chief minister: “Historic !!
Punjab’s first Dalit CM-Designate… Will be written with Golden letters in History. A tribute to the spirit of the Constitution and the Congress !! Congratulations.” But soon the duo fell out over appointments of the police chief and advocate general. All of it finally boomeranged.
A Congress leader says Sidhu may have had good intentions, but he was never a team player. He further said that in a political party, one has to follow at times and not always lead. Sidhu had been demanding that the Punjab government take on the drug and sand mafias and their powerful lobbies in the state. A month after resigning as state party chief following Congress’ debacle in the election, Sidhu said he would support Mann if he fought the mafia.
Sidhu’s speech in Pakistan at the opening ceremony of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor in November 2019 had gone viral as he spoke of peace between the neighbours and praised then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a World Cup-winning captain. The six-kilometre corridor connecting Dera Baba Nanak in India to Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, where Guru Nanak spent his last 18 years, has been an emotive issue for Sikhs. Sidhu came in for criticism from the opposition— Akali Dal and BJP— as well as sections within Congress. Earlier, he was attacked for his hugging of Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony. Undeterred by it, at Kartarpur he said that if a corridor could open because of a hug, he could give several more hugs to solve issues.
Jaitley lost to Congress’ Amarinder Singh, who it is said had cautioned his BJP rival that a non-Sikh has never won from the seat. Around three years later, it was Jaitley, by then familiar with Sidhu’s hostile side, who reportedly warned Singh against taking him into Congress
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“Kartarpur was a bold move. The people of Punjab largely appreciated it. It was the highlight of his political career. But he has burnt his own bridges with everyone. He is mercurial, inconsistent, disappears from public consciousness for days, and has failed to build a team. He has reached a dead end unless he changes temperamentally,” says academic Harjeshwar Pal Singh of Sri Guru Govind Singh College, Chandigarh.
That Sidhu has antagonised many is apparent. According to a former Congress leader, Sidhu had not taken a single major decision as minister and kept files pending. He might have been winning elections in the past because of his “aura” as a cricketer, commentator and comedy show celebrity, but he has been an unsuccessful politician, he says.
“Among people, there’s a feeling that in the core of his heart, he was concerned with issues plaguing Punjab, like corruption, drug and sand mafias, depleting water table, and farmers’ woes. There is not a single case of corruption against him. But there is a flip side. He is hyper. He will talk very highly of someone and when affiliations change, he castigates the same person,” says academic Ronki Ram of Panjab University, Chandigarh.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for Sidhu. As an acquaintance says, he is now where he began. It is up to Sidhu how he restarts his journey. He is not known to give up. “Experience is the comb life gives you when you are bald,” is one of his one-liners.