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Sidhu says Congress ‘may spring surprise on CM face’, talks of ‘character crisis’ in Punjab

In an interview with ThePrint, Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, 58, weighs in on his CM ambitions, but stays non-committal on Pakistan’s role in Punjab’s drug problem.

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Chandigarh: The Congress high-command might “spring a surprise” regarding its decision on the Punjab chief ministerial candidate, state party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu has said.

“The Congress is smart. Maybe they are planning something. Maybe they have a hidden agenda. Maybe they will disclose the chief ministerial candidate. They may come up with a surprise,” Sidhu said in an interview to ThePrint Friday, weeks ahead of the 2022 Punjab assembly elections. 

“The party that gave India Independence and laid the foundation of the Constitution, they know their job. They are not amateurs,” he said, adding that it was for the party high-command to decide the CM face.

Sidhu, a former cricketer and commentator as well as a well-known TV personality, joined the Congress in 2017 after quitting the BJP. 

His tenure in the party has been headline-grabbing on account of his frequent run-ins with former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, which culminated in the latter resigning from the Congress last year and joining hands with the BJP for the upcoming elections. 

Even in the days since, there has been some unease among Congress leaders regarding Sidhu, in light of statements seen as a public condemnation of the state government’s handling of the case against SAD leader and former minister Bikram Singh Majithia, who has been booked for his alleged involvement in a drugs-related offence.

On his part, Sidhu speaks of a “character crisis” in the state, while noting that the public “trusts me”. Criticism to him is like water off a duck’s back, and he sees it as a reiteration of his importance.

In his interview with ThePrint, Sidhu, 58, weighed in on questions about his possible chief ministerial ambitions, and his desire to fight a “system wherein selfish vested interests are overriding the interest of the state”.

While he talked about the need to battle the problem of drugs in the state, he was non-committal when asked if he would admit Pakistan fomented trouble in Punjab and was pushing narcotics into the state. 

It was Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan in 2018, and his hug with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa during his former cricketing colleague Imran Khan’s inauguration as PM, that set the stage for his first showdown with Amarinder. 

But Sidhu sees that trip as the first step towards the opening of Kartarpur corridor, a project of deep significance on both sides of the border that connects Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur, Punjab, with the Darbar Sahib Gurdwara in Narowal, Pakistan.

Also Read: Dissension over Congress’ CM face grows as Sidhu insists ‘people will decide, not high command’

A ‘naive’ question

Asked if he wanted to become the chief minister of Punjab, Sidhu said it was a naive question, suggesting that he indeed was in the race. 

However, he also insisted that he was not running for any post if there is a “guarantee” that the agenda (road map) will be implemented. 

“What is needed at the top is an honest person with a vision,” he said. “Second, you (the person at the top) must have character. Third, you cannot be a thief if you want to change the system. The person at the top should also have the moral authority to act. Why do you think the ED has not been able to get me till now? Because they cannot find anything against me.”

According to Sidhu, “this system” has “mastered the art of corruption”. The “system” he is referring to is the sand, liquor, transport and cable mafia in Punjab.

“They only want those persons in the system who can earn money for them. Anybody who wants to break the system will have to risk his everything,” he said. “Because a system, which earns Rs 50,000 crore a year has to be powerful.” 

Elaborating on the Punjab model he envisions — expected to be a part of the Congress election manifesto — Sidhu said the idea was to bring the state back on track by “quelling this mafia” that has eroded its vitals. 

While there are challenges galore, he said, the solution lies in changing the system and generating income for the state that has been “for years going into the pockets of a few”. 

“The battle is not against individuals. It is against a system wherein selfish vested interests are overriding the interest of the state,” he added.

Sidhu doesn’t make much of the criticism levelled at him. To a question that he is seen as somebody who is never satisfied with whatever he is given, he said he has won six elections and “the proof of the pudding is in eating it”. 

“People trust me. There is a character crisis in this state. When you are important you will be criticised,” he added. 

“In criticism lies growth. (The late Union minister) Sushma Swaraj used to criticise madam Sonia (Gandhi) so much and that is how she grew (as a politician). When you are criticised, you know you are important and that so many people are jealous, but I don’t really bother about what people think about me. I am accountable only to my conscience.”

What if his party gets fed up with him? 

“Had the party been upset with me, they would have never made me the state chief. People have their own aspirations but have I ever reacted to their criticising me? I am the PPCC (Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee) president and even when other Congressmen criticise me, I don’t go and complain against them,” he said.

Also Read: In Modi’s ‘Veer Baal Diwas’ gambit, Congress sees bid to ‘divide India, overshadow Nehru’

‘Amarinder a puppet’

Sidhu is unsparing in his criticism of Amarinder, a long-time Congress leader before he parted ways with the party. 

Amarinder, he said, was a “puppet” in the hands of the Narendra Modi government who “used” him. “He was run through the agencies. The ED was giving him notices. So he was running the government to save his own skin, not to save Punjab,” he said.

The acrimony has run both ways, with Amarinder also referring to Sidhu as “insane and unstable”. 

Asked about these remarks, Sidhu said he did not want to comment on a “spent cartridge”. “A shameless chief minister addressing 500 people on 70,000 chairs. What a fall Captain Amarinder has had,” he said, referring to the BJP’s rally in Ferozpur where Modi could not reach due to a security breach. 

It is believed that while there were over 50,000 chairs at the venue, only a few thousand were occupied.

Asked if he regretted hugging Pakistan Army chief Bajwa, Sidhu said it was his visit to Pakistan that had led to the opening of the Kartarpur corridor. 

“When Captain Amarinder went to Pakistan, he brought back a horse and somebody is riding that horse. When the Akalis went there, they stayed there for months and brought back sheep. The Prime Minister (Modi) also hugged the then Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif),” he added. 

“Why should anyone be pained if I went there and we got the Kartarpur corridor? Amarinder was a parrot of the Modi government. They would throw a few bites at him and he would talk nationalism,” he said, referring to Amarinder’s criticism of him on the subject.

Asked if he would admit that Pakistan is always fomenting trouble in Punjab and also pushing drugs into the state, Sidhu remained non-committal, insisting that it is important to tackle the problem of drugs in Punjab, where “these are being peddled in VIP cars (referring to the allegations against Majithia that his official car as minister was used by those allegedly involved in the drug trade)”.

Would he take up the challenge of fighting elections against Majithia? Sidhu said he was ready to take on anyone, except that he will not be shifting from his constituency (Amritsar East).

On the issue of holding a press conference with huge hoardings of his alone (without CM Charanjit Singh Channi) in the background, Sidhu said, “There are hoardings that he had and the government advertised in which there was no other picture except his own. Jealousy is the jaundice of the soul. 

“There are government matters that are advertised by the government. And there are political issues, which is the vision that you have to give. I am seeing this government beyond 2022 March, when the real challenge begins.” 

Sidhu said “we cannot look at the government for two months”. 

“This is damage control (mode) and, if we let it go from here, Punjab will become unlivable in the next two years,” he added.

Elections to the 117-seat Punjab assembly will be held in a single phase on 14 February. The results will be declared on 10 March.

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