Chandigarh: A 15-minute speech at the opening ceremony of the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor in Pakistan last week seems to have resurrected Navjot Singh Sidhu’s flagging political career.
The Congress MLA and former cricketer has been in the proverbial outhouse since June, when Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh changed his portfolio and Sidhu resigned from the cabinet and went incommunicado.
But his speech praising his friend and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and promoting peace between the countries has gone viral, not just in India but also in Pakistan.
While there is no record of how many times the speech has been circulated on WhatsApp, on Facebook, ARY TV’s telecast of his speech was viewed 4.6 million times, while the Pakistan TV telecast shared by the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, has been viewed 1.5 million times. On YouTube, the speech has gathered 1.1 million views on Samaa TV, and another 773K views on the Geo TV upload. It touched over 250,000 views each on BBC Punjabi and BBC Hindi.
The 6-kilometre corridor connects Dera Baba Nanak in India to Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan, where the first guru of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak, spent the last 17 years of his life. Sikhs across the world have long demanded such a corridor be opened.
‘Let’s solve all issues through hugs’
Sidhu had requested to be part of the opening ceremony in Pakistan, rather the Indian ceremony in Dera Baba Nanak, which PM Narendra Modi and Amarinder were attending. Opposition parties as well as his detractors within the Congress attacked him for accepting Imran Khan’s invitation.
However, standing before a cheering crowd, Sidhu seemed unruffled, giving Khan complete credit for opening the corridor, and making no bones about their friendship.
“Today, Sidhu will speak from his heart, and I am here to extend my gratitude (shukrana) to my yaar (friend) Imran Khan for opening this corridor,” he began.
“For 72 years, nothing happened on the corridor, and all it took was a noble prime minister to do it in barely 10 months,” Sidhu said.
He also used poetic metaphors to praise Khan. “The river of time turns into a flood and drowns everything in it… Time is like the storm that forces even mountains to bow… People in this world are often caught in the whirlpool of time, but then there are those like Imran Khan, who make history,” he said.
Sidhu said he was speaking on behalf of the 14 crore Sikhs who were thankful to Khan for what he had done. “Mark my words. These 14 crore Sikhs will take you places you have not even imagined. They will be your mouthpiece in this world,” said Sidhu.
This last quote was particularly significant, because Indian security agencies have been wary of Pakistan’s ISI trying to woo the Sikhs through the gesture, to fuel its designs of reviving Sikh militancy in Punjab. CM Amarinder Singh has, on several occasions, including on the inauguration day of the corridor, warned Pakistan not to indulge in any nefarious activities through it.
Sidhu was also attacked for his impromptu hug to Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at Khan’s swearing-in ceremony last year. But in his Kartarpur speech, Sidhu gave it back to his detractors.
“If a corridor can open because of one hug then I will give another hug… A second, third, sixth, a hundred hugs… Let us solve all issues through such hugs… Why get innocent sons of mothers killed on borders?” Sidhu said in Punjabi verse.
Emphasising the need for peace between the two nations, Sidhu said, “Hor, hor, hor, yeh dil maange more (I still want more),” requesting Khan to open trade between the two countries.
“My dream is that a trader should start after having breakfast from Amritsar in the morning and come to Lahore and have biryani here, do his business and go back to Amritsar,” he said.
Sidhu also congratulated PM Modi for ensuring the corridor opens. “Even if I am politically opposed to him and my life is bequeathed to the Gandhi family, I congratulate Modi and I send him a ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’ hug. If he calls me for a meeting, I will hug him with as much warmth,” Sidhu said, adding that “this corridor is not about politics, it is about the truth”.
Sidhu also took an apparent dig at Amarinder, saying those who have opened the corridor are worth lakhs (lakh de), and those who opposed it are worth nothing (khak de).
Sidhu, as expected, received brickbats not only from opposition parties, but also from Congress leaders.
Charanjit Singh Channi, Punjab cabinet minister, said the two friends (Khan and Sidhu) have decided to help build one another politically. “Whatever Sidhu did at the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor was part of that exercise. In inviting Sidhu, Imran Khan built up Sidhu, and in return, Sidhu praised Khan to the skies,” Channi said.
Akali MLA and former cabinet minister Bikram Singh Majithia said it was clear that Sidhu went to the opening to do politics.
“It was a solemn occasion where we went to absorb the aura of the Guru’s house, but Sidhu went to do politics. If he had to give a speech, why did he not tell the Pakistan Army that trying to revive the Khalistani movement in Punjab will not work? And why did he not stop Khan when he made the entire opening speech about Kashmir? Had he not gone there as an Indian?” Majithia said.
Senior Punjab BJP leader Vineet Joshi said Sidhu insulted the nation’s soldiers in showering such extraordinary praises on Imran Khan. “A gentle thank you would have been enough. But to go on and on, painting Khan as a messiah, was out of place. Why did he not talk about Khalistan, terrorism, Referendum 2020 and Bhindranwale?” Joshi asked.
‘Sidhu has filled a political vacuum’
Jagrup Singh, a border studies expert from the department of political science at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, said Sidhu has not only managed to make a comeback with this speech, but also carved out a permanent space for himself in Punjab’s political discourse.
“Sidhu has filled a political vacuum which was being felt by the Sikhs for some time now. Years ago, Sikhs banked on the Shiromani Akali Dal to raise their voice at the national level, but while SAD gained a lot politically from this position, it failed to deliver results,” Singh said.
“Briefly, the Aam Aadmi Party seemed to have filled this vacuum. Now, Sidhu who is being seen as the person raising Sikhs’ voices… He has caught the imagination of the Sikh masses,” he said.
“In his speech he made it very clear that he is not going to leave the Congress party. This was aimed to put an end to rumours that he is likely to rejoin the BJP in Punjab. Sidhu’s popularity is not going to be appreciated by the CM. The fact that Amarinder gave a statement Tuesday requesting Imran Khan to open other gurdwaras shows he realises that Sidhu has backed to the right cause and also got the credit for it,” said Singh.