Sidhu’s spin

Print edition : November 25, 2016

Cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu at his first press conference in Chandigarh on September 8, after forming Awaaz-e-Punjab. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh interacting with farmers during a roadshow on the second day of his three-day "kisan bus yatra" with the campaign message of "Karza-kurki khatam, fasal di poori rakam" on waiver of farm loans at Faridkot on October 18. Photo: PTI

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal and the party's Punjab convener Gurpreet Singh during a meeting with traders, transporters and industrialists in Bathinda on October 24. Kejriwal released the party's manifesto for the Punjab Assembly election in Ludhiana the previous day. Photo: PTI

The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party are trying to reach an electoral understanding with Navjot Singh Sidhu’s Awaaz-e-Punjab, but the former BJP MP is driving a hard bargain.

ONE evening in late October, more than a month after he spoke of his “highly disappointing” talks with Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the former Indian cricketer and former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament Navjot Singh Sidhu was busy negotiating details of a potential pre-election alliance with the AAP leader Durgesh Pathak at his Commonwealth Games Village residence in Delhi. It had been a day of long meetings for Sidhu, whose flight to Delhi had apparently been delayed, and the scheduled 11 a.m. meeting with members of his Awaaz-e-Punjab (AEP), which was formed in early September, had begun only at 2:45 p.m. and gone on until well past 5 p.m. when Pathak arrived with two other AAP leaders.

According to sources in the AEP and the AAP, hectic discussions were held for more than an hour, but both sides refused to divulge the details. After the Sidhu-Kejriwal talks failed in September, there were strong rumours in Punjab’s political circles about a resumption of talks between the AAP and Sidhu. Pathak and the AAP’s Punjab in-charge, Sanjay Singh, confirmed that talks were going on and expressed hope that they would be successful. However, a day after his meeting with Pathak, Sidhu met a faction of the Congress that was keen to have him aboard. AEP sources said Sidhu held a “dinner meeting with the Congress’ election strategist Prashant Kishor” at his residence. Soon, speculation about Sidhu having been offered the post of Deputy Chief Minister by both parties mounted although they denied it.

Clearly, following the two shrewdly publicised closed-door meetings with the leaders of the two big parties that are likely to have a real shot at power in Punjab, Sidhu was back in the reckoning as a key player in pre-election politics although his AEP does not have a notable presence in the campaign on the ground as of now. Frontline found after speaking with a cross section of party leaders, strategists and independent election analysts in the State that the persistent courting of the AEP and other smaller outfits by both the Congress and the AAP was an important indictor of the transformation of the election from the traditional bipolar contest to a multipolar one, thereby increasing the relevance of marginal political players.

A day after the meeting between the AAP and the AEP at Sidhu’s residence, a senior AAP leader told Frontline: “Do you think we had not been holding talks before this meeting? The media got to know about this meeting after we made it public, but talks have been going on for several weeks. Both the Congress and the AAP know that Sidhu has been talking to both the parties. We have been holding negotiations because Sidhu can damage the AAP’s chances by joining the Congress. Sidhu’s main benefit to us in the coming elections is based on perception and not in terms of the number of seats or votes.”

Apart from trying to rope in the AEP, the AAP has also tried to reach out, with little success, to the Sikh religious leader from Bhatinda Balwant Singh Nandgarh, who is the patron of the newly formed Akhand Akali Dal, an organisation that seeks to mobilise Sikh votes against the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). In fact, a day before the meeting with Sidhu, Kejriwal and the AAP’s Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann met Nandgarh, who appears not to have responded favourably to the idea. When asked about this meeting, the senior leader said: “There are certain leaders who may be relatively small in stature but still have their influence among a section of society. If they are not in our favour, we would like them to at least not be against us.”

A veteran State Congress leader was even more candid about the need to court smaller political players. “At present, the mahaul [political climate] in Punjab is such that both the AAP and the Congress are on a par with each other level in the campaigns. However, we will still fall short of about 10-12 seats despite former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh’s campaign efforts. Sidhu and the AEP will help bridge this gap. Whichever group the AEP joins stands to benefit. In the 2012 Assembly elections, we were defeated because 5 per cent of the anti-Akali vote was taken away by Manpreet Badal’s party. This time we cannot afford to take any such chances,” he said.

Apparently encouraged by this reading, in addition to expectations of garnering a reasonably large share of votes influenced by the strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the SAD government, many small political outfits have jumped into the fray. Talk of a “Fourth Front” keeps surfacing periodically with the stated ambition of evolving a counter pole to the three large parties. Among the earliest ones to make an attempt to form a fourth front was the AAP’s rebel MP from Patiala, Dharamvir Gandhi, who reached out to the AEP’s Bains brothers—Simarjeet Singh Bains and Balwinder Singh Bains—as well as former AAP State chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur, who has floated his own party, the Apna Punjab Party. These attempts have not resulted in much success, but Dharamvir Gandhi has not lost hope. He expects the elections to throw up a “hung Assembly”, with the Congress and the AAP not getting the required numbers to form the government. “The more the anti-Akali votes are split, the less the winning margins. So, it is more likely to be a hung Assembly,” he said.

The uncertainty regarding voter sentiment, even talk of an increase in voter support for the Congress, indicates how sharply the political situation in Punjab has changed in recent months. Until two months ago, analysts say, the pro-AAP sentiment was prominent, but it is not so strong anymore.

Several factors

Ashutosh Kumar, Panjab University professor and long-time observer of the Assembly elections in the State, feels several factors combined to cause the AAP lose its edge. These include the forced ouster of former State party chief Sucha Singh Chhotepur over corruption charges and the subsequent internal rebellion, a failed bid to get Sidhu aboard, and the aggressive campaign carried out by the Congress to project Amarinder Singh as the “face of Punjab”. “If there is one party which has an advantage, I would say it is the Congress. Captain is trying to bring together splinter groups. Unlike 2012, Amarinder is on the road, trying to connect with people,” he said.

He, however, qualifies this reading of the political situation with a caveat: “People have not made up their minds yet about whom to vote for. My conjecture is that by January end, once the candidates’ names are out, they will make up their minds.” Critically, the Congress’ success will “depend a lot on the ticket distribution” since there are multiple factions in the party vying for the ticket. Ashutosh Kumar said the AAP’s ticket distribution mechanism was better managed and so the party was likely to face less trouble on this front. “The AAP’s candidates will largely comprise known faces and with a relatively better social standing. As for the Congress, if Amarinder Singh is not allowed to select the candidates, and the choice of candidates gets split between the party high command and other factions, then there will surely be a problem,” he said.

Asked why the Congress’ campaign appeared to have an edge over the AAP’s, a senior AAP leader in the State party said it might not have electoral ramifications. “We have noticed the increase in talk surrounding the Congress’ campaign. These are established parties, so their campaigns are conducted only in the last three or four months [before the elections]. Naturally, there will be an increase in mention about the Congress. But this does not always translate into votes,” he said.

To further bolster his argument, the leader shared a few details of the findings of an internal survey conducted by the AAP. “We are going to get 93 seats as per the survey. This reassured us. Our volunteers surveyed 300 voters in each of the 117 Assembly constituencies. Surely, you will agree that this is a large enough sample to project the numbers,” he said. Kejriwal mentioned about this survey in his recent public statements and interview. “We will win 96 seats,” he said.

So, while the AAP speaks in a confident manner publicly about its prospects, it continues to reach out to smaller players who may be of help to it. The Congress is also following the same tactic, albeit in a much more aggressive way. Unlike the AAP, which has a clear policy favouring mergers and not formal alliances with other parties, the Congress is open to pre-election alliances. However, with regard to Sidhu’s AEP, even the Congress is understood to have insisted on a merger at the recent talks. Obviously, aware of the political context in which he is placed and the value he brings to the negotiating table, Sidhu has sought to make the most of it by driving a hard bargain.

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