As Navjot Singh Sidhu is released from Patiala Central Jail, the prospect of the divisive leader’s return has already set tremors down the Congress. One of those watching anxiously would be Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja ‘Warring’, with no love lost between him and his predecessor, Sidhu. The Warring camp will also be keeping an eye on Sidhu’s welcome party, which is expected to turn into a spectacle, fittingly for the cricketer-turned-entertainer-turned-politician.
Ahead of Sidhu’s release in jail following the remission of his sentence as per law — after serving 10 months of the year’s term awarded to him over a 1988 road rage case — a message was sent by Congress Leader of the Opposition Partap Singh Bajwa, who met Sidhu along with others at the jail on Friday.
Among those present to greet him at Patiala jail were Congress Amritsar MP Gurjeet Singh Aujla, senior leader and former finance minister Laal Singh, and ex-MLAs Ashwani Sekhri, Sukhwinder Danny and Sunil Dutti, among others. The official Congress unit is also nervous as it had planned a march in Patiala on Saturday as part of its ongoing ‘Samvidhan Bachao Muhim’ against the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi as MP. With Sidhu expected to head for Patiala, his base and home town, on release, he could well end up stealing the limelight. However, that apprehension was put to rest as state party shifted the venue of the rally to Bathinda. A party leader said, “Due to inadequate preparations in Patiala on Saturday, the venue of the march was shifted to Bathinda.”
Sidhu walked out of the jail in the evening, more than eight hours after his son and party leaders had reached outside Patiala central Jail. Sidhu has made no bones about his feelings for Warring, having reportedly refused to meet the latter when he visited him in jail. Earlier, after Warring replaced him as Punjab Congress chief in April 2022, following the Congress’s debacle in the Assembly elections, Sidhu had publicly indicated his displeasure. He made a quick exit from the formal event marking Warring’s ascendance, and refused to join other leaders on the stage.
While the Congress could win only 18 of the 117 seats in the Punjab elections – a steep fall from 77 in 2017 – it has been breathing easy recently at least on the party rivalry front, with Sidhu’s absence.
The factionalism, particularly the open fights between Sidhu and former CM Amarinder Singh, was believed to have been one reason for the Congress’s capitulation to the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2022 Assembly polls. Even after the fighting had forced Amarinder out of the Congress and into the BJP’s arms, Sidhu felt snubbed by the Congress for choosing Dalit face Charanjit Singh Channi as the replacement CM, and continuing with Channi as the CM face in the elections. The rancour over it has already resurfaced, with Sidhu loyalist Dullo telling The Indian Express that the Congress failure to give “an honest person, who was anti-mafia” and popular like Sidhu a say in the finalisation of tickets was behind the Congress’s loss. “Had Sidhu been heard, the AAP could not have won 92 seats,” Dullo said.
Sidhu loyalists also point out that while, after losing from both his seats, Channi had chosen to sequester himself abroad for months, Sidhu, who also lost, hit the road almost immediately. Before he was jailed on May 20 last year, Sidhu led from the front in attacking the AAP government over “deteriorating law and order”, continuing drug problem, and farmer issues. That he still commanded support within the Congress was clear from the fact that many former party MLAs flocked to him, such as Navtej Singh Cheema, Ashwani Sekhri, Sunil Dutti, Sukhwinder Danny and others.
Sekhri, who was present at the Patiala jail Saturday, told The Indian Express on Friday that while there was no official programme by the party, he would go in his personal capacity. Aujla, who was also present, called Sidhu “one of the tallest leaders of the party”.
A Congress leader close to him said, “In the coming days, we will all sit down and chalk out the future course of action.”
On one front at least, the Congress will see a difference in Sidhu. The maverick politician who got permission from court for a special meals in jail, including a cup of Rosemary tea in the morning, Chamomile tea at bed time, lots of fruits, vegetable juices and mixed-grain flour chapatis, reportedly stuck to it obsessively, apart from long hours of meditation. The result, sources say, is that he is 40 kg lighter. “He told us he has also largely recovered from his liver ailment,” former PCC chief Mohinder Singh Kaypee, who met him on Friday, told The Indian Express.