Punjab Polls: Stakes are higher for Sidhu in challenge from Majithia - Hindustan Times
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Punjab Polls: Stakes are higher for Sidhu in challenge from Majithia

ByRamesh Vinayak and Navneet Sharma
Jan 28, 2022 02:01 AM IST

Stakes are high for Majithia and Sidhu, but much higher for the latter, unexpectedly pitch-forked into the toughest electoral test he has faced since former Indian cricketer shifted to political pitch after joining the BJP ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls

CHANDIGARH Call it the mother of all electoral battles, or clash of the titans, or anything else you’d.

Majithia and Sidhu were comrades-in-arms to the extent that young Akali leader would be on the wheel of former cricketer’s campaign vehicle in three successive Amritsar Lok Sabha polls which the latter won. That was until they fell out bitterly sometime in 2013 over their clashing power ambitions in the Majha region. (HT FIle/video grab)
Majithia and Sidhu were comrades-in-arms to the extent that young Akali leader would be on the wheel of former cricketer’s campaign vehicle in three successive Amritsar Lok Sabha polls which the latter won. That was until they fell out bitterly sometime in 2013 over their clashing power ambitions in the Majha region. (HT FIle/video grab)

The Shiromani Akali Dal’s surprise move of pitting its firebrand Bikram Singh Majithia, 46, currently dogged by a drug case, against his sworn foe and Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, 58, has set the stage for a high-voltage contest that will have repercussions beyond Amritsar East that Sidhu has so far considered as his pocket borough.

It has all the makings of a fierce contest given their mutual bad blood which runs deep and has often played out publicly in form of nasty politics.

Stakes are high for both contestants, but much higher for Sidhu, unexpectedly pitch-forked into the toughest electoral test he has faced since former Indian cricketer shifted to political pitch after joining the BJP ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Then, SAD and BJP were self-proclaimed “made-for-each-other allies”.

Comrades-in-arms of yore now sworn foes

Majithia and Sidhu were comrades-in-arms to the extent that young Akali leader would be on the wheel of former cricketer’s campaign vehicle in three successive Amritsar Lok Sabha polls which the latter won. That was until they fell out bitterly sometime in 2013 over their clashing power ambitions in the Majha region.

That also queered the pitch for Sidhu’s exit from the BJP and entry into the Congress before the assembly elections in 2017. Sidhu makes no bones about his abiding grudge against the Badals for denial of the 2014 Lok Sabha ticket from Amritsar, alleging it was meant to exile him (a three-time elected MP) out of Punjab and catapult one-time MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Majithia’s elder sister, to the Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Since then, Sidhu has built his politics, in part, on an implacably antagonism to the Badal-Majithia clan, basing his pincer attack on politically volatile issues that continue to rile up his rivals: sacrilege and drugs.

To be sure, it was Sidhu who pushed his own government hard for action on a long-simmering drug case, leading to an FIR against Majithia barely a month before the polls. Putting Majithia in the dock, in fact, is Sidhu’s electoral trump card. Whether it will pay electoral dividends will be clear on March 10, the day of results. But, this issue has surely sharpened the Sidhu-Majithia hostility and will heavily resonate in their no-holds-barred battle.

Fiery leaders with an unbeaten electoral record

Temperamentally poles apart, both are pugnacious and fiery, never missing any opportunity to target or mock each other. Both pride themselves on a common feat: an unbeaten electoral track record.

Sidhu is a four-time MP – three times to the Lok Sabha and one-time nominated to the Rajya Sabha. The Congress leader’s first assembly election from Amritsar East in 2017 was a cakewalk after he, along with his wife former chief parliamentary secretary Navjot Kaur, jumped ship a few months before the elections. He routed his nearest rival, Rakesh Kumar Honey of the BJP, by a whopping 42,809 votes, getting 61% of the total votes polled. This was way above his wife’s victory margin of 7,099 from the same seat in 2012 as the BJP nominee.

Former Akali minister’s record is no less enviable. He had romped home in all his three previous electoral outings in nearby home turf of Majitha, predominantly a rural segment.

But, Majithia’s gambit to also throw the hat in the ring in a Hindu majority Amritsar East has radically altered the index of stakes for his rival. For Sidhu who has been fervently pitching himself as the Congress chief ministerial candidate, it will be a make-or-break election.

It is no coincidence that Rahul Gandhi, on his first poll outing in Punjab a day after Majithia’s move to cross the swords with Sidhu, made break from the high command’s decision to fight elections under “collective leadership”, announcing its re-calibrated intent to name its CM candidate ahead of February 20.

Make or mar contest for both

If Sidhu pulls through Amritsar East, it would bolster his claim to the throne in case the Congress has the numbers to retain power. A defeat could severely impair his political standing and ambition. Majithia’s victory, on the other hand, would catapult him into the big league in the political game.

Akalis, according to Amritsar-based political analyst Jagrup Singh Sekhon, have nothing to lose by taking Sidhu head on. “Besides being a morale booster for party cadres, it is a psychological game that SAD is playing to shift the focus back to the Congress-versus-Akalis poll narrative as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) appears to be slowly gaining ground,” says former head of political science at Guru Nanak Dev University.

Though Sidhu claims to have assiduously nurtured his constituency, his worries will now be not as much from anti-incumbency as from the convergence of interest of his detractors, both from the within and outside. Leading the revenge-seekers, Capt Amarinder Singh, who is still smarting under an ignominious exit as chief minister following Sidhu’s revolt. He has already declared his intent to do whatever it takes to defeat his bete noire.

For the next three weeks, all eyes will be on the Amritsar-East slugfest. It will be the decider on animus and ambition of two sworn rivals on Punjab’s political firmament.

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