Why two nations bowled out two prominent netas - Hindustan Times
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Why two nations bowled out two prominent netas

Apr 07, 2022 07:54 PM IST

While Khan and Sidhu are not too similar, what they share is the failure to recognise the limits of personality-driven politics replacing institutional cohesion in democratic set-ups

These aren’t the best of times for cricketers-turned-netas in the subcontinent. In Pakistan, Imran Khan has been forced out of the prime ministerial chair after losing a parliamentary majority. In India, Navjot Singh Sidhu has resigned as Punjab Congress chief after the party’s electoral debacle in the recent assembly elections. Yet, while the political context of Pakistan and Punjab are vastly different, there are striking similarities in the rise and fall of the two sports stars that reveal the limits of personality-centric politics.

In a sense, both Khan and Sidhu are alumni of the Donald Trump school of disruptionist politics, larger-than-life figures whose commitment to the self is often greater than their loyalty to an organisation.  PREMIUM
In a sense, both Khan and Sidhu are alumni of the Donald Trump school of disruptionist politics, larger-than-life figures whose commitment to the self is often greater than their loyalty to an organisation. 

These aren’t the best of times for cricketers-turned-netas in the subcontinent. In Pakistan, Imran Khan has been forced out of the prime ministerial chair after losing a parliamentary majority. In India, Navjot Singh Sidhu has resigned as Punjab Congress chief after the party’s electoral debacle in the recent assembly elections. Yet, while the political context of Pakistan and Punjab are vastly different, there are striking similarities in the rise and fall of the two sports stars that reveal the limits of personality-centric politics.

Take Khan first. He came to power in Pakistan in 2018 as the charismatic hero who promised to end the dominance of the country’s dynastic and corrupt elites and build a naya (new) Pakistan. For a citizenry disenchanted with traditional politicians, Khan aroused expectations as a potential game-changer. He was widely perceived to be the all-powerful Pakistan army’s “chosen one”: The puppeteers in uniform could ride on Khan’s appeal to remote-control the government without threatening his chair.

Sidhu, too, was made Punjab Congress president with the assured backing of the Congress’s First Family. Sidhu’s access to the Gandhis meant that he was guaranteed pre-eminent status within the factionalised state unit that had just ousted its veteran chief minister (CM), Amarinder Singh. Sidhu’s photograph with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was circulated to legitimise his sudden elevation. Like Khan, Sidhu could claim to be an anti-establishment hero who was taking on the ancient regime of Punjab’s family-centric, big money politics.

So why did the star value and anti-corruption crusader credentials that the Khan-Sidhu duo brought to their politics not translate into something more substantive? The short answer would suggest that politics is played on a very different pitch to cricket, one where there are no set rules of engagement. In cricket, an iconic captain or celebrated player can lead from the front and use the sheer force of personal achievement to make a crucial difference. Politics is vastly more complicated and requires individuals to wear multiple hats, become bridge-builders, nurture collective energies and strengthen institutional capacities, and not just satiate personal ego and vaulting ambition.

In a sense, both Khan and Sidhu are alumni of the Donald Trump school of disruptionist politics, larger-than-life figures whose commitment to the self is often greater than their loyalty to an organisation. In Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Insaaf founded by Khan in 1996 is a party solely identified with the personality cult of the supreme leader, a sporting legend who led his country to its first and only World Cup success. With his post-retirement philanthropic work in setting up a cancer hospital, Khan saw himself as a man of destiny, someone who would be unshackled by the baggage of Pakistan’s turbulent politics.

Sidhu is not quite in the Khan category either as a cricketer or a politician. Khan struggled for years to build his party, unlike Sidhu who smoothly moved from the Bharatiya Janata Party to the Congress. But the motormouth Sardar’s self-image is of a similar superhuman figure. For Sidhu, the Congress organisation was incidental: He could override internal structures and even the CM’s office to establish himself as Punjab’s ultimate saviour.

The mistake that Khan and Sidhu made – as did Trump – is failing to recognise that there are limits to stark individualism replacing institutional cohesion in a democratic set-up. In the United States (US), Trump incited people to disrespect an electoral verdict, spurring violence last January. Khan, too, is urging street protests by making unsubstantiated claims of a “foreign conspiracy”. A sulking Sidhu, in the run-up to the elections, repeatedly threatened to resign from his post if his demands were not met.

In the process, they all overreached to the point of no return. Trump won the US presidential election as a rank outsider, but he couldn’t unite his Republican Party to stand by him in a crisis. Khan may have been a cult figure in Pakistan, but he forgot that his survival eventually depended on not crossing red lines set by the army. And, Sidhu should have realised that his future was entwined with that of his party: Repeatedly attacking the CM was always a recipe for a disaster.

Which is why it is important to recognise the limits of unbridled personality-driven politics that attempts to bypass democratic checks and balances by focusing solely on personal appeal. The rise of populist leaders in the subcontinent and beyond might bring in new actors and a certain freshness into the political system, but if those individuals fail to provide effective governance, they risk pushing democracy into further recession because of a loss of public faith in the political class. Writing off any politician is hazardous, but Khan and Sidhu by getting bowled out because of their missteps have perhaps made it even more difficult for any future sporting hero to make the giant leap into politics. Which is a pity at a time when politics in both countries desperately needs new faces and ideas.

Post-script: Of the many Khan stories, my favourite is when he tried to stamp out match-fixing as captain. In the late 80s, with rumours swirling of several Pakistani players having taken money to “fix” a final in Sharjah, Khan called an urgent meeting in the dressing room and said he was betting all the Pakistan team’s prize money earned so far on winning the match. Sure enough, the team won the game. If only political power play was as straightforward as a cricket match!

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author 

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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