JALANDHAR, India: As a Test cricketer and the brashest commentator on Indian television, Navjot Singh Sidhu got under the skin of some of the sport’s biggest names and offended millions of fans.
Now the 53-year-old jester is hoping to shake up India’s political scene by fronting the opposition Congress party’s bid to win back power in the state of Punjab, ridiculing opponents in his inimitable style.
“I’m here to hit them out the ground and out of our state,” he told a rally last week in the north of the state, smacking an imaginary six into the raucous crowd with a wafted bat.
The chief target of Sidhu’s sledging is Punjab’s current leader Prakash Singh Badal, an 89-year-old ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose son Sukhbir Singh Badal is the state’s deputy chief minister.
The crowd roared with laughter when he quipped that “their roads are so full of potholes they turn the curd in your stomachs into lassi”.
“You promised 24-hour free electricity but we only have power for 12 hours a day — the remaining 12 hours are free of power.”
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose anti-corruption party also has designs on the state, was denounced as a reboot of Britain’s colonial era East India Company for wanting “to rule Punjab by remote control”.
It’s entertaining stuff, but commentators and critics say Sidhu is mainly motivated by a desire to damage former colleagues in Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and is vague on policies.
Sidhu was furious when he was dumped as a BJP candidate in the 2014 general election, forced to make way for Modi’s top lieutenant Arun Jaitley who then lost the seat.
The centre-left Congress, which has floundered since losing power at the national level, was delighted for such a crowd-pleaser to join its ranks and become the face of their campaign in the state.
Supporters hope victory in Punjab could spur a wider revival for the party which is also hoping to defeat the BJP when the giant state of Uttar Pradesh begins holding elections later this month.
“What has worked for him from the start, from his playing days, is the image of an independent, eccentric person,” Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan current affairs magazine, told AFP.
“Even when he batted, on some days you’d see a totally defensive Sidhu and on others he’d only deal in sixes. I think maybe the word maverick fits him better than just an eccentric.”
– Warne nemesis –
Dring his international career, Sidhu is largely remembered as a doughty opening batsman but he also famously spanked Shane Warne to all corners at the start of the great Australian spinner’s Test career.
With his razor-sharp wit and colourful turbans — usually paired with a matching blazer-pocket andkerchief Sidhu forged a successful career as a pundit after retirement before also becoming a gameshow host.
His shoot-from-the-hip style has frequently landed him in hot water such as when he threatened to club Pakistan’s Aamer Sohail with a bat during a Test match.
He got up the nose of England legend Geoffrey Boycott, telling him on air that “you are like a ship stuck in a fog. You just keep blowing your horn. You know nothing of what you are talking.”
His regular digs at Bangladesh’s team have made Sidhu a bete noire among fans of Test cricket’s newest nation who set up a website during the last World Cup to allow visitors to virtually whack him with a shoe.
The biggest threat to his reputation came when he was charged with culpable homicide in 1988 after a man died during a road rage incident involving Sidhu, although he was eventually cleared.
Pundits’ predictions for the outcome of the Punjab elections are mixed, but Sidhu should be fine either way if he is true to one of his sayings.
“Politics is not a bad profession boss — if you succeed there are rewards, if you fail you can always write the book.”—AFP