The Sikh shrine of Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in the Pakistani village of Kartarpur is just a shout away from across the heavily-guarded, barbed wire-fenced international border in Punjab. And if anybody is nursing a sore throat since two hostile neighbours decided to build a four-km, visa-less corridor between Kartarpur, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, and Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur, it is state tourism minister Navjot Singh Sidhu. Well, not exactly from the “hope and peace” sermons he has been preaching over Kartarpur. For somebody inoculated with the gift of nonstop gab, even his vocal cords gave up after addressing 70 consecutive poll-related rallies for the Congress in the run-up to the recent assembly polls in four states. But there is a pressing soreness that demands his urgent attention—a growing discomfort with the Captain.
Chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh is apparently miffed. He believes the Pakistani establishment, essentially the military, used his cabinet colleague to do its bidding without the cricketer-politician’s knowledge. “It’s a Pakistani game plan to revive terrorism in Punjab,” Amarinder said and questioned why Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa broke the news about the corridor to Sidhu before taking prime minister Imran Khan into confidence. Bajwa told Sidhu about it when he visited Pakistan in August for the oath ceremony of Khan, a fellow cricketer and friend. This was much before the Indian government announced the corridor and foundations were laid in November on either side.
The Captain’s remarks were akin to a wind-whipped swing—pad it and risk an LBW, leave it and lose a stamp. It was a tactical move that took the shine off all the encomiums Sidhu was hogging from Sikhs for pushing the community’s demand since Partition for hassle-free access to Kartarpur, an important pilgrimage where Guru Nanak lived his final 18 years. But the former India batsman let one slip through the offside when he said at a poll rally in Hyderabad that “Amarinder was just an army Captain” and his captain is Congress president Rahul Gandhi. A video clip showing the Freudian slip went viral on social media. Hoardings sprang up on Punjab highways with state ministers reprising their loyalty to the Captain, the scion of the erstwhile royal principality of Patiala. Simultaneously Sidhu’s state colleagues demanded his resignation and an apology. Minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa gave him an advice: stop the hyperbolic style of talking in public to avoid problems. He called Sidhu’s tone and tenor during the speech humiliating for the Captain.
For his part, temporarily quiet following doctors’ advice, Sidhu refused to apologise and groused that he had done nothing wrong. The Captain and his best bat are not talking, perhaps because both are indisposed by ill health. Both are astute politicians—one an old Congress guard and the other an equally popular public figure from Patiala, who had won seven elections on the trot, six with his former party the BJP.
Sidhu wants to walk the talk, keep to his recent homilies that the truer ways of dealing with life is to pass through the corridor of healthy change with humility, prayer and flexibility.
In other words, he wants to meet the 76-year-old Captain and gift him a taxidermied partridge he received as a present during his visit to Pakistan last month when the foundation stone of the corridor was laid.
The current bitterness is a bit like taxidermy, preserving a dead mess that Sidhu got into when he hugged Pakistani army chief Bajwa during Khan’s oath. “It was wrong for him to have shown affection towards the Pakistan army chief,” the chief minister said. Sidhu, not to play on the backfoot, had defended the hug thus: “If someone comes to me and says we belong to the same culture and we’ll open the Kartarpur border on Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th birth anniversary (in 2019), what else I could do? And Jats hug each other when they meet.”
The chief minister, a Jat by caste, was not amused. No hug to the army chief of “an enemy nation”, Jat or otherwise. The BJP had rubbed it in, calling Sidhu’s embrace shameful when “the Pakistani army is attacking our soldiers on the border”.
- The Pakistani army chief confided to Sidhu about Kartarpur before it was declared, miffing CM Singh.
- Sidhu rubbed it in, saying at a rally that Singh was an army captain and his captain is the Congress chief.
By G.P. Singh in Chandigarh