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India

Navjot Singh Sidhu And BJP: United By Road Rage Case, Divided By Politics

In 2006, late BJP leader Arun Jaitley himself camped in Chandigarh with lawyers from Delhi to plan Sidhu’s defence in the High Court.

Navjot Singh Sidhu
(Photo Credit: Navjot Singh Sidhu/Twitter)

New Delhi: The road-rage case involving Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu has seen as many twists and turns as the cricketer-turned-commentator-turned-comedian-turned-politician’s political journey. It is also the case that, because of the extra mile that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went to help him in his legal strategy, that brought Sidhu very close to the top party leadership, especially late Arun Jaitley. But, within a decade, Sidhu had a bitter fallout with the BJP, including Jaitley.

In 1988, when Sidhu, then in his mid-20s, got out of his Maruti Gypsy outside the Patiala-based head office of the State Bank of Patiala, where he was posted, and got in a fight with 65-year-old Patiala resident Gurnam Singh, who latter died in a hospital.

Sidhu was acquited and politics was the last thing on his mind. However, it was common knowledge that his family was a Congress family and his father had even been appointed advocate general, Punjab, by a Congress government.

But, in 2004, days before the Lok Sabha elections, when he quit his bank job to enter politics full-time, it wasn’t the Congress he chose – he went with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP.

One man who played a key role in persuading Sidhu to come to the saffron party fold was Arun Jaitley, who had a soft-corner for the cricketer from Patiala. That the two later had a bitter fallout, though they chose not to wash their dirty laundry in public, is something that would require a full chapter and not just 800-words.

In 2004, Sidhu contested from the Amritsar Lok Sabha constituency and handed out a massive defeat to sitting MP and union minister RL Bhatia – winning by over 1 lakh votes.

When time came for the BJP to pay him back, it did so in style. On December 1, 2006, when the Punjab and Haryana High Court bench headed by Justice Mehtab Singh Gill heard the appeal filed by the then Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress government against the September 22, 1999, order of the Sessions Judge, Patiala, acquitting Sidhu and his co-accused – Rupinder Singh Sandhu, Jaitley was sitting next to the former cricketer throughout the four-hour-long hearing.

It was Jaitley who decided the legal strategy for Sidhu, even persuading then senior Supreme Court lawyer UU Lalit – now in line to be the next Chief Justice of India when the incumbent NV Ramana retires in August – to fly down to Chandigarh to argue before the High Court.

However, the High Court overturned the Sessions Court’s verdict, sentencing Sidhu and his co-accused to undergo rigorous imprisonment for three years and also pay fines of Rs 1 lakh each.

Immediately after the damning verdict, Sidhu, when he stepped out of the court, was assured by Jaitley, himself an astute lawyer, that he didn’t have to worry much.

“Don’t worry. We will go to the Supreme Court,” were Jaitley’s words. Sidhu, as he often does, immediately hugged Jaitley in a show of gratitude.

I was standing next to them, overhearing their conversation, since I was also covering the court proceedings as a reporter employed with The Tribune.

However, an impulsive Sidhu decided to resign from the Lok Sabha, winning his seat again within months by a slightly-reduced margin of around 78,000 votes against Congress’s Surinder Singla.

The decision to take the high moral ground, many say, elevated his standing among the voters and he was soon catapulted to the front lines of Punjab politics, seen as a viable, honest option in a state where Parkash Singh Badal and Capt Amarinder Singh were the only two pan-Punjab vote-catchers for their respective parties.

Sidhu and Jaitley also became extremely close, a bond that lasted till he was dumped in favour of the latter as BJP’s Amritsar Lok Sabha candidate in the 2014 General Elections. Sidhu, many believe, never forgave Jaitley for the snub, deciding to keep away from Jaitley’s campaign.

Jaitley despite the Narendra Modi wave, lost by over 1 lakh votes to Capt Amarinder Singh. He never forgave Sidhu for not standing by him when he needed him the most.

But the BJP decided to ignore Sidhu’s tantrums and brought him to the Rajya Sabha in 2016, from where he resigned in a huff within months.

The Congress was his next stop. He joined the party in 2017, contested from Amritsar (East) Assembly seat and won handsomely.

Life, at least politically, had come full circle for Sidhu. As did his case.

While it was the Congress government of Capt Amarinder Singh, which was instrumental in getting the High Court, in 2006, to overturn the lower court judgment in Sidhu’s case, it was the BJP which helped him survive the case.

In fact, in what may be seen as ironic now, the Patiala unit of Shiromani Akali Dal actually organised prayers in December 2006 to ask the gods to help Sidhu come out unscathed from the “vengeful attitude” of the then Amarinder government.

Today, Sidhu is the biggest enemy of the Shiromani Akali Dal, with the party even fielding its prominent leader Bikram Singh Majithia to defeat him in Amritsar East.

With Jaitley gone, it remains to be seen who will help craft Sidhu’s legal strategy now that the Supreme Court has decided to finally hear the review petition against its own 2018 judgment, imposing a fine of Rs 1,000 on the politician.