Chandigarh: Punjab Cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu’s hug to Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Islamabad has raised political temperature in the state, with differences emerging even within the ruling Congress.
A section within the Congress is supporting Mr Sidhu despite chief minister Amarinder Singh criticising the hug as “avoidable”.
Sources said the cricketer-turned-politician faced one bouncer after another at the first Cabinet meeting he attended, after his controversial hug on August 18 at the swearing-in ceremony of new Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Sensing political trouble early, the chief minister had distance himself from Mr Sidhu’s controversial hug but Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar has defended Mr Sidhu, saying that there was nothing wrong in his gesture.
The incident has also divided political parties in Punjab. While the AAP has backed Mr Sidhu, Shriomani Akali dal has criticised Sidhu for hurting the sentiments of Armymen killed by Pakistan Army.
Mr Sidhu has taken pains to clarify that hugging Gen. Bajwa was an “emotional response” on learning that Sikh pilgrims may now be allowed to visit the Kartarpur shrine across the border.
“Should I have turned my back on him?” he asked, adding that his response was just a spontaneous “human reaction”.
The chief minister had said that Mr Sidhu should have avoided indulging in such a gesture when Indian soldiers are getting killed every day on the border. After all, it is the Army Chief who gives the orders to kill, with the soldiers merely following the same.
“General Bajwa is responsible for the deaths of our soldiers and Mr Sidhu should not have shown such niceties towards him,” said Capt Amarinder Singh.
The Congress, however, defended Mr Sidhu, Punjab Congress president Sunil Jakhar said that Mr Sidhu’s gesture (travelling to Pakistan) was reciprocal in a way, considering the presence of then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in as Prime Minister here in 2014.
“Our own government has given Mr Sidhu visa to attend Imran Khan’s swearing-in. Mr Sidhu’s gesture is good because Mr Modi’s muscular policy of dealing with Pakistan and other neighbours has not paid off. It looks like the Centre is wary of anything positive coming out of Mr Sidhu’s attendance at Mr Khan’s swearing-in,” he said.
Mr Jakhar asked the BJP government at the Centre to clarify its stand on the issue of getting passage to the holdy shrine at Pakistan’s Kartarpur, which has been a long pending demand of the Sikh community.
Aam Aadmi Party’s MP Bhagwant Mann backed Mr Sidhu, saying that he had not committed any crime. “Both countries share the same tradition. If we have better relations with each other, we can save a huge amount spent on defence and use this money on development works,” he said.
He lashed out at the BJP for its “politics of hatred”. AAP MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira supported Mr Sidhu, saying that a hug is merely a “Punjabi way” of greeting.
However, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) demanded that Mr Sidhu should be dropped from the Cabinet as he is a habitual offender.
SAD general secretary Daljit Singh Cheema said, “When the chief minister of Punjab has said that Sidhu’s gesture was unwarranted, why is Rahul Gandhi silent?”
“We have already said that Mr Sidhu’s was a wrong gesture. He has sent a wrong message to the Indian armed forces and to the families of martyrs. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi should clarify what action they are going to take against Mr Sidhu,” Mr Cheema said.
Mr Sidhu said he wanted had clarified that his Islamabad visit was not “political” and just in response to “a warm invitation from a friend” who has won after a long struggle.
While the BJP stepped up its attack on Mr Sidhu for his Pakistan visit and hugging Gen. Bajwa, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari dismissed the controversy and said that an attempt is being made to obfuscate the real issue which is that the BJP government does not have a Pakistan policy.