CHANDIGARH: Congress leader, cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu has emerged as the ‘hero’ of the Kartarpur corridor between Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur and Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan.

The Punjab Culture Minister is the man of the moment, much to the discomfiture of his political rivals in the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as within his own party with Chief Minister Amrinder Singh visibly sulking.

It was only in August this year that Sidhu came under tremendous attack from all corners for attending Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s investiture ceremony. The attack was all the more vicious from the BJP and the Akalis---and of course some Congress stalwarts---as he had exchanged a hug with the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. This despite the big embrace and public holding of hands between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in 2015, after the former made an unscheduled stop in Lahore for Sharif’s birthday celebrations.

Sidhu has advocated the opening of the corridor, more so as Sikhs want access to shrines like Nankana Sahib, Katasraj temple and Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan. For them the severing of ties with Pakistan that blocks their access to the gurudwaras located across the border carries the same resonance as for Christians and Muslims denied access to the Vatican or Mecca and Medina.

Not a single political party in Punjab can justify this.

Now, when almost all of a sudden both India and Pakistan---caught in deep hostility for several years---have moved to open the corridor everyone is now looking for a slice of the cake. New Delhi clearly had to succumb to the pressure with the Lok Sabha polls due next year.

Instead of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Akali Dal Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal and another Sikh Union Minister Hardip Singh Puri (BJP) will go to Pakistan for the ground breaking ceremony on November 28. Sidhu of course, remains the virtual guest of honour and regardless of CM Singh’s refusal to attend the ceremony will participate with full honours.

Former Chief Minister and Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal has hailed the NDA government especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Union Ministers Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley for honouring the sentiments and wishes of the Sikh masses all over the world by taking the initiative on the corridor. “This is their historic and unprecedented tribute to the Sikh sentiments contained in our daily 'Ardas' seeking unrestricted ‘Darshan Deedar and Seva Sambhal’ of all historic shrines from which the Sikh community was weaned away following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947,” he said.

The Akalis have tried to claim credit for the corridor, maintaining that in 1999 then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had acceded to their state governments request but there had been no response from Pakistan. And that the Akali Dal had also taken up the issue directly with the Pakistan government, with Badal having met Pakistan High Commissioner Sohail Mehmood in New Delhi in December 2017 to discuss this further.

Sidhu, however, appears to have walked away with the proposal when he left the BJP in 2017. However, he has been facing stiff opposition from the state Congress leadership led by his bitter rival Captain Amarinder Singh. Singh had earlier disapproved publicly of Sidhu’s ‘hug’ diplomacy and has simultaneously shot off letter to Sushma Swaraj seeking her personal intervention to get Pakistan to open the Kartarpur corridor.

The Punjab CM had said that Sidhu did not need to hug the Pakistani army chief, and it was an avoidable gesture. He said that Sidhu should have refrained at a time when Indian soldiers were being killed every day on the borders. He also said that in pursuance of the long-standing demand, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made an announcement on the corridor initiative at Amritsar on September 1, 2004 on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the Prakash Utsav of Guru Granth Sahib. He had reiterated the same during his subsequent visits to Punjab in 2005 and 2006. However, despite best efforts this had not materialized.

Singh declined Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s invitation to attend the foundation stone laying ceremony across the border, citing continued terrorist attacks in his state and killings of Indian soldiers by Pakistani armed forces.

While welcoming the ‘historic occasion’ he said that Indian soldiers are being killed or wounded on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir daily. Secondly, the ISI has started its nefarious activities within Punjab. He has claimed that since his Government was sworn in, the state has neutralized 19 ISI armed and controlled modules, apprehended 81 terrorists and recovered 79 weapons, in addition to numerous grenades made in Pakistan’s ordnance factories, with Austrian knowhow, along with seizure of some IEDs.

“A visit to Sri Kartarpur Sahib has been a long cherished dream, and I hope once normalcy between our two countries is restored I will be able to do so, when the corridor is complete,” he said.

Observers have expressed surprise over Amarinder Singh’s stand recalling his commitment and moves towards improving relations with Pakistan during his tenure as chief minister from 2002 to 2007.

Singh, of late has been trying to carve out a niche for himself in the politics of competitive nationalism.

In the dynamics of the Congress, it is no secret that efforts have been made to corner Sidhu and isolate him within the cabinet and the party. He has been cold shouldered on several occasions but has still emerged withstood the attack, remaining one of the pillars in the Congress poised to play a greater role in the party. Along with Finance Minister Manpreet Badal, it is Sidhu who is seen as a possible successor to Amarinder Singh. He is also close to Congress president Rahul Gandhi that makes Singh and his coterie uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the hard line organization Dal Khalsa has another interesting take on the corridor issue. It has slammed the Chief Minister for declining the Pakistani invitation on ‘flimsy and unreasonable grounds’. Terming it as ‘political stupidity’, party spokesperson Kanwar Pal Singh said, “If Pakistan is as bad as perceived by Amarinder (Singh), why has India decided to send two of its union ministers on official visit?”

Another party leader H S Dhami said, “Amarinder is under an illusion that by refusing to go to Pakistan, he will get Hindu votes besides a pat from security establishment." He said Sidhu has shown the boldness to attend the event.

While taking the Badal family to task for giving credit to Modi Government for the corridor the party has said that if at all credit is to be given, it goes to the Pakistan Army Chief. Kanwar Pal has complemented Sikh volunteers along with Diaspora Sikh leaders for initiating the move in 2008 to convince the Pakistani establishment.

He said General Bajwa while murmuring the corridor idea in the ears of Sidhu during his famous hug intelligently hit many targets with a single arrow. He pointed that the General chose a Sikh face having Hindutva links and oratory skills (Sidhu) as a messenger to deliver his message to Indian dispensation putting New Delhi in a dock where it had no choice but to agree albeit reluctantly.