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Punjab, India Congress Chief Faces Heat in Over 'Friend of Imran Khan' Label Ahead of 2022 Polls

© Photo : Navjot Singh Sidhu/facebookNavjot Singh Sidhu
Navjot Singh Sidhu - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.08.2021
When he became Pakistan's prime minister, Imran Khan invited an old friend and fellow cricketer to his 2018 swearing-in ceremony: Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is now a state-level leader in the Congress party. The two had played one Test series against each other in 1989. At that time Khan was nearing the end of his sports career.
Navjot Singh Sidhu, the newly appointed chief of India's Congress party in Punjab state, has often flaunted his special bond with Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan due to their old friendship from their cricketing days. However, the tag "Friend of Imran Khan" has now become a point of concern for his party. 
Sidhu hopes to lead the party to victory during legislative assembly polls in six months. But since he took over the reins of Congress party in Punjab, Sidhu's friendship with Imran Khan has been seized upon by opposition parties, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), to malign the Congress leadership.  

Sidhu's Advisors Court Controversy 

After being appointed party chief nearly a month ago, Sidhu went on a nominating blitz, announcing appointment of four advisors and two media advisors.
Sidhu's promotion to the top post in the state's party had been opposed tooth and nail by Punjab State Chief Capt Amarinder Singh. His reservations against Sidhu, the former BJP leader- turned Congessman, were brushed aside by the Congress high command in Delhi. 
One of the four new advisors, Pyare Lal Garg, triggered controversy when he slammed Capt Amarinder Singh for lambasting Pakistan over "pushing terrorists and drugs" into Punjab state, which shares a border with it. 
Garg claimed that Capt Amarinder Singh's comments were not in the interest of Punjab state. 
Another advisor to Sidhu, M.S. Mali has said in a Facebook post that Kashmir was "a country of Kashmiri people" and decried both India and Pakistan as its illegal occupiers. The post caused a massive outrage with senior party leaders demanding for the advisors' resignation. Sidhu was asked to shunt out his advisor immediately and on Friday Mali stepped down.

Navjot Singh Sidhu's Love for Pakistan PM Imran Khan

When Imran Khan, former captain of Pakistan's Cricket team, took the oath of office as Prime Minister of Pakistan on 18 August 2018,  three former cricket players from India were invited - Navjot Singh Sidhu, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar.
Sidhu was the only Indian who went to Pakistan to be part of the oath-taking ceremony - despite the advise of the Indian federal government. 
In Pakistan, Sidhu had showered praise on his "friend" Imran Khan while saying "Hindustan Jeevay" (Long Live India), and "Pakistan Jeevay" (Long Live Pakistan). Known for his couplets that Sidhu recites often, the flamboyant leader recited a couplet coined for Khan.  He even hugged Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Sidhu prompted ire at home for his friendly overtures and for hugging General Bajwa. 
In 2019, Sidhu again claimed the spotlight when he was invited by Prime Minister Khan to attend the opening ceremony of a nearly 5 km visa-free corridor between India and Pakistan, the Kartarpur Corridor. The corridor allows Sikh devotees from India to visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan without a visa.
Sidhu chose to attend the ceremony in Pakistan though a similar one was held on the Indian side of the border as well. His 15 minute speech on the occasion, praising Imran Khan and batting for peace between India and Pakistan, is believed to have resurrected his then-flagging political career.  He credited Khan for facilitating the corridor proposal, which had been collecting dust for over five decades. 

What Sidhu's Friendship with Imran Khan Spells For the Congress 

With Punjab headed for the election and the ruling Congress party looking to make a comeback, Sidhu's closeness to Imran Khan has put Congress party in a tight spot, say analysts.
"How does Congress party expect to win in Punjab when the top leader of the party sings praises for our number one enemy? Pakistan is blamed for funding and supporting decades of terrorism, the darkest part of Punjab's history, after India acquired independence. People will have trouble accepting such a leader," Jagbir Singh, an author and a political analyst, told Sputnik.
BJP has already seized the opportunity to malign the senior-most of Congress leadership on the issue.
On Tuesday, the National President of BJP, JP Nadda questioned the silence of Congress leaders on Sidhu's advisors' comments on Pakistan and Kashmir.
​Hardeep Singh Puri, federal minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, took a tongue-in-the cheek swipe at Sidhu by posting a video of Imran Khan and adding 'hamara Sidhu kidhar hai?" (Where is our man Sidhu?) 
Referring to the recent comment made by Sidhu's advisor, Shiromani Akali Dal politician Daljit Singh Cheema told Sputnik, "Sidhu had hugged the Pakistan's Army chief and boasted of friendship with Imran Khan when both India and Pakistan are not on friendly terms. You can expect his advisors to make statements in support of Pakistan because their leader is such."
It is not just the opposition leaders who are condemning the advisor's statements - Manish Tewari,  a Congress Parliamentarian  from Punjab, also slammed Sidhu's advisors.
Congress Party Steps in for Damage Control
Meanwhile, Congress, the ruling party of Punjab, is now on the backfoot following controversial statements by Sidhu's advisors that led to outrage. 
Harish Rawat, the in-charge of Congress party in Punjab, said that the party is looking into complaints against the statements made by Sidhu's advisors. "The statements could have been distorted for political influence ahead of the assembly elections." 
"The last thing that Congress wants in Punjab is to have a leader singing praises for an enemy country's premier. Sidhu's love for Imran Khan does not help Congress' objective of winning elections due in few month's time," said a senior Congress leader in Punjab, who had opposed Sidhu's elevation in the party to post of state chief, requesting anonymity. 
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