Rashmi Talwar

In Pak for Imran Khan’s swearing in, Sidhu bats skilfully with media

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Amritsar, Aug 17: “I will go to Pakistan via Wagah, take a flight for Islamabad today at 2 PM.” Cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu announced this morning at a Press Conference at the launch of Air Asia flights from Amritsar to Kuala Lumpur connecting the holy city to 18 destinations via Malaysia’s capital.

Then on dot, in a royal blue tuxedo, light shirt and pink neck-tie with a matching turban, Sidhu carried a hand bag, a tuxedo cover and a shopping bag, presumably with the gift for Imran Khan (which he later said was a Kashmiri shawl), as he crossed the Wagah border.

During the presser, Sidhu’s grace was evident as he called for observance of two minutes silence on the demise of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Sidhu had dumped the BJP and now is part of the ruling Congress party in Punjab and a Minister for Tourism.

“I was surprised when Minister of External Affairs (MEA) Sushma Swaraj called me to inform about clearance by MEA to join in the oath-taking of Imran Khan,” Sidhu, informed. The Punjab State government headed by Capt Amarinder Singh had already cleared his cross-border trip.

Sidhu, formally got an invite on August 10, 2018, for the swearing-in ceremony of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman and cricketing legend turned politician Imran Khan as country’s 22nd Prime Minister.

A statement by PTI last week underlined that Khan had decided for a simple and austere ceremony. The 1992 World Cup-winning cricket team has also been invited to witness their captain take oath.

Sidhu was granted a 15 day visa for Lahore and Islamabad soon after he visited the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi on Monday to discuss and complete the formalities ahead of his Pak visit.

Last week’s PTI decision of calling off the invitation to international cricketers had come as huge embarrassment for Sidhu, who had promptly accepted then yet-to-come invitation and held a press conference besides giving interviews to various TV channels. Sidhu had declared that he would travel to Pakistan for the event, calling Imran Khan “a man of character”, a “Greek God” and someone who is “trustworthy”.

Sidhu, in his eagerness to visit the neighbouring country, had described it as a “golden opportunity” to break barriers and improve ties between the two countries and two Punjabs.

“I can visualize my dream of starting celebrations for the 550th Birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev-ji, the First Sikh Guru, next year from Nankana Sahib in Pakistan, the birthplace of the Guru. I want to take my (Punjab’s) Chief Minister there,” he had said earlier in a press conference at Chandigarh.

Sidhu, who has decades-long association with Imran as a cricketer and commentator, said he got the invite in personal capacity. The other invitation was to former Indian captain Kapil Dev, who was Imran’s contemporary. The latter cited ‘personal reasons’ for not attending the ceremony.

After reaching Lahore, Sidhu was mobbed by the media but true to his character, he batted skilfully

Along with Sidhu’s joviality, anxieties too peeped out, more so as topical history had thrown hard and vital lessons for both countries during previous camaraderie encounters.

The anxiety perhaps got accentuated in the backdrop of yesterday’s demise of former PM Vajpayee. Vajpayee the co-architect of the Delhi-Lahore Bus — Sada-E-Sarhad – in 1999, who had to deal with Kargil war just months after the Indo-Pak bus bonhomie. Similarly the Pathankot Airbase attack came merely a week after PM Narendra Modi’s impromptu visit to Lahore to extend birthday wishes to Pak PM Nawaz Sharif and participation in the wedding of his daughter.

Sample this: Invoking the spirit of the former PM Vajpayee to express bonhomie, Sidhu’s worry slipped through poetry, unmindful of the fact that he was speaking in the host country.

Reciting in chaste Punjabi “Je gwandi de ghar aag lagi howe, tey sek meinu ponchda hai, je odar thandak hoye the oh thandak vi meinu ponch di hai”. (If there is fire in the neighbour’s house, the heat reaches me, and if it is cool there, the coolness reaches me too).

Vajpayee was of a similar view, Sidhu said about the former PM’s statesmanship.

This sat aptly with Vajpayee’s famous words that ring true even today- “You can change friends, but not neighbours!”

Sidhu took it further: “there is something called ‘Aas’ or hope and another is ‘Vishwas’ or Trust. Hope should not be shattered and if trust is broken, then any number of adhesives cannot make it whole.”

Giving it a twist, and throwing weight behind his words to convey his message, he said: “time will tell about the hope and trust of people of Pakistan about Imran Khan, their new leader, whom I personally equate to gold. If even he (Imran) is thrown into the fire, he will emerge out victorious and more glorious like gold,” and won accolades.

Ducking questions and expressing his opinion in his inimitable style on the heat generated in India over his visit, Sidhu countered “Duniya mein sab se bara rog, mere bare mein kia kahange log” (The biggest malaise of the world is ‘what will people say about me’).

Sidhu who last visited Pakistan in 2004, started with “Jeeviye Hindustan, Jeeviye Pakistan”, calling himself fortunate to be part of the historic occasion with his ‘Yarr’ or friend, to head the country.

Parrying questions he said “artists and sports bring bonding, I have come as a friend not as a political person, so have brought the message of love. There are some tasks cut out for the governments and I shall not interfere in them.”

About his pink turban, he said “I have worn pink as it symbolizes love and auspiciousness, even at weddings (when someone referred to Modi wearing pink in Lahore). Although I am greatly grieved in my heart over Vajpayee’s demise, but life goes on and I have brought the message of peace and love.”

On anti-neighbour rhetoric during elections he said, “some are like swans who seek pearls and some like the cranes who hunt for the fish — to each his own.”

Zeeshan Siddiqui, senior producer with ‘Dawn TV News’ in Islamabad, waxing eloquent about Sidhu’s arrival in Pakistan said the former cricketer bowled a sixer with Pakistanis, with his grassroots poetry and his down-to-earth mannerisms including using chaste Punjabi to answer the media.

Pakistani media is completely bowled over, he concluded.

(Rashmi Talwar, an independent journalist, and can be reached at [email protected] )

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