Of the People

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Arvind Kejriwal’s party, true to its name, has pledged to put up ‘common people’ for Delhi’s Assembly polls. We speak to some of them

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), as its name suggests, was set up last year as a party for ‘common people’. But who are Arvind Kejriwal and his cohorts talking about? Who do they see as common people? According to the party, these are people at large, the vast numbers who vote a tiny political elite to power but never get to share that power. Their concerns are basic: bijli, paani and other civic amenities. Let alone the rest of the country, the party says even Delhi has failed ordinary people on the basic provisions of electricity, water and sanitation that everyone is entitled to. The solution, the AAP believes, is a government by the people for the people: swaraj, in other words, or self-rule.

For Delhi’s forthcoming Assembly polls, the AAP has put up what it considers aam aadmi candidates. These are people from varied walks of life who have been picked on principle, it claims, people who feel exploited by the system, want to make a difference, and will not go the grubby route of paying for an electoral ticket of a major political party. They can’t even afford to play politics as usual. They do not have deep pockets and rely on money collected from supporters to fund their campaigns. The broad idea is to join the system to change it from within.

Right now, Kejriwal is engaged in his first major political battle: to dislodge Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, one of the most re-elected leaders of an Indian state ever. Does he have a strategy to achieve this? “We will form the government,” he replies, without batting an eyelid, “You wait and see.”

Dikshit dismisses Kejriwal’s party as one of mere “nuisance value” that could “cut into our vote share and somewhere into that of the BJP”, with no chance of winning power in Delhi. Is she taking the AAP too lightly? Says a senior Congress leader of Delhi who once held a Union Government office: “[AAP] might not form the [state] government, but might be in a position to decide who forms the government.”

On his part, Kejriwal intends to be much more than just a nuisance. He is set to challenge Dikshit directly by pitting his candidacy against hers in her Assembly constituency. “If she decides to avoid such a contest in the New Delhi constituency out of fear and move to another,” says the AAP leader, “I will also move to the seat from where she is contesting.”

Other AAP candidates, he expects, will be equally successful. The party’s selection process, he says, is both elaborate and transparent. Anyone may apply or have their names proposed by others. A screening committee shortlists two to five names for each constituency, and puts them on the party website for feedback from volunteers and voters at large. If there is an objection to someone backed by proof of reason, the person’s candidacy is struck off. Guided by online and other feedback, a final list is prepared by the party’s Political Affairs Committee, which has Kejriwal, Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan among others as members.

Several AAP candidates have already been selected, some of whom Open met.

Among the best recognised AAP candidates is Shazia Ilmi, a former TV anchor who is contesting the RK Puram seat. She is married, lives in Delhi and says she cannot stand segregation of any kind, be it by gender, religion, caste or creed. The daughter of Urdu journalist Siyasat Jadid, she grew up in a Muslim family of Kanpur, questioning the orthodox customs of a patriarchal society. “Why should I cook if I don’t feel like cooking?” Or “Why can’t my brother serve me food like I serve [the family] all the time?”

After her schooling at St Mary’s Convent, Ilmi did a Master’s in Mass Communication at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and then got a diploma in broadcast journalism from University of Wales, Cardiff. “I never wanted to go back to Kanpur,” she says.

Addressing a gathering in RK Puram, with Kejriwal seated by her side, she raises her arms high to proclaim, “[Politicians] only know to how to raaj (rule), they have no neeti (policy).” This gets a round of loud applause. She refers to a CAG report on last year’s government spending on public works in Delhi. Nearly 95 per cent of these projects have not been issued completion certificates, she says. “The money is gone, is paid, but no one knows whether it was utilised or not. And we are talking about lakhs of crores of rupees.”

Fault-finding, though, is easier than running a state government. Why, I ask, should Delhi’s voters elect the AAP? “We will deliver clean governance,” she says, “and will not make money for ourselves.” Experience has little bearing on the quality of governance, she believes, given how badly this country has been run by veteran politicians. “The MLA funds are mostly misused,” she says.

The party’s election plan has divided the city into zones, each with a group of constituencies, with specific ground conditions in each guiding the campaign. In Ilmi’s constituency, for example, she has declared war against a water tanker mafia that has the patronage of senior Congress and BJP members. Street lanes in RK Puram have been done, dug up and redone several times, but the state government has failed to reach sanitation and water facilities to jhuggi clusters in the adjoining areas. “[Parties] pay them money and distribute liquor before voting and forget about them after the elections,” Ilmi says, “People are treated as vote banks that they want to encash during elections.” The denial of basic amenities, she says, is a “joke” that this government has played on them, something they need to be aware of.

Six-and-a-half-foot tall Praveen Kumar stands out in a crowd. Once an athlete, he participated in the Olympics, Asiad and Commonwealth Games for India in the 1960s as a hammer/discus thrower. Apart from several international medals, he won the Arjuna Award in 1962. He is famous, however, for having played the role of Bheem in the televised epic Mahabharata in the 1990s.

Kumar is the AAP candidate for Ashok Vihar, where he lives and enjoys the reputation of a soft-spoken elder known locally for the wisdom of his opinions on day-to-day issues. Disillusioned by the country’s attempt to be a welfare state, he wanted to do something about it. He was approached by many parties to take the plunge into electoral politics, but the murkiness of it put him off. It was on the insistence of others in the locality that he agreed to contest the polls on an AAP ticket.

Seated in his house, unbothered by the hustle bustle around him, he airs caustic views in a polite voice. “Politicians are worse than beggars,” he says, “They have no assool (principles). They are sycophants who either chant ‘Modi Modi’ or ‘Gandhi Gandhi’.”

People are not fools, he asserts, they just haven’t had an alternative. They know that governance is all sham, a game of crooks. “They would remove bricks from drains of B-block and construct another drain in C-block [of Ashok Vihar].”

But how would he be able to fix governance? “Main bikau nahin hoon, aur dande le kar kaam karana janta hoon,” he says. (I am not corrupt and can use sticks to get work done.) “What else is an MLA required to do? I am committed to the welfare of people. I have joined politics for no other reason. I don’t need politics in my life and I know my area like the back of my hand.”

Surinder Singh was an army commando who belonged to one of India’s oldest infantry regiments The Grenadiers. He has seen plenty of action in his 14-year career in uniform: such as the Kargil War, Operation Parakram, Operation Sadbhavna and Operation Black Thunder. He also served as part of the UN mission in Congo. This election, however, promises to be his most interesting battle. He is the AAP candidate for Delhi Cantonment.

Surinder Singh’s son was born a day before he was sent to fight terror in Mumbai during the 26/11 attacks. That was Operation Black Thunder. He suffered serious injuries when a closeby explosion riddled him with splinters. He lost his hearing as a result of it, and was declared unfit and relieved of Army duty in October 2011.

For 19 months after that, he did not receive his pension. He could barely make ends meet, let alone pay for his treatment. Kejriwal took up his case and got him his due. He has not fully recovered, but is keen to contest the polls on behalf of all those who find themselves voiceless.

Singh lives in rented accommodation in Mehram Nagar near Delhi Airport with his parents, wife and two children. His fight is funded by donations from would-be voters. He says he stands for satta parivatan, a change in government. “Sarkar sirf nariyal phor rahi hai”, he says. (The government is only announcing new projects to entice voters.) But what Delhi needs is to ensure basics. If elected, he vows to place special emphasis on education.

Fellow servicemen form a sizeable number of voters in Singh’s constituency, and he is canvassing their votes door to door. “If I don’t deliver, then I am willing to be recalled,” he says, “I want to be held responsible for my area. Unlike other parties where the high command decides what needs to be done, in AAP, it is the people of the constituency who will decide what has to be done. Arvind Kejriwal mujhe nahin bata sakte ki meri constituency mein kya karna hai (Even Arvind Kejriwal cannot tell me what needs to be done in my constituency).”

Bhaag Singh, the party’s Kalkaji candidate, is a 47-year-old autorickshaw driver originally from Gurdaspur district of Punjab. The youngest in a family of ten siblings, he reached Delhi looking for a job some 20 years ago. It evaded him for a long time, and so he decided to employ himself. He earned Rs 150 on his first day as an auto driver, and that settled it: it would be his livelihood.

But Bhaag Singh is an auto driver with a difference. He is religious and likes to discuss religion. He offers passengers who talk spirituality with him a 10-per cent discount on the fare. He starts his day with prayers and teaches children Gurbani at a local gurdwara. Religion, he says, has strengthened his belief in hard work: the fruit of labour is sweet, he says, and one should always put in one’s best effort. He would like to keep driving his autorickshaw as a legislator, if he wins, so long as he has the time. “Like writers don’t stop writing or lawyers don’t quit practising law [as MLAs],” he says, “I will also keep up my work.”

If elected, he would like to overhaul a transport system marred with corruption. “It’s the most corrupt department [in Delhi],” he says, “We have to pay a heavy bribe to get a commercial driving licence and other paperwork done.”

In response to a fear expressed by some of Delhi’s regular auto users, Bhaag Singh wants to assure everyone that the city’s auto-drivers will not be emboldened to behave even more rudely with passengers if he wins. Auto drivers lead tough lives, he says, but he advises them to be fair and polite: they should first invite passengers, who are akin to God, to take their seats and then ask where they would like to go, not the other way round to screen who they will take and who not. “When on the road, you can’t say ‘no’ to a passenger,” he says, “We will come out with rules for auto rickshaw drivers.”

Like other AAP candidates, he is banking on cash contributions for his campaign. “Even a Rs 10 donation is welcome. I need the support of people to fight for their cause.” He is on a public contact programme, going to open parks, stopping by tea stalls, and mixing with people all around to gather crowds and explain his party’s agenda. The Jan Lokpal Bill will be passed within 15 days of AAP’s coming to power, he says. Power tariffs will be halved and every family will be assured at least 700 litres of water per month.

Some of his political deliberations sound like those of a religious preacher. Governance, he says, should be practised like religion—with devotion.

But are good intentions enough to inspire confidence in his candidacy? “I am for swaraj,” he says, “I am just a medium for people’s voices. They have to decide what has to be done in their area. Who would understand their plight better than me who has been a victim of government apathy?”

Somnath Bharti, the Malviya Nagar candidate of the party, is a lawyer who believes all human beings are a manifestation of God and hence essentially equal. He grew up in a family inclined towards religion in Gaya, Bihar, did his Master’s in Mathematics at IIT-Delhi, and then went on to study law. Now he is an advocate of change. “Indian polity needs complete overhauling,” he says, “The system should be people-centric and accountable.”

An active participant in the Janlokpal movement, he sees Gandhi as his role model and his dream for the country is of poorna swaraj, complete self rule.

By way of career, Bharti began as a teacher at a coaching institute in south Delhi. Then he started an infotech company called Bharti and Associates. For the past three years, he has worked closely with Bhushan and Kejriwal. As an activist lawyer, Bharti has filed many PILs and undertaken pro bono litigation on behalf of the AAP. Recently, he was in the news for lending legal support to eight boys who were falsely implicated by the Delhi Police in last December’s gang-rape case.

Bharti claims to have been offered tickets by India’s big political parties to contest elections. He speaks of a meeting with Kanishka Singh, a key aide of Rahul Gandhi, and Congress leader Kapil Sibal who he says tried to persuade him to accept a Congress ticket. But he was not sure he wanted to join any of the regular parties, repulsed as he was by their self-serving politics.

It was Kejriwal who drew Bharti to the AAP. At a public function a couple of years ago, he heard Kejriwal recite a piece of poetry by Dushyant Kumar in Hindi: Sirf hungaama khada karna mera maksad nahin Saari koshish hai ke ye soorat badalni chaahiye

As an activist who has sought the Judiciary’s intervention time and again for the cause of social justice, Bharti feels his idealism could be served more effectively by joining active politics. The AAP was his natural choice.