Exclusive: We worked on finding solutions to problems of Delhi, no point focusing on Left and Right, says Atishi on AAP's election victory
AAP leader Atishi, who won the Kalkaji Assembly constituency in the recently concluded Delhi election, speaks to Firstpost about running a development-based campaigned amid the divisive and polarised politics over Shaheen Bagh
'If there is a party that is working for the "aam aadmi," so to say, the 'aam aadmi' is bound to get benefits'
'Getting zero seats in two consecutive elections, I don't think this has ever happened to any big party before. Congress is on its way out even as a national party.'
'Delhi is our first priority and will always be because the people have elected us with a mammoth majority for the second time in a row'
It is even more important for the women who are in politics to stay there, even just to be role models.
When I entered Atishi's office, I was greeted by a group of people celebrating. Upon enquiring, I was told they were marking the birthday of their colleague Pankaj Gaur, Atishi's election campaign manager.
And since Atishi had won from the Kalkaji seat of Delhi Assembly, it was "all the more reason to celebrate”.
While eating cake and waiting for my appointment with Atishi, I got into a conversation with Gaur, who was in a gleeful mood; whether owing to his birthday or Atishi's win — one can't say.
Revealing the strategy behind Atishi's win in the Kalkaji Vidhan Sabha seat in the recently concluded Assembly election, Gaur said, “We have fought this election mainly on the basis of our past work done on education by Atishi. We had got a very positive response from people about the work. She worked on a salary of Rs 1 for about three years with the deputy chief minister to better Delhi's education system. From infrastructure and quality of education to mid-day meals, Atishi has worked to improve the overall quality of Delhi's schools."
Gaur also mentioned that the implementation of School Management Committees were ensured by the AAP government in their previous term. SMCs are bodies made in schools to decentralise the administration of schools. Ensuring participation of stakeholders such as parents of the students, the SMC's aim to increase the quality of schools.
Talking about the defeat of BJP candidate Dharambir Singh from Kalkaji, Gaur said, “BJP's campaign of trying to create polarisation failed terribly in Delhi. Logon ne unhe buri tarah nakaar diya (the people rejected them badly).”
Gaur describes Atishi as an intellectual who is perseverant in her work as well as extremely systematic. He points at a huge Kalkaji map and progress charts that occupy the walls of Atishi's office.
After a while, Atishi arrived in the room filled with well-wishers who had come bearing flowers and sweets. One by one, the AAP leader met with them all, three groups in total, a constant smile on her face. The room was filled with laughter and jubilation.
Then came my turn. And the interview began:
Before you became a politician, you were an educator. Your primary area of work, even in the AAP, has been around education. You served as an advisor to Deputy CM Manish Sisodia, primarily on education for about three years before finally entering politics. During the campaign, while everyone in the BJP were raising the Shaheen Bagh issue, you were still talking about education. Why is this particular area of interest to you? Is it because you come from a family of teachers?
Of the nearly 72,000 people who live here, all the children from here go to government schools. And you can just see how their lives have changed. I remember during my campaign, going into one house and talking about how the electricity bill is zero, and one of the persons from the family came to me and said, “Madam, bijli ka bill zero aata hai, magar mujhey issey koi farq nahin padta. Mujhey farq padta hai issey ki mere bachchon ke school achche ho gaye hain. Warna agar aapney ye school nahin achche kiye hote toh mere bachchon ka koi bhavishya nahin tha (Madam, the electricity bill is nill, but I do not care about that. I care that the school where my children study has improved. If you hadn’t improved the quality of education in schools, my children had no futue)." And I think that really is something.
A good education is one thing that can pull somebody out of poverty. And I think it has shown. For all the talk about Shaheen Bagh, and this is a constituency which is located right next to Shaheen Bagh, we share this entire border with the Okhla constituency, and it is clear that people voted for education and healthcare over polarisation and divisive politics.
And now that you have been elected as an MLA, what are your specific plans around education during your term for the next five years?
Improving the condition of existing schools is going to be my number one focus. But I am also trying to increase the number of schools here. I think that is going to be a priority. Early childhood education in terms of Aanganwadis is going to be a priority. As far as education is concerned, these will the main priorities.
You have only talked about education so far. But do you think in the next five years, your area of interest will primarily remain education, or will you go beyond?
So as far as the constituency is concerned, one has to take care of everything. And here, water supply and sewerage are big problems. There are also a lot of lower-income areas, which consist of a large number of camps, so while water and sewerage have seen immense improvement in the past five years, it still needs a lot of work.
In some interviews, you have said that during India Against Corruption movement, you were an observer from the outside. What was the moment that you finally decided to join politics full time?
Actually, it just happened. I joined as a policy volunteer in India Against Corruption movement and then became part of the Aam Aadmi Party. I worked with the party in the 2013 and 2015 elections. Then after the 2015 Assembly election, they needed people to work with the government, so I started then. So, it was just something that happened organically.
Your parents, who were professors in Delhi University, named you 'Marlena', after Marx and Lenin, but you have only filed your first name in the elections. You agreed to change your name because you were being criticised for it. Does that mean that you will agree to do things even in the future to avoid criticism?
Marlena was actually never my surname. My surname is Singh, which I dropped many years ago. At that point in time, I felt like I don't want to use Singh because… why get into caste-based politics? This came under a lot of discussions, but I was like, why to bother with it.
But a lot of people would say that Indian politics is inextricably linked with caste and religion.
But I managed to win without using my surname.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, you contested from the East Delhi constituency and lost by a margin of over 4 lakh votes to Gautam Gambhir. Cut to 2020, you fought in the Delhi Assembly elections and won from the Kalkaji seat by a margin of 11,500 votes. Was the Lok sabha loss a big setback for you? How did it feel then and how does it feel now? What has changed between then and now?
See, I think between then and now — while even then, there was a lot of emotional support for AAP, but in that election, people wanted to know about who is going to be the prime ministerial face. That was the question that people were asking. But this time, I think that emotional support was also accompanied by viability. We had the face for the chief ministerial candidate. And I think it was very clear that there was no one else apart from Arvind Kejriwal who was the face to become the chief minister of Delhi.
When the votes were being counted, I read a tweet which said, "You know why Atishi can't win? Because she doesn't wear a saree. She talks in English and doesn't have a Hindu surname." What do you have to say about that?
Obviously, all those things were proved wrong. There you are. It is finally work that matters. It is the work that we have done in the past five years that people have voted on.
You have all these slum clusters here (in Kalkaji), just 500 metres away from where we are sitting. So much money and liquor were distributed here. I was constantly getting calls from our central office about that. But despite that, people were very clear and focused. They voted with a lot of clarity. I remember going to some of these slums one or two days before the election, and even before I could say something, the women there said to me, "Humein pata hai jee. Ek kambal se, ek saree se, ek hazaar rupaiye se, aur daaru se paanch saal ka guzara nahin hota. Paanch saal ka guzara sirf Kejriwal ko vote deke hoga (We know well. You can’t sustain yourself for five years with just a blanket, one saree, Rs 1,000 and liquor. One can sustain themselves for five years only after voting for Kejriwal)."
On the day of the election results, were you at any point afraid while oscillating between leading and trailing. At one point, you were leading by just seven votes against BJP's Dharambir Singh. Could you tell us a bit about what was going through your mind at that time?
So basically, there are some areas which are strong for AAP, and some which are not. But even in the areas which are known as BJP support bases, which is where even the BJP candidate has been a councillor from, the first ward, we were absolutely neck and neck. But we never trailed by more than 191 votes. And we came out of their strong support base with a very slim lead of eight to ten votes, but we came out of there, leading. After a certain point, after about the 80th odd booth was covered, we didn't lose a single booth. Once the margins started picking up, it was all uphill from there. So it went from say 200 to 2,000 to 5,000 then finally to 11,500. (Atishi chuckles)
On the day of the result one journalist compared Arvind Kejriwal to Narendra Modi and said that AAP is using the same model of "vikas" to win in Delhi. Is this a fair comparison?
See, whoever does "vikas" should win. Whoever is focusing on work, people should vote for them.
It will not be unfounded to say that Indian politics, or, any politics, has been dominated majorly by men. Women like you are emerging as faces of woman empowerment. What do you think is the role of women in making politics a more accessible space?
I think we live in a very unfair world. Let alone politics, even in other professions — I have so many friends who studied with me at St Stephen's and Oxford University who have had to struggle in their careers, who are often making choices between their personal lives and their careers, who are thinking whether or not to have kids until they reach a certain age otherwise they will lose out on becoming partners in their law firms and investment banks. So, women are still carrying the burden of an unequal society even in mainstream professions. And politics is all the more challenging because it requires 24×7 engagement, where you're in the public domain, and where you're bound to be the target of all kinds of vicious attacks. So, obviously it is difficult, but it is a matter of time, just as today in various professions and industries you can now see more women coming forward, I think the same is going to be true of Indian politics.
It is even more important for the women who are in politics to stay there, even just to be role models. Often when I go to speak at colleges or different programs, I've seen that a lot of young and educated women have often said that they relate with someone like me. They think, if I can, why can't they?
All the eight women MLAs who won this time are from AAP, including you, Rakhi Birla, Bhavna Gaur, Parmila Tokas, A Dhanwati Chandela A, Bandana Kumari, Preeti Tomar, and Raj Kumari Dhillon. Is the party especially focussed towards having more women candidates and hence takes care of representation of women or is it just coincidence?
I think AAP takes care of everyone. As a party, we are inclusive, and naturally, it tends to support those who are marginalised, be it women, or people who are financially underprivileged, or Dalits or minorities. They are bound to find greater favour in a party that stands for common people. Even in government schools, if a family can pay for only one child to go to private school, they will usually send their sons. Their daughters go to government schools. You will find way more children from Scheduled Caste families and minorities coming into government schools. So, obviously, if there is a party that is working for the "aam aadmi," so to say, the aam aadmi is bound to get benefits.
Also, AAP is a party made primarily of young people like yourself. Is it again, a conscious decision by the party and if so, how does it help?
(Laughs). I am not so young anymore. But yeah, it wasn't really a conscious decision, it was a coincidence that mostly young people were drawn to our party ideals. But there is a reason for it. They were people who wanted change. Who felt that there was a need for it. I mean, look at Arvind Kejriwal, at the age of fifty, he has been elected as the Delhi chief minister third time in a row. So, yeah, the segment that wanted change the most was young people.
From being in power in Delhi to zero seats in the Assembly election. What do you trace Congress' loss to?
Congress has come a long way. (Laughs). Not just that. Congress doesn't just have zero seats, it has had zero seats in two consecutive elections. There is nothing much left to say after that. It seems that Congress has become irrelevant to Delhi politics.
After the election results, I was surprised to see that a lot of Congress loyalists were rejoicing because the BJP had lost. So, given this situation wherein both the parties have the same political enemy and the fact that Congress has lost its ground in Delhi, do you think there is a chance for AAP and Congress to work in alliance sometime in the future?
The Congress has lost their deposit on 64 seats. From my seat, Shubash Chopra's daughter Shivani was contesting. Shubash is the DPCC president. She got a total of, I think, some 3,500 votes. They didn't touch three digits in any booth. Let alone win, they didn't even get a hundred votes where we getting seven and four hundred votes. Getting zero seats in two consecutive elections, I don't think this has ever happened to any big party before. Congress is on its way out even as a national party.
In an interview, AAP's social media strategist Ankit Lal said that the party didn't want to limit itself to a particular ideology. He also said that AAP doesn't have a problem switching between Left and Right. Is it also something that you personally would follow? Marriage of convenience?
One of the problems that we see not just in Indian politics but the politics of the 20th and 21st Century as a whole is that people have been more focused on isms, rather than finding solutions to people's real problems. I think solutions can come from different strains of thought. Is improving government schools Right or Left? Is improving government hospitals Right or Left? We can't put these things in categories.
Some people call us Leftist, some Rightist. For example in electricity, people say it's very populist to give subsidies, but then we are the only state where DISCOMS are doing financially well. We have been one of the most efficiently-run governments when it comes to finances. We are the only state in the country which doesn't have any fiscal deficit. Would you call that Left? (Laughs).
Do you see AAP becoming a national party anytime soon?
I think the idea of AAP is bound to spread very fast. It is politics based on work and real issues of the people. But the party as a whole, we will be very carefully taking one step at a time. Delhi is our first priority and will always be because the people have elected us with a mammoth majority for the second time in a row. We'll gradually expand into other states. Next step, of course, is Punjab, where we are the principal Opposition party.
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