Atishi is contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Delhi East constituency
Minutes before Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Atishi arrives at the J J camp in East Delhi's Anand Vihar to begin her campaign trail for the day, a party worker tries to galvanize the cadre by hollering into the microphone: "Ek aurat jinhone itna kaam kiya hain Dilli ke logon ke liye, ek aisi aurat ko kya hum sansad mein dekhna chahenge? Unhone ek aurat hoke itna kaam kiya hain desh ke liye, kya hum unko jitayenge?" (A woman who has done so much work for Delhi's residents, do we want to see such a woman in Parliament? Being a woman she has worked so much for the country, should we make her win?)
As Delhi is set to vote on May 12, perhaps the dichotomy that guides Singh's campaign as she fights it out in East Delhi, is whether to seek votes on the basis of her vast body of work in the education sector or give in to the tropes of gender and caste identities.
That in Indian politics one cannot seek a term without aligning with identity politics of any kind, becomes clear when even supposed progressive and secular parties and candidates fall for the familiar banality.
As an advisor on education to the AAP-led Delhi government, under her supervision, public school infrastructure in Delhi improved and her interventions brought an enthusiasm about government schools.
Education featured prominently in AAP's election manifesto ahead of the 2015 Delhi elections. After it won in a landslide victory, the party made good on its promise and allocated 24% of the total outlay to education in its first budget in June 2015.
In the next three years, the Delhi government sought to reform every group involved in public education. Campaigns were organised to help struggling children read. A cadre of 200 “mentor teachers” was created to support schools and teachers locally. New workbooks and teaching material were designed. And much of it happened under the leadership of Singh.
Yet, her campaign trail is marked by an urgency to make her voters identify with her as a woman first, rather than her own work, something that probably wouldn't be the case with her male colleagues.
"Naturally, women voters connect to me more than they would to a male politician. And I think there needs to be more women in politics because women’s voices need to come forward," Atishi tells Moneycontrol. "There might be a lot of women who would vote for me because I am a woman politician. But the reason that it’s legitimate is because women are a marginal population whose voice need to be represented."
As she enters the settlement to meet the residents, an angry voice of a woman is ready to greet her. "Teen mahine se aise gande paani mein reh rahe hain. Nala phat ke paani bhar gaya hain, kisiko kuch pari nahi hain. Aur yeh aai hain vote mangne? Aayein zara mujhse baat karne, batati hoon vote ka," screams Malti, a resident of J J Camp. (We are living in this dirty water for three months. The drainpipe burst and the area is full of water, nobody cares. And now she has come to ask for votes? Let her come and talk to me, I'll tell her about vote.)
A close look at the area and one can see pools of dirty water clogging the roads. There is no way of avoiding stepping into the water if one needs to go out or come into the colony. And not just water-clogging, but even drinking water is an issue in the area.
"The pipeline has been constructed but there is no connection yet," says Pinki, a resident of the area.
The party cadres try hard to pacify the residents by saying the sitting MLA is from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But the anger among the residents are palpable as everyone tells Atishi that leaders forget their voters after elections are over and they are forced to live in squalid conditions.
"See, a lot of these can be resolved if the local councilors, local MLAs work with the concerned departments. The problem with this locality is that the councilor is BJP, the MLA is BJP and the MP is from BJP. And when we look at this locality, we see nothing has happened here. And that is why the AAP got such a positive response in this area," Atishi says.
Atishi has been going from door to door and urging residents to give Kejriwal, and not her, a chance to serve the people. "Aamma, aap iss baar Kejriwalji ko vote deke dekhiyein, yeh saare samassyaon ka woh samadhan kar denge (Mother, this time vote for Kejriwalji, he'll solve all these problems,)" she assures an elderly woman who complains about the water crisis.
Despite the opposition's scathing attack on BJP being a party that is run by two men (Narendra Modi and Amit Shah), AAP's appeal to voters to vote for Arvind Kejriwal sounds surprisingly familiar. Atishi, in her campaign trail, has been urging voters to vote for Kejriwal's symbol, a broom, instead of seeking votes in her name. Why then should the party attack BJP's centralisation so vehemently?
"Everyone recognises Kejriwal. It's unfortunate that despite doing so much work in education, Atishi ma'am's name wouldn't draw voters as much as Kejriwal ji's would. That's how it is. But we are different from BJP in that we have done work," says a party cadre on condition of anonymity.
That Atishi has been able renew an interest in school among children is evident from the smiles on their faces when asked about school. "Mujhe accha lagta hain school jana. Madam didi saare bohot acche hain. School bhi bohot sundar hain (I love going to school. Teachers are all very nice. The school is also very beautiful)," says 12-year-old Vicky.
The party also tries hard to milk this with the voters as the cadres go from door-to-door telling people that it was Atishi who changed the face of government schools in Delhi and if given a chance, she would also solve their other issues. But are the residents convinced?
"Sabko chance diya hain. BJP ko pichle baar diya tha. Phir bhi dekhiyein kya haalat hain yahan ka. Sab ek jaise hi hain. Par madam ne schools to bohot accha bana diya hain. Dekhte hain inko mauka deke (We have given a chance to everyone. Last time we voted for BJP. Despite that, see what's the condition of the area. All are the same. But madam has made schools better. Let's give her a chance once)," says Daulatram, who owns a shop in the area.
After the work done in the sector of education, Atishi says the next step would be to fix the state of higher education in Delhi.
"I think while we have managed to do some good work in school education, a lot needs to be done in higher education. There’s a shortage of higher education opportunities in Delhi. There are 2.5 lakh students who pass out of school every year. There are only one lakh seats in higher education. And out of those one lakh too there are students who come from all over the country. We had a spectacular class 12 results yesterday. Despite that, most of the government school students will end up pursuing higher education in correspondence because there aren’t enough seats," she says.
In its manifesto, AAP promised an 85% quota to residents of Delhi in city colleges. Wouldn't that be unfair to the students coming from outside Delhi, I ask. "Everyone is welcome to study in DU. Issue is there has to be enough colleges for Delhi’s students," Atishi says staunchly.
The election campaign for 2019 has been marked by acrimonious personal attacks, consolidation of votebanks based on caste lines, and polarisation of voters. Singh herself had been accused by a Congress leader of being a Jew, which was followed by Atishi coming out and publicly stating that she was a Punjabi Rajput.
Atishi, who used to use Marlena as her surname, formed from combining the surnames of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, dropped her second name. While the opposition criticised the ruling party of polarisation, they haven't themselves been able to escape aligning with caste identities to woo voters.
"I have never discussed my religion, my caste or which part of the country I come from," she says. "I am fighting from East Delhi where around 10% of the population is Punjabi. But that is not a plank that I have taken up asking for votes."
But is there a need to assert one’s religious or caste identity in Indian politics?
"As I said, I never asserted my caste or religious identity. This is not something I am asking votes on the basis of. But if blatant lies are being told, it has to be corrected in the public domain," Atishi counters.
The AAP has on various occasions been criticised as a party that lacks proper ideology. Opposition parties and critics have often stated that a party's ideology cannot be anti-corruption, thereby questioning its intent in serious politics.
"These are words of people who do not have any work to show, either in the central government or in their MCD govt or in the 15 years of Cong govt before AAP. And hence they have to come up with all kinds of illogical things," laughs Atishi.
The BJP has been vociferous in its intent to solve the issue of illegal migrants. It won elections in Assam after actively campaigning that it would "drive out illegal migrants." It is also campaigning on the same lines in Bengal, where it accuses the incumbent Trinamool Congress government of being soft on the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh. In Delhi, Singh's constituency of East Delhi too has an issue of illegal migration.
"There is a difference between illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and Bengal. People from Bengal have a very legitimate right to be here. As far as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are concerned, I think it’s the responsibility of the central government to ensure that illegal immigration doesn’t happen," she says.
Before leaving the camp area, Atishi tells the residents that all of their problems can only be sorted with "poorna rajya (complete statehood)".
AAP has been actively seeking full statehood, accusing the central government of interference. It has also said on various occasions that because Delhi Police doesn't come under the jurisdiction of the state government, it has no control over Delhi's safety and security issues.
"As of now, there is no security in Delhi because Delhi Police doesn’t come under the state government. The government cannot open new colleges. Similarly for jobs, the government cannot take out any new vacancies because services lie with central govt. And all of these problems can be resolved only with full statehood," she asserts.How far Atishi's work in the field of education will help her in securing a Lok Sabha seat, only time will say. But that accountability as an elected candidate is distinct from that of an advisor, is something perhaps has been made clear from the wrath of residents for failures that weren't even hers.