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What must an Oxford-bred education crusader do to survive Indian politics? Drop her last name

On a first-name basis.
  • Kuwar Singh
By Kuwar Singh


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

No one disputes the good work Atishi has done in Delhi’s government-run schools. Until recently, when she used to represent her Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in television debates, her opponents would often begin with a caveat: Atishi ji has done good work, we agree.

Under her leadership as the advisor to Delhi’s education minister, Manish Sisodia, state-run schools posted better results in national examinations than private schools, 8,000 new classrooms were built to mitigate an infrastructure shortage, and parent-teacher meetings were held across all the schools for the first time.

But as praise for this success went around, India’s ministry of home affairs terminated her position last year on the grounds that her appointment hadn’t been approved by the national government.

Atishi was amused, but not particularly frustrated. “Frustration is something that we at the Delhi government are used to,” she laughs.

The AAP was born in 2012 out of an anti-corruption protest movement that was instrumental in the fall of the national government in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The same elections also saw the rise of prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since then, however, the AAP and the BJP have never seen eye-to-eye.

In 2015, the AAP won state assembly elections in Delhi and has been running its government. But Delhi’s quasi-state status gives Modi’s administration control over various state functions such as police and services, and by extension, appointments.

Atishi had been drawing a nominal monthly salary of Re1 ($0.014) in her position as an advisor. While her dismissal was roundly criticised, it also planted her firmly in the public eye. Plans to contest the 2019 parliamentary elections had been in the works for some time—now they became easier. 

“It acted like a boon. She didn’t have to resign from her position (to run),” says the AAP’s social media in-charge Ankit Lal.

Atishi is running for a parliamentary seat from the East Delhi constituency, which goes to the polls on May 12. 

The rise

A former Delhi University topper and Rhodes scholar in education, Atishi was working with her husband in the villages of the central Madhya Pradesh state on “organic farming, schools, gram sabhas and panchayats” when the anti-corruption movement began in Delhi.

After five years of social work in rural India, she says, she had realised the need for political action for large-scale change: “This was the time that the India Against Corruption movement was starting. It was very interesting to see so many people come out of their homes demanding change.”

She met Prashant Bhushan, a prominent lawyer and one of the movement’s leaders, at a non-profit in the northern Himachal Pradesh state, and he inducted her into what would later become the AAP.

Initially, Atishi worked on the policy research team that chalked up the AAP’s first manifesto under the leadership of one of the party leaders, Yogendra Yadav.

In the run-up to the assembly elections in 2013, and again in 2015, she gradually became the television face of the party. “She had a very rigorous understanding of issues. She was female, she could communicate well in both English and Hindi, and upwards and onwards things went from there,” a person who witnessed her work during the party’s early days said, requesting anonymity.

On the other hand, both Bhushan and Yadav were expelled from the AAP during an internal strife in 2015, from which party boss Arvind Kejriwal emerged victoriously. Atishi by now had chosen to stay in the Kejriwal camp.

Yadav has since gone on to launch his own party, Swaraj India. But in the 2019 elections, he has asked Delhi residents to reject all the parties and choose the option of “none of the above,” or NOTA, at the ballot. This move has been criticised by those who say it would only make a victory easier for the BJP.

Atishi, too, agrees. “You can see what people are saying about them on Twitter these days after their proposition that Delhi voters press NOTA button (on the voting machine),” she says, alluding to Yadav.

However, such is her appeal that Yadav is also considering endorsing her candidacy, a senior member of his team said, requesting anonymity.

Though Atishi isn’t deemed a mass leader like Kejriwal, with her characteristic calmness in interviews, she can often put Modi’s government on the back foot over its power tussle with the AAP: Her party’s proposal of doorstep delivery of government services was dismissed on the absurd grounds that it would lead to a rise in road traffic; after an election commission hearing in which the AAP was not included, the president of India disqualified 14 of their state assembly members in an order that he signed on a Sunday; and several more reasons pointing towards the BJP for the AAP not having met some of its past promises. 

Today, the 37-year-old is her party’s only female candidate in Delhi, besides being the only woman on its highest decision-making body, the eight-member political affairs committee.

Back to school

As Delhi’s education advisor since July 2015, Atishi spearheaded a wide scale of reforms that ranged from training for the teachers to housekeeping for the school lavatories. 

A stark divide exists between government schools and their private counterparts across India. “No parent sends their child to a government school out of choice,” Atishi says, adding that she too studied at a private school in Delhi.

However, in a rarity in Indian politics, her department’s perceived success has made government schooling a campaign plank for her party, which has been taking jibes at the BJP’s popular Mandir wahin banayenge (We will build the temple there itself) slogan:

The AAP government’s work in education has extended beyond state-run schools. After it took a hard line on unapproved fee hikes, “almost for the past four years, there’s been virtually no fee hike in the private schools,” Atishi says. 

But her government has also pushed for more controversial initiatives such as installing security cameras in every government school classroom, which she has defended as a necessary step to mitigate corporal punishment and bullying. 

Now, her focus is on higher education. After the 2019 elections, if the AAP joins a winning national coalition that agrees to grant Delhi full statehood, her government will be able to build new colleges and reserve 85% of the admission spots in all state-government-funded colleges for Delhi residents.

A new battle

Atishi’s opponent from the BJP, Gautam Gambhir, is a former Indian cricketer and a well-recognised face across the country. But she has taken the fight to him, filing a court case against Gambhir for allegedly having two voter identity cards and issuing him a debate challenge which he has declined.

“Delhi has never been one for celebrity candidates. Many celebrities have lost elections in Delhi,” she says.

However, this pronounced faith in her electorate wavered last year when she dropped her second name Marlena. Her parents, leftist professors at Delhi University, had coined Marlena as a combination of Marx and Lenin. Because the name sounded Christian, it could have put her at a disadvantage since most voters in her constituency are Hindu.

“RSS functionaries had started the rumour in the Punjabi pockets of East Delhi” that she is Christian, Lal said, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. “This is the community that migrated from Pakistan (after religious persecution during India’s 1947 partition).”

Atishi says she has dropped the name exactly why she dropped her last name Singh, which signified her Rajput caste, many years ago: She wants people to focus on her work and not on her caste or religion. Yet, these identities drive politics in India, and her own party continues to play up her high caste status while campaigning.

“The choice in politics is often between bad and worse,” she says. “You are playing a game that you know is unfair, but to change the rules of the game you have to first win the game by the existing rules.” 

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.

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