Atishi Marlena Singh’s Lok Sabha candidacy epitomises the perils and possibilities of women running for public office, especially in India. She can be a Rhodes scholar, a committed activist, the only woman in the highest policy-making body of her party, but in a battle dominated by men, she will find herself facing vile, sexist attacks at some point. The Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate from East Delhi constituency was reduced to tears while confronting her bullies and reading out the anonymous, noxious pamphlet describing her as, among other things, a prostitute.
But, as journalist Pamela Philipose says, “It’s difficult to keep a good woman down”.
Atishi is that ‘good woman’ whom the public is willing to support and associate with unlike others. Atishi, much like late Meera Sanyal, the respected banker who was the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s South Mumbai candidate in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, isn’t in politics because of who she is related to — as a bahu, beti or mataji. Atishi is there because she has the ability to turn things around in a system that is largely static, and make herself stand out for being a professional.
And the field that Atishi chose to establish herself in is one that is easily in the most terrible shape at most places in the country right now: the public education system.
On the education front
Atishi had all her credentials in place. Always excellent in academics, be it at Sprindales, topping History at St Stephen’s, earning a Chevening scholarship to study at Oxford, teaching English and History at Rishi Valley, or earning another scholarship (Rhodes) to return to Oxford, before finally coming back to work with several NGOs — Atishi knew where her strengths lay.
It is no surprise then that her work in Delhi government schools has been hailed as “revolutionary” — not merely in infrastructure but also in academics through various measures such as the revival of parent-teacher meetings, school management committees, training of school principals (with some being sent to Oxford and Singapore’s National University) as well as teachers. Pass percentages have improved, an evolved Happiness Curriculum has been launched, and education is now 26 per cent of the overall state budget as of 2019. A lot more needs to be done, and Atishi would be the first to admit that, but she hopes to bring issues related to education to the Lok Sabha.
“So far, elections have been won on the basis of caste, religion, money and liquor. If education can become a central issue, and elections can be won on the plank of educational reform, that in itself would be a great, positive shift for politics,” she said in an interview recently.
That central mindedness towards education is probably why Delhi’s public schools have come where they have since the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP returned to rule Delhi with an even bigger mandate than the first time — 67 of the 70 assembly seats. But Atishi was prepared to put in the hard work behind the scenes, which is needed to buttress the public schooling system in Delhi — widely seen as the reason behind her party being able to keep some of the social capital that it has since its win three-and-a-half years ago.
“She is distinctive even when compared to most other AAP politicians for the dogged way in which she has worked to fix the broken educational system,” says journalist Pamela Philipose, who watched closely as Atishi emerged as a credible politician in a remarkably short time. Philipose adds that it’s because of what Atishi has managed to achieve that “I believe she needs to be voted to Parliament if it is to be an institution that our founding fathers and mothers had envisaged.”
Attack on the name
The daughter of well-known academics Vijay Singh and Tripta Wahi, both formerly associated with the Delhi University, Atishi’s middle name, Marlena, was given to her by her Left-leaning parents. But Atishi dropped the amalgam of Marx and Lenin’s names when she was declared her party’s candidate from East Delhi in August 2018. During the course of her campaign, she has had to repeatedly clarify why she did so, saying: “I belong to a Punjabi Hindu family. I am Kshatriya.” Last month, former Congress MLA Asif Mohammad Khan raised the issue of the missing name again, calling her a Jew. Atishi’s elder sister Rosa Basanti, former trade union leader and wife of TV journalist Bhupendra Chaubey, is named after revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxembourg.
But before putting herself into the murky world of politics, Atishi, along with her husband Praveen Singh (an IIT Delhi and IIM Ahmedabad alumnus), became part of a group of people who decided to set up a commune along the lines of Manaviya Shiksha Sanskar Sansthan between 2007 and 2012. Both Atishi and Praveen were highly influenced by Ganesh Bagaria, formerly of IIT Kanpur, and his philosophy of Universal Human Values. The idea behind the centre, launched by Atishi and Praveen, was ‘gram swarajya’, and involved both organic farming and humanistic education. Dhirendra Tomar, a teacher in a Bhopal government school, remembers how hard they worked on the construction of the society but also how they were plagued by the scarcity of water.
Meanwhile, they had met Manish Sisodia at Bagaria’s camp in Kanpur and Raipur, and ended up becoming associated with the India Against Corruption in 2012. A year later, Praveen and Atishi were involved in drafting the manifesto for the AAP and were on TV speaking for the party. Ashutosh, a well-known TV anchor, who was also member of the AAP, remembers Atishi as “extremely qualified, really well-read, and a perfect blend of the East and West”.
Few people, Ashutosh says, could equal her commitment, which was evident when she started working as an adviser to education minister Manish Sisodia, in 2015, for just Re 1. Praveen, meanwhile, has become associated with another ambitious social experiment, Sambhaavna Institute of Public Policy and Politics, in Palampur district of Himachal Pradesh. The institute offers multiple programmes and workshops throughout the year involving youth, leaders and representatives of the civil society and social movements — these range from Nayi Dishayein summer schools to gender transformative workshops for boys.
“Many of us had never thought that this was going to be forever,” Atishi spoke of her association with the AAP in an interview to News18. “We were all volunteers. I had planned to move out of Delhi after the 2013 elections. I was like, chalo acche log hain inke saath lagke kuch karna chahiye (These are good people and I should work with them). And then 2013 happened and we thought we should stick around for few more months. But when the party lost the Lok Sabha elections, we decided not to abandon the sinking ship. We thought about all our friends and our colleagues and decided to stay put until the next elections,” she said.
That was in 2015. Today, as Atishi goes about mobilising voters through Residents’ Welfare Associations and jan sabhas while raising funds from well-off individuals sympathetic to her cause (she is said to have raised Rs 70 lakh for her campaign through crowdfunding), Atishi is also being made to face scurrilous pamphlets about her, and dark rumours that she is a Christian (horror of horrors) — the latter in an attempt to remove her as a challenger from the scene.
But in the words of Philipose, “Despite every measure used to weigh her down, Atishi still rises.” “I hope a relatively enlightened electorate acts like the wind beneath her sails.”
That Atishi is fearless is clear from her campaign, where she has taken the persecutors head-on. It is in her DNA. Her parents have often faced harassment for their beliefs, most recently in 2016, when they were repeatedly questioned by the police for speaking at the Press Club of India at a function to mark the third anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging. But that hasn’t stopped the retired history professors from hanging on to their principles.
Nor have the attempts to bring her down.
“Have been overwhelmed by the support and solidarity that has come forward from all over the country! I came into politics to fight against injustice; and this sickening pamphlet has only strengthened my resolve!” Atishi wrote on Twitter, summing it up with what she has been doing and looks likely to continue doing: “#Ladenge_Jeetenge”.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.