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School debate champ, AAP spokesperson & now Rajya Sabha MP: Tracing the rise of Raghav Chadha

Chadha resigned as Delhi MLA after being among 5 AAP nominees to be elected unopposed to Rajya Sabha from Punjab. He's had a decade of success, but has detractors in party too.

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New Delhi: As a young boy in school, Aam Aadmi Party leader Raghav Chadha was known for his confidence and articulatation. At just nine years of age, he had won a certificate of excellence for his portrayal of freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose in a school play. His ability to hold the audience’s attention soon had teachers pushing him into extracurricular activities, his school friends recall, but it was in public speaking that he really made his mark — participating in a string of inter-school debates throughout his student years.

It was with the same confidence that a 24-year-old Chadha had represented the then-fledgling AAP at television debates after the party was formed in November 2012.

Less than a decade later, both the AAP and Chadha have come a long way. While the party is currently in power in two states — Delhi and Punjab — earlier this week, Chadha was nominated by AAP as a Rajya Sabha candidate from Punjab.

On Thursday, Chadha, and four other AAP nominees — former international cricketer Harbhajan Singh, AAP election strategist Sandeep Pathak, Lovely Professional University founder Ashok Mittal and Ludhiana-based businessman Sanjeev Arora — were elected to the Rajya Sabha unopposed. At 33, Chadha will be the youngest among current Rajya Sabha members.

A Delhi MLA since February 2020, Chadha tendered his resignation from the assembly Thursday. Aptly summing up his 10 years in the party, Chadha, in his farewell speech at the assembly said, “At times it feels like being promoted from one class to another in school. And at times it feels like I am migrating from one disciplinary stream to another.”

Indeed, the young AAP leader had donned many hats within the party, and gone from strength to strength with each role.

Also read: AAP’s promises of free power & aid to women could cost debt-ridden Punjab Rs 20,600 cr/year

Climbing ranks

A chartered accountant by profession, Chadha was born in Delhi’s Rajendra Nagar area on on 11 November 1988. The family also comprises his parents, a younger sister and 12-year-old Crunchy, their pet Lhasa Apso. Raghav is the only one of them who is in politics. His father is a businessman, mother a home-maker, and sister also a chartered accountant.

The young leader had come home to India after completing a postgraduate course in finance from the London School of Economics, when he met the AAP leadership, including party chief and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, in Delhi during the last leg of the India Against Corruption movement, led by social activist Anna Hazare in 2011.

Soon, he returned permanently to try his luck in politics, when AAP was born as an offshoot of the movement. Raghav Chadha has been a part of the party since its inception.

According to party records, Chadha has worked as a strategist, been involved with its communication department and manifesto drafting committees. He was also part of the team that drafted the Delhi Jan Lokpal Bill, which provides for the setting up of an independent body to investigate corruption cases.

Chadha has also been adviser to Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia.

The young leader handled the party’s legal affairs at a time when Kejriwal, after becoming the chief minister of Delhi, was fighting a defamation battle in the court with then-Union finance minister Arun Jaitley in 2017, for accusing the senior leader of corruption during his tenure as head of Delhi and District Cricket Association. Kejriwal eventually apologised to Jaitley in 2018 and the case was withdrawn.

In 2019, Chadha unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha polls from the South Delhi seat. The following year, however, he contested and won the Delhi assembly election, becoming MLA from the Rajendra Nagar constituency.

Though never a part of the Delhi cabinet, Chadha has held other important positions, such as that of chairperson of the Delhi Jal Board, and been chairperson of a legislative committee formed in 2020 in the aftermath of the Delhi riots, before being appointed joint party in-charge of the party’s Punjab unit in December 2020, ahead of this year’s crucial Punjab assembly elections.

Chadha’s appointment as Punjab joint in-charge came at a time when cracks had developed in the party unit there, following the 2017 assembly polls. Earlier this month, AAP scored a thumping victory, winning 92 out of 117 assembly seats in the state.

“He is extremely focused and he knows how to create opportunities for himself,” said Abhinandita Mathur, an adviser to the Delhi government, about Chadha’s rise in the party. Mathur worked with the AAP’s Goa unit earlier and has known Chadha personally since 2017, when she was brought to Delhi unit by the party’s top leadership.

“Also, he is always in sync with the larger vision of Arvind Kejriwal. He is one person who doesn’t have to be briefed twice,” she added.

Voice of AAP

Chadha has been an official spokesperson for AAP since 2013.

Former party colleague Akshay Marathe, a past adviser to Kejriwal, calls him a “natural choice” for the role. “When senior leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and Sanjay Singh were busy with elections in 2013, someone had to be there taking questions, giving answers and participating in debates for the party. Raghav Chadha, being extremely articulate, filled the gap perfectly,” Marathe, currently a student of public policy at Harvard University, said.

Chadha’s childhood friend and former school fellow Rahul Choudhary, who works in the corporate finance sector in Brisbane, Australia, recalled a school experience to highlight his oratorial skills.

Chadha was 17, said Choudhary, when a studio was set up in their school for a news debate hosted by a popular TV anchor. Though Chadha was a known face in school debates, the way he spoke in front of the camera that day left all of them stunned, said his friend.

“He wanted to be someone who can make important changes in governance and public policies. That way, his shift from being a chartered accountant to a politician was also very organic. He had a good grasp over finance, taxation, audits, law and accounting — skills which he could also implement in politics,” said Choudhary.

Those who have come in contact with Chadha also talk of his push for perfection.

A former research fellow with the Delhi Assembly, who had been in charge of overseeing the arrangements for a 2020 event, remembers the specific instructions given to him by the leader.

A legislative committee had been set up in the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi riots to restore peace and harmony, with Chadha as its chairperson. That day the committee was to broadcast its proceedings live. One of the instructions by Chadha to the research fellow had been to ensure that the broadcast of the event matched the quality of Congressional hearings in the United States.

He was asked to check YouTube videos of a popular 2019 hearing, in which House of Representatives member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (commonly known as AOC) had questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In a series of hearings over the next one year, the Delhi Assembly committee, which was probing Facebook’s alleged role in the Delhi riots, went on to record depositions of tech-policy experts and whistleblowers. And, on one occasion, Chadha got the opportunity to live the AOC-Zuckerberg moment, as he questioned senior executives of Facebook India.

In private, some of Chadha’s colleagues admit that working with him can get difficult at times. “He has a bit of a temper and can sometimes go overboard. He seeks too much to be perfectionist,” said a colleague.

But admirers believe that it is his “meticulous planning” that sets him apart as a leader. “He is extremely meticulous and he also knows how to handle stress. It is a great skill that he has,” said Marathe.

Critics within party

The only major controversy in which Chadha has so far found himself embroiled in is one over ticket distributions for the 2022 Punjab elections. A group of AAP workers in Punjab had accused Chadha of taking money for ticket distribution and, during one of his press conferences in Jalandhar, two group of AAP workers clashed over this.

Still, Chadha is not without his critics, even within the party.

While some claim “his closeness with Kejriwal” has helped him climb the ranks faster than other deserving leaders who have spent an equal amount of time in the party, others point to an alleged lack of level playing field among high-performers within the party, and claim that Chadha has been given unfair access to resources such as media, public relation teams and funds, helping his rise in the party.

“How many party (AAP) leaders do you know who get to have a public relations team of their own?” said an AAP functionary, on the condition of anonymity.

“There are MLAs who are doing their work well, but Raghav (Chadha) is the one for whom the party’s official media team issues press notes for even routine work that he does in his constituency. Success stories are highlighted and failures are often brushed under the carpet,” the functionary added.

However, party colleague Saurabh Bhardwaj, who is also a Delhi MLA and a spokesperson, said such allegations do not have much substance. “There can be internal competition in the party, but that does not matter much. Our leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is a brilliant judge. He is skilled in his assessment methods and always has clarity on what job should be delegated to which person and why. It is totally based on merit and performance,” Bhardwaj said.

Bhardwaj, who has known Chadha since the days of the anti-corruption movement, added: “He has always succeeded in major assignments contributing to the party’s growth. For people who have worked with him and known him for a while, his growth trajectory is not surprising at all.”

Win some, lose some

Chadha’s meteoric political rise has, however, come at the cost of personal time.

Old friends remember Chadha as someone who would bring life to parties.

“He loved playing video games, especially Brian Lara Cricket on PlayStation2, for hours at a stretch. He would not hesitate to dance in parties or go out for movies. But now he is too busy for such fun activities,” said Choudhary, his childhood friend.

Speaking to ThePrint Thursday, Chadha confessed he had failed to watch anything since the fifth season of Peaky Blinders — a British drama that follows the exploits of a criminal gang in the aftermath of the first World War — two years back.

While party colleagues often humorously call him the “most eligible bachelor”, Raghav Chadha has often said that his routine hardly leaves him with any time for dating.

In an interview in 2015, he had said: “I don’t have time to watch a movie, you think I will have time for a girl?”

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: More power to mayor, less to AAP govt: Why BJP is pushing to reunite 3 Delhi municipal bodies


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