Emerging From Shadows, Sunita Kejriwal Lends Personal Touch With No-Noise and No-Frills Delhi Election Campaign
As the high-stakes Delhi assembly election approaches, Sunita Kejriwal hits the campaign trail along with daughter Harshita to ensure an AAP comeback.
Arvind Kejriwal, accompanied by wife Sunita, waves from an open vehicle during a roadshow before filing his nomination papers for the Assembly polls, in New Delhi, Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. (PTI Photo /Arun Sharma)
New Delhi: Wearing the Aam Aadmi Party’s trademark cap and with copies of the party’s five-year report card in hand, Sunita Kejriwal appears completely at ease. It’s a cold winter afternoon in Delhi, as the former Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer hits the campaign trail to support her husband and batchmate, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Emerging from the background for the first time, she is lending her shoulder to the AAP bandwagon in the New Delhi Assembly constituency from where the CM, then a political novice, had emerged as the giant killer by defeating Congress incumbent Sheila Dikshit in 2013.
“It is very heartening. Every house that we visit, people are very happy with the present government and they say ‘bahut kaam hua hai (a lot of work has been done), and we are going to support it and we are going to vote for the AAP’,” says Sunita when asked what struck her the most on the campaign trail. But do people know that she is the chief minister’s wife? “Some of them do, and to others we just introduce ourselves and tell them, ‘yes, we have come to give you the report card’,” she replies.
She reaches Tilak Nagar where Arvind was allotted a house when he became the chief minister of Delhi for the first time in December 2013. Home to many of Delhi’s top bureaucrats, it is not surprising that Sunita stumbles upon her peers and batchmates who are still in service.
She also goes inside ‘CII/23’ where she stayed earlier to meet the current residents. Hers is a very low-key, no-noise, no-frills campaign. Sunita is accompanied by daughter Harshita, a chemical engineer from IIT Delhi, who has taken leave from the consultancy firm where she now works, and a few volunteers. With threat of possible harassment looming over her, Sunita says she opted for voluntary retirement under VRS in 2015 and has not regretted the decision. “It was a well-thought-through step. Now I am satisfied, very satisfied, with whatever work I am doing. I am very happy, and also friends from the department are with me. So I am not missing anything,” she says.
Asked what attracted her to batchmate Arvind Kejriwal, she pauses before answering: ‘His intelligence… How do I tell you? Right from the beginning he was into social work…Something clicked in the personality – that he is (both) socially oriented and intelligent… You generally don’t go judging …You can’t explain these things, no?”
From looking at life with predictable career graphs, how has she coped with the very unpredictable turns: the very high highs and the very low lows?
“I didn’t think too much,” she says. “Whatever comes, comes. Also, it was clear from the beginning that we’d be involved in social work. Arvind had made this clear at the outset and I was all for it. I’ve always felt that there’s nothing quite like contributing to society. He moved ahead and gradually gained in popularity and his movement picked up momentum, and our party was formed.”
There have been tough moments, but what was the toughest? “Maybe when he went to jail. That was very tough, because we were not able to figure out what went wrong that he had to go to prison. That was tough. Also, the allegations that come up, they sometimes become very tough,” Sunita says.
In May 2014, Arvind Kejriwal was sent to Tihar Jail after he refused to furnish a bail bond in a defamation case filed by Bharatiya Janata Party’s Nitin Gadkari.
Harshita applied for leave to her employers simply stating that she has to work with her family, and she is “definitely” planning to go back to office in February. “Every time, you have to play a certain role. Currently I am playing such a role and after this leave I will be joining back, working over there, and try to give my best,” she says. “I have no inclination of joining politics if that is the question,” she adds firmly.
Campaigning for AAP has been a positive learning experience, says Harshita. “So, if you see, right now the situation is that when we go to the people, they only start talking about the work: so much work has been done, they are so happy. We talk about one, they bring up 10.” And the support is “constantly going up, even from people from other parties”. When she goes back to work, Harshita believes she will have a great story to tell her colleagues. “That story will be defined on February 11 when victory will be announced. Everyone is proud of Papa,” she says. “Delhi is moving at a speed of 100 kilometres per hour, and it will move at 150.”
Harshita was preparing for her board exams and IIT entrance test when her father resigned as chief minister of Delhi in 2014, took on Narendra Modi in Varanasi for the Lok Sabha, and lost, sparking criticism and controversy. Recalling that period, she says, “I think both my mom and my father have been true inspirations. While my mom taught me patience, my father teaches me focus and determination… So if I have to get into IIT, then I just have to. Like Papa promised CCTV cameras to Delhi and he delivered. No matter whether it’s achieved by sitting in protest, by clearing files or friendly cooperation.”
Sunita says, “I think Harshita was able to focus on studies. She was given a room and she was able to focus. She would get a little upset sometimes, but, I think, she did her best.”
Since Tilak Nagar is home to government officers, there is hesitation among residents about being seen or quoted by the media. We wait and watch while the mother-daughter duo diligently ring more doorbells, have tea, listen to grievances, and hand over the report card. Gopal Mohan, PhD from IIT, who is in charge of Arvind Kejriwal’s constituency since 2013, says the aim is to reach out to each one of the roughly 35,000 households. Mohan believes that the “personal touch” of Sunita Kejriwal will give impetus to the campaign here. In fact, Arvind has been canvassing here since last May – with music shows and addressing multiple gatherings almost every week.
Sunita says she has no plans of joining politics. “Usually, I don’t discuss much about politics, though we are a part of it now. I don’t interfere in the decisions, only give advice. But the decision is that of the party… We are not fighting over it,” she responds when asked about disagreements over politics at home.
Once an administrator herself, she rates her husband’s performance as “perfect”. “He is giving his best and let’s hope in the future also he keeps giving his best.” Arvind’s strengths, in Sunita’s eyes, are “his uprightness, his focus, and his ability to take decisions”.
“He keeps taking risks. Sometimes mistakes do happen, but whatever he feels at a certain point of time, if it seems correct, he takes a decision irrespective of whatever the risk is.”
Delhi surprised the world, including Arvind Kejriwal, by giving an astounding 67 of the 70 assembly seats to AAP on February 7, 2015. A photograph from that day of Arvind embracing Sunita, with their faces hidden from the camera in that hug, perhaps tells the story of the tremendous role she has played so far and the bond they share. Characteristically, Sunita does not make much of it. “I’m doing what I feel is right. We all want to support and that is why we are supporting. No one is forcing us. We all want to see India going up, Delhi going up,” she says.
It’s been three hours, and the exhaustion is showing. But Sunita and Harshita Kejriwal move on to the next destination for the day.
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