Dy CM Manish Sisodia, the face of the Delhi government, is a mediator, meditator and the man CM Arvind Kejriwal trusts completely
Ankita Sharma | January 21, 2017 | New Delhi
"Mai hoon Manish Sisodia aapke saath, aur ye hai Zero Hour show..." With these words, the present deputy chief minister of Delhi had burst upon the airwaves on his signature All India Radio programme in July 1996. There was nothing dramatic about the voice, like the person himself, but the enunciation cut clean so that listeners would not miss a single word. In a decade dominated by television, Sisodia’s radio programmes, discussions, interviews – entertaining, but mellow – turned him into a mini-celebrity who received fan-mail.
These days, the same voice is being heard again on Delhi’s FM channels. “Namaskar, main Dilli ka up mukhyamantri Manish Sisodia bol raha hoon,” it begins and goes on to warn people that drinking in public will invite severe punishment. Sisodia’s visage also appears on hoardings across Delhi, issuing the same warning or highlighting the government’s achievements.
It’s rare that a deputy chief minister gains such prominence, especially while working under a vivid personality like chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. But with Kejriwal concentrating on building up the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the election-bound states, especially in Punjab and Goa, Sisodia has come into his own. It’s a measure of the trust the chief minister and his deputy share that neither is worried about the other occupying too much space.
An early-days photo of Kejriwal-Sisodia.
Sisodia is the de facto chief minister. He’s in charge of all important departments – finance, planning, urban development, local bodies, land and buildings, education, higher education, training and technical education, revenue, services, vigilance, cooperative societies, information technology, and information and publicity. Besides, he oversees all departments that haven’t been alloted to any minister.
“It’s the norm that all decisions go through Manish before they reach Kejriwal,” says AAP leader Kumar Vishwas. “No major decisions are taken in the government without his inputs and knowledge. Bureaucrats and ministers have to brief Manish before Kejriwal, and he makes assessments on issues, and sorts out problems that he can all by himself. In government, it is well known that matters that can be sorted by Manish will be sorted out by him. This is why Kejriwal has not kept a single department with him. Both of them sit together and have discussions on a particular scheme or issue taken up by any minister and take decisions.” Between them, everyone close to them asserts, the understanding is perfect despite the differences of opinion they often have.
Through their long association, whether as social workers, pioneering RTI activists, or anti-corruption crusaders for the Jan Lokpal bill, Kejriwal has been seen as the lead figure and Sisodia as the mediator, the finder of the via media, the consiglieri.
Sisodia and Kejriwal first met some 17 years ago. “It was just a coincidence,” says Sisodia. “I was in my newsroom at the Zee News office and came across a press release from ‘Parivartan’, an initiative by some people to eliminate corruption. I turned on my computer, looked through their website and immediately registered myself – I was perhaps their first registered volunteer. The next day, I got a call from a man called Arvind Kejriwal.” They met and ended up speaking for hours, and very soon started working together. But it was seven years before he quit journalism to become a fulltime activist – and later, politician.
Despite the demands of a TV job, Sisodia threw himself into volunteer work. Sisodia didn’t have a car then; only a Bajaj Caliber bike, whether to take him around for his beat work for television, or for the rounds of volunteering. Kejriwal and Sisodia would wait outside electricity board offices in Delhi and help people write sound applications that made it clear to the officials they knew the rules. This ruled out any scope for bribe-seeking. They also helped people get ration cards. Around that time, Sisodia, a believer in Sant Kabir Das’s philosophy, founded an NGO called Kabir. But the two continued to work together.
During his years as a journalist, Sisodia covered the Northeast extensively.
An AAP leader who worked with the two around that time says it was Sisodia’s idea to deploy the right to information (RTI) as a tool to get things done by officials. Delhi already had an RTI law, but the central RTI act was still underway. Says the AAP leader, “Manish’s idea was that the [Delhi] act had been passed, but people still didn’t know how to use it. He saw how the RTI could be used to reach the masses and make them understand and use the power of the RTI to access information, such as the status of ration cards, which they could not gather owing to corruption and a lethargic bureaucracy.” People heard of Kabir and requests for help poured in. Sisodia recalls the case of a man called Nannu, who had been waiting for a ration card for four years. “We helped him file an RTI, seeking daily progress report of the card application, how many officers it had passed through, and what was the progress on it. Even before the department replied to the RTI, the officials had the ration card made and within four days, a policeman delivered it at Nannu’s house. There were many such cases. So this was a big achievement for us and the common man. We therefore started using RTI left, right and centre,” Sisodia recalls.
By 2005, RTI acquired a nationwide buzz. To help people understand the RTI application process and how to use it to get work done, Sisodia and his team prepared sample RTI applications, created pamphlets, compiled case studies and FAQs. Again, the seven-page pamphlet – from conceptualisation to execution – was Sisodia’s baby. It even taught people how to proceed when an RTI application did not receive a response within the specifed time. Since RTI was essentially being used to combat bribery, the campaign was named Ghoos ko Ghoonsa (Drive against bribe). Sisodia and his aides organised a three-day national convention on RTI at the Indira Gandhi stadium, which attracted media attention. “News channels had an hour-long programme on this campaign. Success stories of RTI applications translating into change spread across the country. RTI had never had such a grand success,” says a volunteer who worked with them during the period.
In the same year, when Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar visited Delhi for a function, he met Kejriwal and Sisodia. Already impressed by the nationwide fervour RTI had created, he had set up an RTI helpline and requested them to train the operators. The two went to Bihar and explained to the operators how to handle queries. The sample applications and pamphlets came in handy.
To take RTI to the villages, Sisodia and other volunteers began an action research initiative in villages in the Chitrakoot, Banda, Allahabad, Faizabad and Bahraich districts. “The idea was to make RTI click with the youth in the village,” the volunteer says. Sisodia made about 15 short documentaries on RTI and screened them for the villagers.
Kejriwal and Manish worked shoulder-to-shoulder. They’d ask villagers to assemble and voice their problems one by one – getting ration cards or electricity connections, having proper buildings made for schools run from rough-and-ready shelters, addressing water shortage. Groups of people would raise their hands. In many villages, after Sisodia had led groups of people to file RTI applications, the local administrative officers became alert to solving problems related to all matters. Eventually, a national RTI act was passed in 2005.
Sisodia took RTI to the villages as an activist, helping villagers get what was their due.
A colleague of theirs says Sisodia demonstrated boundless energy. “He can continuously work for two days and two nights,” the colleague says. “One day, when we worked till late in the night, he came to our room the next morning and said, ‘We have to get going tomorrow morning... what are you doing? You can’t sleep this late.’ But for him, four hours of sleep seems to be enough – even as a minister.”
The inept planning of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and heavy shadow of corruption over it brought many activists together. Since Kejriwal and Sisodia had used RTI chiefly against corruption, they joined in. Anna Hazare, a Gandhian leader from Maharashtra, became the face of the movement. Former supreme court judge justice N Santosh Hegde, supreme court advocate Prashant Bhushan and Kejriwal drafted a Jan Lokpal bill that would cover all elected leaders, including the prime minister, and allow for their questioning over allegations of corruption. The movement to have a bill passed by parliament gathered momentum nationwide. Anna began a fast. Kejriwal, Sisodia, Bhushan and many others who are now important leaders in AAP came into prominence around this time. For Kejriwal and Sisodia, this was the cusp between activism and full-fledged politics. The news TV cameras were on them 24x7 and with his experience in media, Sisodia virtually taught his team how to handle TV and print media reporters – when to announce a decision, how to announce it, when to hold a press conference. “We were all raw, and we were new to this business of press conferences,” says Kumar Vishwas. “He’d tell us holding press conferences in the afternoon wouldn’t make breaking news as it was the time scheduled programmes were run. He told us how evening announcements would make breaking news.”
Besides, he could keep a cool head when tempers were fraying. On the 11th day of Anna’s fast, his condition became critical and doctors said he might die if he continued with his fast. “It was past midnight, we were camping behind the dais where Anna Hazare was fasting. Suddenly Prashant Bhushan stood up in rage and started shouting at Kejriwal, ‘We can’t let anyone lose his life for this bill, can we? Is humanity dead in all of us? Let’s go and tell Anna to break his fast.’ Everyone was in shock,” says an AAP leader. “It was Manish who calmly said, ‘Arey, kyun naaraz ho rahe hain? We’ll think it through, calm down.’ If Prashant had walked out, it would have been noted by the media. Manish’s ability to mediate has helped us in many situations.” Finally, Anna broke his fast on the 12th day after the government agreed to set up a joint drafting committee.
If there is something that was least expected from this coterie of anti-corruption crusaders, it was entering politics. Riding on the support the Anna Hazare campaign gathered, Kejriwal and his companions set up the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in November 2012. They described it as the result of a “spontaneous upsurge of the masses”. Sisodia was made a member of its political affairs committee. The Delhi elections were due in 2013 and AAP was set to make a foray.
With two months to go, Sisodia was announced as the candidate from Patparganj, where quite a few journalists reside. His team focused on the message: vote for AAP if you want to eliminate corruption. This tied in with the party founders’ image from the Anna movement. Also, as an area where the roads were potholed, water supply lines were insufficient, Patparganj was looking for positive change.
Again, Sisodia’s energy and enthusiasm paid off. “He’d campaign persistently, without having food,” says a party worker. The results were astounding for a debutant: Sisodia won, polling 50,211 votes against runner-up BJP candidate Nakul Bharadwaj’s 38,735 votes. The party won 28 seats and formed a minority government with Congress support. Sisodia was made a cabinet-rank minister in charge of education, PWD, urban development, local bodies and land and building. But the government lasted only 49 days.
The fledgling party was unable to take off even in the 2014 general elections: it fielded candidates in all 434 constituencies, but was decimated. Sisodia, though, had not fought elections and instead focussed on managing and strategising. “Anyway, he was more focussed on Delhi and was more popular in the capital,” says a party worker.
But when it was time for Delhi to go to polls again, months after the Lok Sabha verdict, AAP managed a surprising turnaround. The BJP had won the general elections on a Modi wave, and everyone believed Delhi would go the BJP way too. But AAP decided to press ahead, given that the party still had some resonance in Delhi. Sisodia had again contested from Patparganj. Donning the white cap, he walked into people’s homes, sat down with them and discussed their problems. As a reporter, he had sharpened his native ability to connect with people and this might have worked in his favour. He went on to win, with 75,477 votes, defeating runner-up Vinod Kumar Binny of the BJP by 28,761 votes. AAP won 67 of Delhi’s 70 seats – a clean sweep. Kejriwal was sworn in chief minister. And this time, Sisodia was made deputy chief minister.
A 1990s photo of Manish Sisodia (Right) at an All India Radio studio.
Sisodia grew up in Pilkhuwa, a town in Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh, where his father Dharampal Singh was a lecturer. “His college was 16 km away, so he’d visit us only on weekends. Sometimes, I’d stay with him at the college hostel on weekends,” says Sisodia. “I was always a teacher’s son.”
His closest friend and classmate from the Montessori Public School there, Kumar Vishwas remembers him as a silent, average student with no particular inclination to top the class. “Boys in Std VII-VIII can be quite aggressive and indulge in verbal or physical fights, but Manish was never like that. He always tried to make peace. He was an obedient student who never missed a class. We would sometimes bunk class, but him – never.” Perhaps his modesty, simplicity and quiet diligence is a reflection of his father, whom friends remember as a “sweet and humble” teacher.
Sisodia graduated in Hindi literature and went on to do a course in journalism at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan in Delhi. It was a struggle. A journalist friend recalls, “When we were still studying, Manish would write small articles ocassionally for the edit pages of Dainik Hindustan for which he would be paid Rs 400-500, a luxury in those days. And it could last a month.”
Becoming a journalist, Sisodia worked mostly at All India Radio before switching to television at Zee News. “Those days, there was no FM radio,” says a journalist friend of Sisodia. “We worked as casual announcers. We used to juggle responsibilities, from scriptwriting to announcing. Usually, we were given six sittings a month, and for each shift we were paid Rs 150. In a month, we made Rs 900.” Sisodia would stay beyond shift hours, taking a break only to have some food. Often, the editor, seeing that Sisodia was around, would assign him some production work and he’d do it. “All of 22, he had such a serious approach to work, seniors immediately took a liking for him.” Disheveled in appearance then as now, he never cared about how he looked. “He never had too much hair on him anyway. It’s just that they are neatly combed now,” quips a friend.
When FM radio arrived in a big way, Sisodia become one of its pioneers. “It was Manish and Shibani Kashyap [now a singer, then a radio jockey] who began the trend for this chatty, informal style in Hindi broadcasting,” says Kumar Vishwas. “He broke the stereotype of ‘Namaskar, yeh Akashvani hai’.”
Moving to Zee News, Sisodia multitasked his way to become a recognisable TV face. Reporting he had always done, but he’d readily take charge as producer, shift-in-charge, and anchor. “From preparing the rundown to doing a voice over, he did it all.”
As a reporter, Sisodia would focus on social problems. “I was never interested in covering politics, anyway,” he says. “It didn’t make sense to run after corrupt politicians.” He also covered the northeast, where extremism is rampant. “In 2003, there was a 59-day curfew in Manipur, and I was stationed there for a long time. Many government offices had been blown up. Apart from reporting daily developments, I’d go to hospitals and check the records,” he recalls. “Before the violence broke out, some 2,000-3,000 patients would visit the hospital daily, but after the curfew, barely five would turn up. So we reported: ‘Curfew ke dar se logon ne bimar padana bandh kar diya hai (Out of fear of the curfew, people have stopped falling ill).’ After this was aired, the army alerted officers and stationed hospital vans everywhere. They announced that those who wanted to visit hospitals would be taken there and dropped back. The numbers of patients started swelling immediately. This gave me a sense of satisfaction.”
Eventually, Sisodia quit journalism in 2005 to become a full-time activist. “One reason I left journalism,” Sisodia says, “is because I felt that though I was able to present the problems of our society in an unbiased way, I was unable to become a medium of change. Working with an NGO allowed me to help people and bring changes on ground, therefore the shift became imperative.” His friends and colleagues remonstrated with him when he told them of his decision: he had a great job and it was sheer madness to quit it. Recounting this, Sisodia cannot supress a thin smile.
Much like the deputy chief minister who sits there, the sixth floor of the Delhi secretariat is a quiet place. No hustle-bustle of visitors. No favour-seekers. It’s 10.40 am, and the deputy chief minister’s meetings are running beyond schedule. After finishing them, he is to leave for the assembly building to pay homage to Dr Ambedkar on his 60th death anniversary. In some time, Sisodia, dressed in a beige shirt, checked half-jacket, and cream trousers, arrives, moves towards the lift. On the way down, he asks an accompanying official, “What is the status on visits to the schools?” Most schools have been covered, the ones that remain will be covered today, he is informed. He nods in satisfaction.
On the way to assembly in his official car, he takes the passenger seat in the front and answers questions. Once in a while, he fiddles with his smartphone. “It’s a recent addiction,” he admits. “It’s also a need. I keep checking Twitter and WhatsApp. On WhatsApp, I can easily check what our district magistrates are doing since morning, what my education team is up to. They keep me updated here.”
In the current year, the Delhi government has allocated 23 percent of the total budget to education. It may have raised eyebrows, but matches the ideas of economists like Amartya Sen, who have advocated that government can bring about maximum change by increasing spending on education and healthcare. It’s also in keeping with the fact that Sisodia is a teacher’s son.
“My father was certainly an influence, but before I became a politician, throughout my career, I learned that there is corruption due to lack of education. People do not ask questions, and live with fear as they are uneducated,” he says. “Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to bridge this gap because education is the only pipeline available to human beings to fix the problem.”
After the function at the assembly, and a brief interaction with TV journalists seeking a quote on the death of Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa, we are back in Sisodia’s office. There’s a row of chairs across his desk, and files are stacked on it next to a stand bearing the Indian flag.
At the secretariat and in the party, there’s a clear demarcation of responsibilities between Kejriwal and Sisodia. The chief minister, who has decided to focus on expanding the AAP’s base countrywide and campaigning for the forthcoming assembly elections, has more or less left the entire job of governing Delhi entirely to Sisodia. Urgent decisions, routine administration, discussions with officials, inspections – all this is taken care of by Sisodia. Once in a while he visits his constituency, pays surprise visits to schools, construction sites. On occasion he has asked the authorities to make payments to contractors only after people approve of the work done.
Friends speak of him as a regular guy, unchanged by the pinnacle of power he has reached through his activism and politics. They say he still has a black Maruti Alto, the one in which he used to ferry Anna Hazare during the anti-corruption andolan. He still goes out for an evening at the movies, indulges his sweet tooth with mishti doi (sweetened curd), and favours tehri, a rice and vegetables dish that he used to prepare for friends in college, as comfort food.
“You have to know yourself,” he says. “There is a simple philosophy in life. We are driven by our fears, we have been made to believe that we have unlimited needs. Very scientifically, you can count your needs. You make a list of your needs, and after a while, your list would automatically end. What plagues us is our competitiveness and tendency to compare ourselves with others. It’s not required.”
If that sounds like someone spiritual talking, it’s not too difficult to understand why. Among the deeper connections between Kejriwal and Sisodia is perhaps that they are both practitioners of meditation. Sisodia meditates every morning, waking up at 5 am to do vipassana, the Theravada Buddhist technique of quietly, softly focusing on one’s breath, one’s sensations, one’s thoughts, and gently bringing the attention back to the breath every time one catches it wandering. In fact, even after AAP’s rout in the general elections, Sisodia went away to Dhamma Pushkar, a vipassana centre near Pushkar, Ajmer district, to spend time meditating. “It helps me keep my thoughts sorted,” he says. Perhaps it’s also what helps him keep his cool, and make a point without raising his voice, getting shrill or adopting aggressive body language.
Kejriwal, though, occasionally loses his temper, even with Sisodia. The duo often have disagreements. “Many times, almost every day,” says Sisodia. “But no matter how many disagreements we have, we sit together and reach a conclusion. It’s a matter of trust. We discuss our differences, which always leads to a good conclusion, and our decisions taken together have mostly proved right.”
In fact, Sisodia had refused to fight elections in 2013; it was Kejriwal who persuaded him to do so. “Arvind told me that if we don’t fight elections, we won’t be able to win Delhi,” he says. Eventually, after the bad patch of the minority government and its fall, when AAP returned in 2015, it was with a resounding victory.
Party workers are aware of the two leaders’ bonding. The rapport Kejriwal and Sisodia share is such that a colleague remarks, “They can communicate with each other through their eyes.”
(The story appears in the January 16-31, 2017 issue)
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