AN IIT professor-turned-politician, Sandeep Pathak first shot into the limelight when he was credited with guiding the AAP to its spectacular victory in Punjab in 2022. He usually keeps a low profile and works behind the scenes. But, Pathak spoke to THE WEEK about the challenges his party is facing, including the situation in Punjab, and its expansion plans. Excerpts:
Q/ Last year was good for the AAP. What does 2023 look like, especially since it has not started on a positive note for you?
A/ We made a deep impact in 2022. We formed our government in Punjab. In Gujarat, we fought the BJP head-on and the result was encouraging. Yes, 2023 has not begun on a positive note. We are ordinary people. I have not seen a police station in my life. And perhaps these leaders (Manish Sisodia and Satyendar Jain) had also not seen a police station before. But, we knew it was not going to be easy. We are taking on a party which is ruthless and does not believe in ethics.
I will tell you the other side of the story. Had we not been important, they would not have bothered doing all this. The BJP feels threatened. They know only Kejriwal can take them head-on. They know how to deal with Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. They do not know how to deal with us. They thought they will restrict us in Delhi. They tried to restrict us in Punjab. They hoped our downfall would begin in Gujarat. But the support we got there gave a clear message that we are here to fight. So, they have become even more ruthless. But, we have made a resolution that we will focus even more on governance and expansion.
We are much more determined now. All this will backfire on them. We will go after them in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Chhattisgarh. We will go after them everywhere.
Q/ So, a conscious effort is being made by AAP to put the focus back on governance and expansion?
A/ Of course. There will be no impact on governance. We have so many talented, young leaders who can deliver, like Saurabh (Bharadwaj) and Atishi. About expansion, we are much more determined now. All this will actually backfire on them. We will go after them in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Chhattisgarh. We will go after them everywhere.
Q/ Any concerns about the corruption taint sticking? Is the AAP’s anti-corruption identity under threat?
A/ Manish Sisodia’s image is such that the allegations against him have no takers. He is the guy who would wake up at 5am and visit schools. Only someone determined to improve the education system would do that. Same is the case with Satyendar Jain. Their image is so good among our volunteers and the public. Most people believe that the BJP is not doing the right thing. In fact, by doing this, the BJP is helping our political prospects. We would not have got this much attention otherwise. They seem to be in self-destruct mode.
Sometimes it feels strange that we have to answer questions on corruption. Then it becomes very clear in my mind. It is because we are fighting corruption that we have been trapped in corruption charges. They did not know how to deal with our image of being an honest party which also delivers on governance. They devised this plan to trap us in corruption allegations and make us answer these charges. But they do not know that we are smart people. We think 10 steps ahead of them.
Q/ It looks like Sisodia and Jain are going to be in jail for some time.
A/ The PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act) is handy for them. From the liquor case, they have quietly put him (Sisodia) in the PMLA case because he would have got bail in the liquor case. Under PMLA, they can keep him in jail for a long time. But we believe that injustice cannot go on indefinitely and they will walk out of jail one day.
Q/ Is there any fear in the party that Arvind Kejriwal could be next?
A/ Not at all. Let them do something like this with Kejriwal. This will result in the party growing like anything. After our leaders were arrested, the party’s expansion has accelerated. Even if they think of touching Kejriwal, the party will grow by leaps and bounds. Eventually, since there is no case, we are not worried.
Q/ Would the arrests be an important talking point in your electioneering?
A/ Even if we don't raise this issue, the public will. When I go to Madhya Pradesh, everybody asks me one thing - why was Manish Sisodia arrested, why was Satyender Jain arrested. The people can differentiate between cases. There is, of course, our good governance plank that comprises schools, hospitals, water and electricity.
I went to Rajasthan and saw hoardings about free healthcare facilities, concessions in electricity. These very people had described our facilities as revdis. We had not yet entered Rajasthan, but we had already changed the politics there. We forced them to talk about these issues.
After some days, I went to Madhya Pradesh. The budget was being presented there. Things like Rs 1,500 for women, subsidy for electricity were announced. To make an impact even before entering a state is very satisfying.
But the public understands that these people do not do anything for four years and start making announcements in election year. They came to know Kejriwal is coming and got perturbed. They felt the only way to counter Kejriwal is Kejriwal himself. So, they stole Kejriwal's formula. But the people know the difference between the original and the duplicate.
Q/ What about the challenges of building the organisation and having a local leadership?
A/ To set up an organisation in eight or nine months and to groom a local leadership is tough. We may not have resources, but we are driven. In Gujarat, we did not have money to put up hoardings and posters. We gave our volunteers spray cans to make wall paintings. We are able to overcome challenges because of two reasons. One, the people love us with all their heart. Second, we are a bunch of smart, talented people and we build our organisation systematically and scientifically. We build our organisation only on the basis of merit. In most of the states I mentioned earlier, within a couple of months, our organisation will be complete till the village level.
Q/ Will you have a chief ministerial face in these states?
A/ We will. We believe it is important. The public should know who is going to lead the government.
Q/ Another challenge for the party is Punjab. Of particular concern is the law and order situation, the latest instance being the Amritpal Singh case.
A/ If you look at the incidents in the past few months, the AAP is the only party which actually took action. We are taking action on an hourly basis.
About Amritpal Singh, when he and his supporters went to a police station with the Guru Granth Sahib in his hands, the police responded responsibly. Public sentiments have been hurt by other political parties on beadbi (sacrilege) of Guru Granth Sahib. I must congratulate the police officer who was very responsible. It calmed matters down at that point. Now, action is being taken. Many of his associates have been arrested. Very soon, he will be in the net.
Did Amritpal and his team crop up within a year? Did all these gangs emerge after the AAP came to power? No. They were there. They have roots. Then why were these things not happening before? Because there was a tacit understanding between them and those in power.
We are staunch nationalists. Whoever raises a finger at the nation or threatens the law and order situation will not be spared. We will set an example.
Q/ There is also concern over Punjab's rising debt.
A/ We inherited a very bankrupt monetary condition. Improving the situation will take some time. We have to block the loopholes from where money gets leaked and create new sources of revenue. Political corruption is 100 per cent over. For example, as soon as we formed government, we stopped illegal mining of sand. When we complete five years, we will have Punjab in surplus. This is a guarantee.
Q/ Will Arvind Kejriwal be pitched as a challenger to PM Modi in general elections?
A/ When the time comes, automatically it will become evident. But, I personally feel that the public decides who is the challenger. When the time comes, the people will project their leader.
Q/ Was it not odd for the AAP to support an initiative launched by Kapil Sibal since he was at the centre of the UPA set-up?
A/ The person is not important. It is the issue and agenda that is important. If he has taken up something good, there is no harm in supporting it.