Until three years ago, Shazia Ilmi was a television anchor in Star News and when she read about issues that bothered her, she really wished someone would come along and change things. But then happenstance met determination and in one of the strangest career moves by a middle-class Indian, Shazia found herself out of the television studio and on the streets of Delhi’s R.K. Puram constituency, where she is now emerging a strong contender to be its MLA.
I wait for Shazia one October evening at the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) office. The office is at a busy corner, atop a sweetmeat shop. The narrow staircase, bereft of banister and promising a quick drop into a rasgulla vat, is packed with people. The office has a creaky door dangling on its last hinge and about 30 plastic chairs, all of them occupied. I stand in a corner and am immediately approached by the only other woman in the room. “Are you here for a membership?” asks Nivedita, who is among the thousands of supporters the party had signed up in the past few months. “This is the second battle for independence,” she explains why she is there, “an opportunity to reform the country comes only once in 100 years.”
She then launches into a long speech about the pitiable state of the nation and ends it by talking about the death of her pet rabbit earlier in the day. I am suitably unsettled when suddenly all the volunteers rise and run downstairs. Shazia has arrived.
In the car, a rickety Wagon R lent by a volunteer and driven by another, Shazia tells me that despite the difficulties, she feels she has finally found her true calling. “I feel now, having seen what I have, that real change can be accomplished only through a political process. As a journalist, I could raise questions, sometimes demand answers. But beyond that it’s a powerless job. You can’t force change from the outside, you have to get your hands dirty,” she says. Dressed in a long skirt and top, both of which I would guess came from Fabindia, she looks exhausted. She is still recovering from a dengue fever, but did not want the illness to slow down the momentum she has built up by going door-to-door in her constituency. Having studied mass communication and journalism, both at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Cardiff in Wales England, this was not a career path she had envisaged for herself. But now that she’s chosen it, she wants to give it her best.
“I have always been the sort of person who questions everything. Even as a young girl, living in a Muslim area, I would have all these questions about patriarchy and class distinctions. I wasn’t sure how I’d contribute to changing any of that. I thought it would be through the process of reporting about it,” she says.
When social activist Anna Hazare went on his first fast for an anti-corruption law in 2011 near Jantar Mantar in Delhi, she got involved. Then Arvind Kejriwal, the Magsaysay award-winning activist, asked her to help the movement with media relations. She took it up for three months. And then, willy-nilly she found herself getting more involved. In November 2012, when Kejriwal decided to take the political route despite Hazare’s opposition and launched AAP, Shazia was sure which side she was on.
“I was worried in the beginning. But being a journalist I deeply researched each person in the party. And I discovered that none of the allegations of corruption and dishonesty about them were true. So I signed up,” she says.
Kejriwal decided the party would put its all in contesting the Delhi Assembly elections. Shazia was offered the R.K. Puram ticket. “I’m both a Muslim and a woman. Within the context of Indian electoral politics, they are both negative. But I hardly bring up either. We want to create a civic identity for citizens, not a caste or religious one,” she says.
The evening’s campaign is in the government colony in R.K. Puram. Two-storey brown buildings, once painted in government-quarter beige, sit in rows on both sides of this tree-lined avenue. The residents — most of them peons and clerks in government offices — are just returning from work. Shazia approaches the ground-floor windows at which women and children are peeping out and introduces herself as Arvind Kejriwal’s friend. “You have to give us a chance this time,” she says, “our symbol is the broom.” Most smile and nod their head and Shazia moves along. In some buildings where there are signs of life upstairs, she climbs up, knocking on the door, introducing herself and requesting for their vote.
An overwhelming majority of people complain about water supply. These thousand or so homes get water for about an hour in the morning, at 5 a.m. Some buildings are on the verge of collapse. Naked bulbs hang from exposed wires and the concrete has fallen away to display rusted beams. The buildings have been condemned for over six months, a resident comes over to complain, but they are yet to be allotted alternative living quarters. “There has been no maintenance since the inspection. We could all be in the news one of these days, buried under there. But where can we go?” he says. The sitting MLA, Barkha Singh of the Congress, spent a part of her beautification fund in the area. She built fountains. There has never been enough water to run them, though.
It is both shocking and sad that even in 2013, in the heart of the Capital, election issues are still about basic needs. I ask Shazia if she was surprised when she first heard these. “I was,” she says. “What was even more shocking for me is another part of my constituency. It’s just a stone’s throw behind posh Vasant Vihar, but there people defecate in the open and the sewage lines and water lines are actually mixed. Women and girls spend five hours a day just waiting for water. And they fight and abuse each other. It shook me how filthy it was. And how close to the Vasant Vihar bungalows they were,” she says.
By seven, the streets of R.K. Puram are dark. Mosquitoes swarm around us. The bunch of volunteers walk in a pack, some raise slogans on a loudspeaker. Shazia grabs the microphone, first to address the volunteers, asking them to organise themselves better, get notepads and pens to write down the names and numbers of the people they meet. Then she exhorts the small crowd to vote for the party. And while they are at it, could they also contribute to the party’s funds? It’s all quite chaotic, and I get the sense she is improvising as she goes along.
So does she think she has solutions for all the problems in her constituency?
“No,” she says frankly, “but I am certain I’ll make a good start. You can’t have all the solutions before you start work. You make a start and then figure things out as you go along.”
A young man gets off his motorbike to come and promise his support. “You are our only hope,” he says. He apologises for not taking a membership form; he is employed by the Government and cannot have party affiliations. “If we blow this chance, we won’t get another.” I ask his name. He says Amit and, after a long pause, Gupta. It’s a city of Amit Guptas, he has nothing to worry.
Over the next two hours we meet many Amit Guptas. Shazia, though tired and short of breath, manages to keep her smile and her speeches intact. It is hard work — both physically and mentally. “Some days I do wish I could put up my feet and take a break,” she says, “but this is a fulltime job. I have to give this my all.”
Confessedly, I had met Shazia once before. A few months earlier, at a party hosted by a television star. She sipped coke and sat in the balcony swapping ghost stories with the other guests. I wondered how difficult it must be for her to reconcile these two worlds now. “I have changed,” she tells me, “and at parties I can’t help but tell my friends to get more involved in the political process, that they have to start thinking beyond their salaries and bonuses.”
“What do they say?” I ask.
“They ask me to shut up and get a life,” she laughs, “soon no one will invite me over!”