After 23 years in journalism, Ashutosh quit as the managing editor of IBN7 channel to join the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in mid-January. He has authored a book on anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare, Anna: 13 Days That Awakened India. The AAP has nominated him as its Lok Sabha candidate for Chandni Chowk seat, which is currently represented by Congress heavyweight and law minister Kapil Sibal. In an interview with HT's Nivedita Khandekar, he spoke about the dive into politics and election plans.
Q: After 23 years in journalism, what prompted you to join the AAP?
A: Journalism was always my first love. I always used to hate politics. When the Anna movement started (August 2011, when Hazare fasted for 13 days at Ramlila Maidan for Jan Lokpal), I realised this is a non-political movement high on political content. Non-political in the sense that it was led by non-political people, but at its heart it was a political movement. I found the discipline and conviction among its leaders and supporters very strong and hence I aligned informally. There is always a tension between professional requirements and personal beliefs and I tried to balance the two.
After AAP won in Delhi, Arvind (Kejriwal) asked me point blank: 'Why don't you join us'? For the first time I was willing to be part of a political movement. If Arvind had not asked, probably I would not have joined.
Q: You had a role etched out as an AAP spokesperson. How did you agree to fight the Lok Sabha polls?
A: I don't know how this transition happened. Earlier, I never thought I will be joining the party. I was at the pinnacle of my career. I never thought of becoming a spokesperson. I never thought of contesting elections. Arvind suggested and asked: 'Why don't you contest?' Had he not asked me, I would not have contested.
Q: Why Chandni Chowk? How did you zero in on this constituency?
A: I had always said Sibal was the biggest villain during the Anna movement. He was insulting a mass movement taking shape at Ramlila Maidan, part of Chandni Chowk constituency. You are a people's representative and the venue of the agitation was in your constituency. Instead of respecting sentiments of the people, he was out to ridicule and insult them. That added to people's anger. That is why I also thought this man needs to be defeated. I discussed it with Arvind and friends too.
Q: You are being labeled as an outsider for the Chandni Chowk constituency. There have been protests about it. How do you look at this tag?
A: If people say I don't live in Chandni Chowk area, they are telling the truth. If people are upset over it, I respect their sentiments. But the party has taken a call after completing the process and chosen me to represent it. At the same time, I think I am probably more Delhiite than anybody. I came to Delhi in 1986. I have seen Delhi growing. When I came, there was no Vasant Kunj, there was no Gurgaon. I saw Noida growing as a city. Delhi used to end at RK Puram. There was just one Ring Road, no flyovers. When people went from RK Puram to Chandni Chowk, they said, 'I am going to Delhi'. I have seen all this. I owe everything to Delhi. I did post-graduation in Delhi, my M Phil in Delhi, my entire career was built in Delhi. I belong to Delhi.
Q: Many commented that by selecting you, a Gupta, who belongs to a dominant trader community, to represent a trading hub, AAP went against its motto that it doesn't choose candidates on caste or other considerations.
A: I had dropped my surname when I was in JNU, in 1990, at the peak of Mandal Commission agitation. As per JNU tradition, I had also come out with a pamphlet: Ashutosh–Yes. Surname–No. Though I had dropped my surname and was not using it in public domain, it was there on my official documents, such as my passport. When I decided to contest, I went and officially got it dropped. Now it is gazetted, five days ago it was changed. Officially, I don't carry my surname.
Q: But the surname seems to have come back to haunt you after so many years.
A: Don't know if it will help. India has been a caste-dominated country. But people are cleverer now. One of the best things about AAP is it has broken down all such conventional practices. Identity does matter in Indian politics but I think identity politics is getting weaker by the day.
Q: Large parts of your constituency from the Walled City area have not seen the kind of development it should have seen. What do you think of the phenomenon called 're-development?' What shall we expect in your manifesto?
A: Re-development should not be at the cost of local culture. Delhi will always be known not by concrete buildings and apartments, but Chandni Chowk, Ballimaran, small markets, congested lanes and by-lanes. If development has to happen, it has to happen in sync with the local culture. Delhi's historicity is linked to Chandni Chowk and not other parts of Delhi. We need to find out a blue print for the area without disturbing the local culture and flavour. The local culture has to be robustly preserved and marketed well. The whole world is crazy about Ghalib and we don't bother about the Ghalib Ki Haveli. We have actually neglected the syncretism, the Urdu culture, the Muslim culture, the history of Hindustan etc. It has to be aligned properly and marketed well so that it can earn us revenue.
Q: Do you think the performance of the 49-day tenure of the AAP government in Delhi will help you?
A: Certainly. At least there was a government in place that was working well. There can be no allegations against this government that somebody asked for money for transfer posting. Nobody can allege there were touts in this government. Lot of things remained incomplete. But at least, there was this honest government working honestly and nobody questioned the integrity of its leaders.
Q: Some events, for instance the Somnath Bharti episode, brought negative publicity for the government. Will that have any impact?
A: (Former Delhi law minister) Somnath Bharti had used certain words that he should not have. But his actions, the issues he took up were absolutely correct. He went to that area with the police and media. Whatever happened has happened in the public domain. The strong drug mafia gave a negative spin to it. But when three Ugandan women came forward to register their statements, everything was exposed. He gets excited at times. He should not have used certain words that he used against, for instance, Arun Jaitley. We apologised for that.
Q: Before joining the AAP, when was the last time you visited Chandni Chowk or any part of the constituency?
A: Several times. There is this shop in Daryaganj where you get fantastic fish. On Sundays, I often used to visit the used famous books market. One of the best things is that you get jalebi early in the morning and, of course, the good non-vegetarian food.
Q: Have you started the outreach activity for your campaign?
A: I have had meetings with party volunteers and functionaries in seven of the 10 assembly constituencies. I plan to start meeting people of the constituency from next week. The campaign plan is being worked out. Right now we are in the process of identifying a place for our office and my accommodation.?