Sandeep Pathak, a senior politician and Rajya Sabha member, was selected as the national general secretary (organisation) of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on December 13. The decision came on the heels of the AAP making inroads in BJP-dominated Gujarat, where it won five seats in the Assembly election with a vote share of nearly 13 per cent, thus earning the status of a national party.
Pathak is a former assistant professor of IIT Delhi, and former research associate at University of Oxford and MIT. He joined the AAP in 2016 after he left MIT and returned to Delhi.
Pathak’s expertise lies in building organisational structures in areas where the AAP is weak. During the Punjab and Gujarat Assembly elections, which took place in February and December 2022 respectively, Pathak was the AAP’s election-in-charge. Excerpts from an interview.
With an educational background in science at Cambridge, Oxford, and MIT and an assistant professorship at IIT Delhi, how did you end up in politics?
I’ve always wanted to participate in policymaking and have a real impact on the development of the nation. I always believed that the only way to have a direct and significant impact is through politics. I had been considering entering politics for a long time but I wasn’t certain of my strategy. Who’d take me? They would argue, you don’t have a political background. The anti-corruption movement was thriving in New Delhi while I was away. I thought that Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP sounded sensible.
I made the decision to join them and it has been a successful partnership.
You stress the importance of “rigorous” surveys. What is your methodology and how does it help the AAP?
Politics is very competitive. A political party must first understand what the public wants, what issues are important to them, what frustrates them, and how they perceive a particular party. If those issues are addressed, they will incline towards you. Demographics also matter a lot. Surveys are pure science. They actually reveal what the public is thinking. That is then made the basis for strategy, campaign design, slogans, and approach. Deciding what you want to deliver and how you are going to communicate it to the people are very critical.
For us, surveys are the foundation of everything else. The AAP and Arvind Kejriwal don’t believe in guesswork. When we talk about methodology, we mean a very strict and rigorous way of doing surveys, be it telephonic or field surveys. Overall, we follow two kinds of surveys, qualitative and quantitative. In the quantitative survey, we field brief questions from a large number of people. That gives us a general sense, but by itself, it cannot help much. The qualitative surveys, the in-depth interviews with different segments of people, help in designing strategies.
You have been involved in Punjab since 2017. What factors led to the AAP’s landslide win in the Punjab Assembly election in 2022?
There are actually several parameters, I can pinpoint a few. One is the organisation. In AAP, we reinvigorated the entire organisation in Punjab. This led to a certain optimism among workers, giving them a sense of hope. The first thing was to convince them that we can form the government. Then, we had to find the appropriate candidates and a CM face. For any healthy organisation, the key is to find the right person for the right job. We did that scientifically. We mapped every candidate based on their profile.
Once the organisation was set, it all depended on how far we could penetrate. We penetrated into all the villages. Communication was sharp.
The second thing was the campaign. You have to run campaigns on the basis of issues of the people. When you start giving people what they really want, it works. India is heterogenous and the perceptions of people change from one mohalla to another. Only surveys can help. The design of our campaign was based on these surveys and reflected what the public wanted.
Running the campaign effectively is also important. Most political parties want to have big campaigns, whereas we believe in micro-campaigns. Also, we try to design the best campaigns with minimum resources. We hold small meetings like Jansanvad, which involves a two-way communication with people. This helped us in Punjab, it turned things around for us. In an unprecedented way, we managed to hold Jansanvads in each and every village. We had local leaders, who would speak to the people on the basis of the surveys we had done. Campaign execution was also micro-managed.
Then you have the leadership. The Chief Minister candidate, Bhagwant Mann ji, is a very able leader. He has a clean image and is also a great orator. He is liked by all across the State, which helped us. The selection of the candidates was purely on merit.
Why did the AAP strategy fail in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly election?
We have to accept that we lost. We shouldn’t feel that we can win every election. We can only try hard. In Himachal Pradesh, the timing was tough. Initially, Satyendar Jain ji entered the fray but his arrest derailed him. Their primary intention was to derail him.
We had Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal, and election to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). With whatever resources we had, we tried. I believe that if we go full horse, full power, Himachal would also vote for us. Until and unless you accept your weaknesses and analyse your strengths, you would never grow.
There are upcoming elections in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. In which of these States will the AAP contest?
The situation is such that in every State, people are interested in new politics. They are actually willing to allow AAP enter the fray. We have now acquired the stature of a national party. We are liked throughout India. So, now, we have to build our organisation across the country. Coming back to elections, wherever the opportunity arises and if things fit into our strategy, we will fight elections.
In Gujarat, the AAP managed to make the elections a three-way contest but could not manage more than five seats. What worked in your favour and what didn’t?
The Gujarat result is quite encouraging. Initially, when I was given charge, most of the pundits and friends in the media called to ask why I had taken up this role. They told me that it amounted to destroying my career since there is no space for a third party in Gujarat. But we wanted to fight, even if the election was difficult.
We have proved our detractors wrong. Now the AAP has some 40 lakh votes in Gujarat, around 13 per cent of the vote share, and five seats, making it the third political party in the State. When we ran the campaign and the Delhi Chief Minister started visiting Gujarat, the support from the people was overwhelming. The kind of love and affection that people showed made all the political pundits and journalists sit up and take notice.
At one point, everyone started thinking that the fight is between the AAP and the BJP. Closer to the election, the Prime Minister was forced to camp in Gujarat, signalling that anything could happen. Then came the results. From zero, we got five seats.
The BJP as an organisation is very strong in Gujarat. They have sister organisations working for them and the Congress didn’t even fight the elections. It was as if they had surrendered. So, for a party like us, in a State like Gujarat, the result was encouraging. Our surveys in Gujarat showed that people wanted an alternative. They were not happy with the BJP and the Congress was not fighting with full gusto. There was a space for us.
Our entire campaign was based on the needs of the public: bijli, paani, mehengayi, hospitals (electricity, water, rising prices, healthcare). We would go to the people and say that we would focus on these. To our advantage, our governments in Delhi and Punjab have worked enough on these matters. It was easy for us to convince people that we can do this. They trusted us.
The AAP has maintained a strategic silence on several minority issues such as the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists from jail, the Tablighi Jamaat controversy, and the Delhi riots. A minister was also made to resign for participating in a Buddhist mass conversion event. Are all these being done to win over the BJP’s voters?
You run campaigns on the basis of people’s issues. We don’t deviate from our main target of schools, hospitals, water, electricity, and good governance. Our target and ideology are very simple. We are a nationalist party which would never compromise on anything of national interest. We believe that honest politics is directly related to good governance. When you build schools or hospitals, Hindus and Muslims both would go there. The BJP tries to distract people with such issues. Our agenda is very clear: hospitals and schools.
Numbers from Gujarat, Delhi Assembly, and MCD elections tell us that the AAP is emerging as an alternative to the Congress. But can the AAP reduce the BJP’s vote share at the national level, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is directly on the ballot?
In the MCD elections in Delhi, we were directly against the BJP and we defeated it. We also went to Gujarat to challenge the BJP. Congress did not exist for us. No matter what the results, we had thrown a challenge to the BJP. Sometimes the number of seats in electoral outcomes may not reflect this immediately, but five years down the line, the scenario will change. In Gujarat, wait for another five years. The Gujarat project is a work in progress. I will take it to its logical conclusion. We will continue to challenge the BJP there.
We fight elections with the same agenda everywhere, no matter the competing party. There are two types of politics, constructive and negative. When we do constructive politics, we involve educated people and talk about real issues of the people and contribute to the nation’s development. In negative politics, the only focus is on winning elections, which is what the BJP does. This fight is between constructive and negative politics.
When I was in England, I witnessed the smooth functioning of governance, hospitals, and transport. I wondered why it is not the same in India. It is their politics that makes them different. It is constructive politics. There should not be politics on issues of schools and hospitals. In fact, irrespective of which political party comes in, these things should be the priority.
How do you respond to allegations that the AAP is the BJP in a softer shade of saffron?
We are fighting elections against the BJP. This is the real test which tells us whether we are friends of the BJP or against it. Today, only Arvind Kejriwal is in a place to challenge the BJP. Look at Gujarat. Not the results, but the intensity with which we fought the elections. We are not their softer version, rather we are hard on issues that matter.
What are the AAP’s plans for south India?
As a national party, we should ideally expand everywhere. But the public decides ultimately. The kind of politics we do is important everywhere, be it North or South. Our spread to the South will be calculated and the public response will be primary.
What is the party’s approach towards succession? Is a second rung of leaders being trained or is Kejriwal the only face?
As of now, we have clarity in terms of leadership. We have Kejriwal. For the future, we have many second-rung leaders such as Manish Sisodia, Gopal Rai, and Sanjay Singh. The second rung of leaders is being developed organically. Look at me, I was in the background till now. Now I have a position. Similarly, the party has many hardworking people, but they work silently.
In Delhi and Punjab, the focus on education and health found acceptance. Will the model work in other States?
I feel that education and health will find traction in all States. These issues are of utmost importance to people across India. All other issues are intertwined with them. We have got 40 lakh votes in Gujarat in such a short time. Why? Because of schools and hospitals. When we managed to make these issues important in a State like Gujarat, we can do it in other States too.
Has the AAP’s anti-corruption image taken a beating since the case against Satyendar Jain and other AAP leaders?
I was abroad for 10 years. I could have become a professor in any country. I left it all to come back to India. And after I joined, I realised how honest and transparent the party is. If we believed in corrupt practices, we would not have been suffering from a crunch of resources, because of which we are not able to focus on multiple States at the same time. This is the biggest testimony to our honest politics.
Now that Kejriwal has emerged as a big leader, they want to attack the people who work with him because if they directly attack him, it will backfire. Their strategy is to bring down the AAP and Kejriwal. They are trying to target several AAP leaders. But ultimately, it will not matter. We will keep doing our duty. The people will understand.
As the AAP’s first general secretary, what is your vision for the party?
My vision is simple. I believe in constructive politics. I want to take this idea of constructive politics and the Kejriwal model to every village and every city in this country. I want to build a strong organisation and prepare the party for future battles.