LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — Ensconced on a couch between the portraits of Wajid Ali Shah and Begum Hazrat Mahal, the last ruler of Awadh and his famous wife, Aditi Singh said that her father Akhilesh Singh wanted their home in Lucknow to have a “Nawabi feel to it.” Pointing to the green curtains behind her, Singh, a state legislator in Uttar Pradesh, said, “I feel like a Thakur wanting to have a Nawabi feel in his house is such an Indian thing.”
Then, as she moved her feet away from a statue of the Hindu god Krishna and a pile of saffron scarves of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Singh said, “My mother has told me a hundred times not to point my feet towards the statues of the gods.”
Singh, whose father was elected five consecutive times from the Raebareli Assembly constituency since 1993, won the seat for the first time in the Uttar Pradesh election in 2017. Twenty nine years old at the time, Singh’s entry into politics and the Congress Party was hastened by her father’s poor health. For a while, Singh appeared to be an up-and-coming leader of the Congress Party, seen with Priyanka Gandhi when she visited Raebareli, which happens to be Sonia Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency.
Over a year after her relationship with the Congress leadership publicly soured, and she was accused of anti-party activities and suspended, Singh joined the BJP last month.
Even if the change in parties impacts her voter base, given her father’s legacy in the Raebareli Assembly constituency, Singh could deliver a major win for the BJP in the upcoming state election. Of the five other Assembly constituencies in the Raebareli district, three are with the BJP, one with the SP, and one with the Congress.
In this conversation, Singh told us about working with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, reconciling her party’s majoritarianism with the pluralism so visibly woven into her home, falling out with the Congress, and her father, who is remembered as the “Robinhood of Raebareli” for protecting his constituents against extortion and exploitation.
It’s been more than a year since you started speaking out against the Congress, but you joined BJP last month. Was this a formality or were you still weighing your decision?
A little bit of both. It was a major life decision, a major career move, and something that required great thought. I could have joined earlier, but there are limitations as an MLA, there was anti-defection and other technical things that I had to think about. Very soon after I started speaking up, we were hit by Corona. At that time, we were all just trying to stay alive, help our families and communities, help our constituencies in whichever way we could — how to arrange oxygen, medicines, rations, and other things. At that time, shifting parties and how to go about it, wasn’t really a priority.
What were the pros and cons of staying and leaving?
I knew of the Honourable CM Yogi Adityanath when he was an MP (Member of Parliament from Gorakhpur), my family knew of him, but I didn’t know what to expect when he came in as the Chief Minister. I have worked with him for five years now as the CM and the Leader of the House in the Vidhan Sabha, and I was very pleasantly surprised by his leadership skills, dedication, honesty, and no BS approach. I have always admired the Honourable Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) for very similar reasons. I’m starting my career at an age where I’m still figuring things out. I want to work with people who know what they are doing. It is called political willpower. I consider myself to be a very focused leader and I want to be under the mentorship of very focused leaders. I do not want to be up in the air and politics as usual.
What were some of the things that were holding you back?
I have been associated with the Congress Party for quite a while now. I met a lot of people and networked a lot within the party. My family members were also in the Congress Party. I’m going to have to meet new people, re-introduce myself and find my place within a new party. It’s a tough job. It took me a really long time to do it the first time around and now I’m going to do it all over again.
You seem to have placed a lot of faith in the Chief Minister, but an election is coming and there are never any guarantees.
Regardless of where I was, I would be nervous just by virtue of being an electoral politician. That is the nature of the job. You can never tell what will happen in politics.
Was this your decision? Did you miss not having your father to speak with?
I have never missed my father more than I have over these past few months while getting to this decision. These are not easy things to do. I missed him not just as you miss your father, but as an adviser. I think he taught me well and I’m very lucky that I got some years with him since entering politics.I had these thoughts where I wished that I could pick up the phone and call him for five minutes. I wished that god would allow me that time. It has been very difficult not having him around. In the end, everyone weighed in, my family and friends, professionals that I really trust, but it was my decision. At the end of it, you have to take charge of your own life. I’m accountable. I’m the one who has been elected by the people.
Does your move to the BJP make things awkward between you and your husband (Angad Singh Saini — a Congress MLA in Punjab)?
It does. It is not easy. I thought it would be. People work in different professions or companies all the time, but when it comes to politics, people take it so much harder, people assume that it is much more different than just two individuals who are on different career paths. Maybe it is my education or upbringing, but I have always been taught to separate the professional from the personal. In my head, it is generally very clear — you’re you, you do you, you do what is best for your career growth, your state, and your constituency. I never really thought it would be that difficult, but it turns out that it is an issue of contemplation for everyone.
It isn’t just that you are joining any other political party, it is ideologically very different. Since 2014, the treatment of minorities, the regression in civil liberties, has been questioned not just by critics at home, but the international community as well. In UP, they have changed the names of Muslim cities. It is also no secret that the BJP runs electoral politics on religious polarisation. How do you reconcile the pluralism represented in your home with joining the BJP?
Where was Congress’s ideology when they were shaking hands with the Shiv Sena. Ideological compromise is something that India has learned from the Congress. As far as the BJP is concerned, they are very clear on what they are and what their ideology is. Within a party, you can have people who are more ideologically on the right or the left, and perhaps those who are more in the center. The same party had leaders like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. There is a range and you are allowed to be who you want within a party. There are also right-wing people within Congress even if they don’t express it as much. There are also people who are in the Center within the BJP — like (Nitin) Gadkari ji, who is a development man. It’s not very hard for me to reconcile with it because I’ve been given the room to be who I am.
You have expressed admiration for the CM, who is on right.
It doesn’t bother me. If you were to work with him or observe his working style as closely as I have, you would understand there is more to him than what gets projected on TV — changing the name of cities and all that. Yes, that is an aspect of his personality. For me, what overshadows that is his core work ethic and honesty to his job. It is a very very rare trait in politics. I admire that more and I learned that slowly over time.
If the things that are said and done leave lasting divisions in society, then surely that outweighs everything else including a strong work ethic.
I hear you, but do you think that parties like the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party have not caused so much division on caste lines. Their parties are formed on caste lines. There will always be — ism — religionism, casteism when it comes to Indian policies. It is all divisive. The kind of backlash I received for marrying outside my caste, — I married someone I love, he is a Sikh, I’m a Hindu. This divide is what we as a society project, and a lot of times, political parties will take advantage of our very set ideologies and mindset.
What about the silencing of dissent, the rise in the number of sedition cases.
I get that. As a liberal and educated person, I do agree with you. There was this whole Vir Das interview — I agree that it is not ideal. I don’t agree with trying to shut down people’s voices. Having said that, and perhaps because I’ve seen too much in politics, been exposed to things just by virtue of growing up in a political household, there is only so much that I can express or say. I don’t want to dis anyone, but all I will say is that it is a reaction to certain actions. Things have happened which have led to this.
At a ceremony to inaugurate the airport, there is no cause for the CM to talk about Muhammad Ali Jinnah. When you hear that or Tejasvi Surya coming to UP and making remarks that hurt Muslim sentiments, is that jarring for you?
Is it jarring for me? Perhaps. Would I as a leader make divisive statements? No. That is not my core belief. I do agree with the ideology, but not all of it. When two people can’t agree or disagree — try making a marriage work — then how can one 100% agree or disagree with any political party? And that’s okay as long as you are on the same page for most of it. At least the BJP is very clear about its vision. I appreciate the clarity and the political will.
That vision seems to be changing the secular values that we set out for ourselves. Do you like what you see? Are there any red lines for you?
I think it is too easy to say it is because of the BJP. Politics is the mirror reaction of what the public is doing or expecting or wanting. There is a reason why the BJP comes back with a brute majority, an even bigger majority, time and again. I certainly don’t want the Muslim community of this country to feel marginalized or like collateral damage. There are certainly a lot of things happening that I don’t like, not just in India, but in other countries as well. What does worry me is the economic damage caused by the pandemic and its impact on geopolitics. Other things come and go. I don’t know, perhaps I’m too hardened, but this is me right now.
The Babri Masjid was illegally demolished in December 1992. People were killed in the riots that followed. You have contributed for the construction of the Ram Temple on that spot.
Of course, it was terrible that the mosque was demolished. Having said that, for me, as a Hindu, the Ram Temple is a matter of great honour and pride. I gave a good sum of money and I’m very happy with it. I guess those are just sentiments. You can’t rationalize them.
With you and your family’s legacy, the BJP has its best shot at winning Raebareli Sadar. Why give this to the BJP, and not the Samajwadi Party?
I wanted to work with Yogi ji and I wanted to be in a national party. I want to go to Delhi someday.
Why did you fall out with the Congress Party? We saw the images of you with Priyanka Gandhi. When did it start doing wrong?
Bad leadership. More than the Gandhis, it is the people that they surround themselves with. You are the sum of your ten closest friends. Those people need to have an attitude makeover or get more serious about the job.
How did that interfere with your work and what you wanted to do?
Anything that you bring up with them or the team, there would be no implementation of that whatsoever. It was only sycophancy and sucking up to the leadership, trying to get in their good books or trying to be visible to them. I think a leader needs to be very actively involved in what is happening in their constituency or their area of work. They just were not. I think they tried but they were incapable of penetrating into their workers. In UP, there is such little infrastructure left. I thought there would be scope for change, and they would value young blood, but that was not the case. The system was too rotten for me to try and change it. I don’t think my constituents have any faith left in the party.
Could you give us an instance of something not working out?
This one time, I spoke to Priyanka ji, and I told her to have a districtwide meeting in Raebareli — her mother being the MP from there — with all the pradhans, block pramukhs, and grassroots level workers. She said let’s do that, but it never happened. That’s the thing. Every time these guys come to Raebareli, or other places, they are made to sit in guest rooms, surround themselves with 20 odd sycophants and that’s it. The rest is photo ops. The main reason why things don’t end up happening is that the leadership does not spend enough time on the ground, their advisers are terrible, have a different agenda, and give them the wrong advice. Their feedback mechanism is flawed. For me, this was the reason. The results speak.
You were accused of anti-party activity, speaking with the CM…
I have always been speaking with him because I want development for my constituency. He is the Chief Minister. He is at a Constitutional post and even I am. My father spoke with Akhilesh ji when he was the CM or Mayawati ji or Mulayam Singh ji. I wasn’t going to chit-chat, but to talk about roads, bridges, and development projects.
Your father shared a tenuous relationship with Congress. You have been vocal in your criticism of Priyanka Gandhi. Political differences can be transient. Why burn bridges?
I don’t think I would be doing any justice to myself, my position, or my constituents if I only think of my fydaa or nuksaan. I have never made any irrational statements against them. I have tried to make it my USP to be as honest as I can because I think that young people can see through the bullshit. I don’t want to be that person. I want to be someone that I respect, and people my age can respect. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I want to be trustworthy.
Things ended on a bitter note. Looking back, is there anything that you regret or would have done differently?
I don’t think so. The one that I was determined to do was handling it in the most classy and dignified way that I could. It is not personal. There are just different mindsets. It was a political association and it didn’t work out.
It is not personal, but work takes a toll on one’s mental health.
Being a young person, shying away from mental health issues is not something that I want to do, especially being in a position of influence. It really did cause havoc on my personal life and my mental health, but I had the people and tools that helped me deal with it. I think that I’m much stronger now. It does still bother me. It is a very big thing, leaving a party and joining another. It is like moving families. It is a political family.
What was it like growing up as the MLA’s daughter in Raebareli?
My sister and I did not have any airs about it. I was in boarding school and then I went abroad to study. I’m grateful that my mother did that because it didn’t let political power get to us at all. I remember though that it was very very difficult for my father. He was so busy all the time. His constituents came first as they should. I realize now what sacrifices it takes. I barely have any family life, friends left, or time to go out for a cup of coffee. Success takes a lot of sacrifices. It has been a great learning curve.
You knew that you wanted to get into politics.
I think I meandered a little bit, but when I actually came of age, I realized that it is too big a platform for me to miss out on. Young people sit around and talk about the changes they want to make — ye sarkar, woh sarkar — it turns out that I have a platform.
Things changed quickly because your father was unwell. Was that scary for you?
Very, very. My father was a cancer patient and he was dying. My life turned upside down. I had such a big responsibility to shoulder. I had to learn very quickly because I had such limited time with him. It was aaar ya paar for me.
Your father had criminal cases registered against him. Did you ever discuss it with him or was it troubling to you?
I was aware of it. Was it troubling to me? Not at all. It was his life, his issues, and how he dealt with them. He was a fantastic father and leader. I was a proud daughter.
Are you Aditi, Akhilesh Singh’s daughter, or Aditi, the MLA?
A little bit of both. The new crowd knows me as Aditi didi. The old crowd knows me as bitya. It’s a mix, but for now, I’m very happy to stay in his shadow because I feel protected. I can feel him around me and I feel closer to him and my constituents.