This is the sixth post in a series on “What are Delhi’s MLAs up to?”
Tilak Nagar had been a BJP stronghold for the last 10 years. In 2013, 32-year old Jarnail Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) beat the incumbent’s son, Rajiv Babbar by 2088 votes (2.38% of vote share). The constituency is predominantly Sikh and I had the honor of visiting a magnificent Gurdwara constructed by a community of Sikhs who hailed from Afghanistan. It turns out that Jarnail and I share the same ancestral hometown, Peshawar.
It was my first time sitting in the back seat of a Sarkari Ambassador as I rode with Jarnail to meet the Resident Welfare Associations (RWA) of Shankar Garden and New Krishna Park.
“I’m not doing a favor, it is your tax money being spent in your area, the way you want it,” Jarnail said. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s Junior Engineer who was assigned to this ward was present as well. The meeting had a clear agenda, and Jarnail systematically updated the RWA on the status of projects in Shankar Garden. Members raised concerns, asked for clarifications, and thanked Jarnail for his sincerity and effective work. I was surprised with the orderly, yet informal nature of the meeting since “government work” usually conjures one of two images: long lines or disorderly parliament. “This is the seventh time Jarnail is meeting us,” Mr. Malhotra informed me.
Residents of Tilak Nagar provided positive feedback when I asked them about their views on Jarnail Singh’s work. “Jarnail doesn’t overpromise and under-deliver. He agrees to an inauguration only after the months-long process of submitting proposals and tendering quotes is complete.” Resident’s greatly appreciated Jarnail’s authenticity and the professionalism with which he carried out his responsibilities, “Jarnail treats everyone with respect, even those who did not vote for him.”
Like other first-time MLAs, Jarnail and his staff have had to learn the ropes of Indian bureaucracy quickly. They were happy to share some of this gyaan (knowledge) with me.
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is an organ of the Delhi State Government, which means that Delhi’s MLAs have considerable political power over the functioning of the institution. This is not true of the MCD, which is largely an autonomous body, where Councilors hold sway. Regarding DDA administration, Delhi has been divided into 11 districts since pre-independence. Each one has a District Development Committee (DDC). Jarnail is the Chairman of West Delhi’s DDC, meaning that he has political power over a set of government officials. During the legislative assembly’s Suspended Animation, this additional source of power has contributed to Jarnail’s ability to commission projects faster than other MLAs.
In 1957, the DDA was tasked with the responsibility of planning the infrastructure necessary for Delhi’s expanding population. Put simply, DDA is in charge of urban planning. According to its website, “The biggest challenge… has always been to provide adequate residential and commercial infrastructure facilities to over 11 million people in the city.” Currently, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung is Chairman of the DDA.
“90% of citizen complaints are a result of the malfunctioning of the MCD,” Jarnail explained, “if a road is narrower than 16ft, then it falls under the jurisdiction of the MCD. Wider roads are under the Delhi Government’s Public Works Department.” This answered many of my own queries (and hopefully answers yours!) about the pot-holed roads of Greater Kailash I. Councilors, and the MCD are responsible for the state of roads within neighborhoods.
Jarnail touched the floor before entering his office, and prayed for five minutes at his office’s shrine before sitting down to work. Individuals or groups met Jarnail and raised concerns such as dysfunctional sewerage lines, derelict parks, and streetlights for safety. He frankly explained whether action from his end was possible, suggested temporary fixes until the government machinery kicks in, and gave estimated time frames within which he could get the work done. There is one catch. Everyone must give Jarnail a signed, written letter detailing the nature of work requested.
Jarnail has separate files full of such letters, depending on the nature of the request. I hadn’t seen any other MLA keep such detailed records of requests and projects undertaken.
An Extraordinary Life
Jarnail’s optimism and boyish charm hide the struggles he has overcome. Due to familial hardships, 14-yeard old Jarnail dropped out of school and took up his first job at an AC repair shop, which paid R.s. 300 per month. He developed a technical mindset over the years, but his salary wouldn’t increase beyond R.s. 800 per month.
“Jisko kuch nahi milta, usko salesman ki job milti hai,” (He who doesn’t get anything else, becomes a salesman) Jarnail joked. Jarnail earned 6,000-7,000 per month as a salesman, but the forced interactions with thousands of people helped him gain self-confidence. Chance interactions led to the opportunity to start a business, for which he took a small loan. Jarnail continued his job as a salesman for several years after he started his company on the side.
He eventually quit the job, became a full time entrepreneur and got a traditional arranged marriage. His wife and 3-year old son drop by the office everyday after school, sometimes having lunch together in the office. Jarnail never went to college, but completed his secondary education. According to his affidavit, he hast just over 1 crore in assets.
“I am thankful for how far I’ve come, and want to help others,” Jarnail told me. “Before AAP, I was apolitical.” The Indian Against Corruption movement tapped into Jarnail’s longing for improving the conditions of the community where he grew up in. In December 2012, two months after AAP was founded, Jarnail started volunteering for the party. He went door-to-door to converse with residents and inform them about AAPs vision of transforming politics. Almost no one took him seriously. Many ridiculed him for believing that India can change.
In addition to being Tilak Nagar’s MLA, Jarnail is President of AAP’s Youth Wing.
The Jarnail Singh’s of West Delhi
Coincidentally, AAP’s West Delhi candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was a 41-year old journalist named Jarnail Singh. From the 16 candidates of West Delhi, there were three Jarnail Singhs in total, as two more Jarnail Singh’s were listed as independent candidates. It is alleged that political opponents planted the independents to cheat voters from supporting the AAP candidate. Especially when one considers the fact that independent candidates barely campaign or get any publicity, the independent Jarnail Singhs garnered 90,682 votes (6.7% of vote share).
The Indian Express’ report on the Jarnail Singhs of West Delhi makes a comical Slim Shady reference, “West Delhi confused: Will the real Jarnail Singh stand up?” As common as the name may be, I can safely say that my experience with Talik Nagar’s Jarnail Singh was definitely unique.
Want to know more about Jarnail’s work? Watch this 16-minute video.