A young girl’s picture hangs on the pink wall, a mini shrine built around it. In a corner, Dharmender Singh Koli is hunched over a small table, furiously taking down notes. Next to him, a tricolour and an Aam Aadmi Party banner lay rolled up. But a little over a year ago, the 26-year-old Class XII dropout would not have been found in these settings. Rather, he would sit outside his father’s house in Sundar Nagari, a low-income colony in east Delhi, selling toys in his makeshift shop, earning Rs 3,500-4,000 a month.
How things have changed. Though he remains modest and soft-spoken, having won the Seemapuri seat on an AAP ticket, Koli’s journey from hawker to MLA has not been free of loss and pain. “This is not my victory,” says Koli, who never thought he would join politics. “This is my sister’s victory. I have to take her work forward.”
The mini shrine was made in memory of his sister, Santosh Koli, 29, a Class IX dropout, who had tirelessly worked for the empowerment of people in the area. “She worked for the people and fought for their rights,” he says. “Whether it was education, electricity, water or women’s safety, she educated them on their rights and took on government officials and black marketeers.”
Santosh’s work had not only shaken the foundations of Sundar Nagari, where her family stayed, but she was an inspiration for other AAP winners as well.
“Every time I feel tired or want to take a break, I think of her,” says Manoj Kumar, the AAP MLA from Kondli. “Once it rained heavily and Seemapuri was completely water-logged. The MLA came, took a picture and left. The MCA councillor did the same. Angered by their inaction, Santosh gathered a few women, waded through the knee-deep water to the Junior Engineer’s office. She caught him by the collar, dragged him through the dirty water and asked him, ‘Kya, sab theek hai?” (Is everything alright?)’ The water was pumped out within an hour.”
Santosh’s activism resulted in 11 attacks. The last one, a hit-and-run attack, proved fatal. It happened just 11 days after she was declared an AAP candidate. “But the police put it down as an accident,” laments Koli.
“Someone had to take her work forward. I was chosen after deliberation and voting within the party. I have neither money nor muscle power. Before AAP was started, I could have never imagined that elections could be fought this way,” says Koli, whose declared assets are worth just Rs 20,800, the lowest among all the winning candidates. “But my sister showed me that you don’t need money, you just need to have passion and courage. If you work to create awareness among the people, then together you can fight this corrupt system.”
“My parents are worried… they don’t want to lose another child, but I’m not scared anymore,” he says. “My mission is to make people aware, break free from the shackles of the system and become self-sufficient, so that they don’t feel the need to sell their vote or pay a bribe.”