Despite being associated with some spectacular electoral results for his party over the years and now having a seat in the Rajya Sabha, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Dr Sandeep Pathak remains an enigmatic figure. His peers give the backroom strategist a lot of credit for AAP’s recent Punjab assembly election sweep. In an exclusive interview with CNN-News18, the reticent politician, Cambridge PhD holder and former IIT Delhi professor spoke at length about his association with the party and Arvind Kejriwal, his acquired love for surveys, his political journey so far, recent electoral challenges and the ones up ahead, as well as where India’s political framework stands at this time. Edited excerpts:
Please tell us about your journey so far.
The journey has been very interesting. I was born in a small hamlet in Chhattisgarh and my parents are basically farmers. We are not labour class— we have land, we give it on contract, we make people work on it. We had sufficient land, economically not in the weaker section, but economically well-off. But the source of income is primarily agriculture and agriculture is what we do generally— my parents, my relatives, all of us. So, it is a very small village, Bataha, where we have farmlands. And, I studied till class 6 in my village itself. After that, I went to Bilaspur— the nearest city, but at that time it was the district. My aunt lives there, so I went to stay with her family. From class 7 onwards, I started living with them, and then, I went to a new school in Bilaspur city. When I was nine and a half years old, I left my parents and went to Bilaspur and then my educational journey began.
Doing all these things…Masters and everything I did in Chhattisgarh. Then, I came to Hyderabad for further studies. I was at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology ( IICT ) at Hyderabad and then I went to Pune, to the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL). My research career started flourishing from here. And then, I started preparing for exams to go abroad and I started giving interviews, exams, etc.
The turning point was when I got through to Cambridge university. So, I got a PhD from Cambridge on high-temperature superconducting materials. So, I went from Pune to Cambridge and started doing a PhD in Cambridge. I finished there and then I went on to pursue further studies at Oxford, and after that, I went to the USA. There is a university named MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While I was at MIT, I wanted to come back to India, so I just resigned and then came back to India and joined IIT Delhi.
IIT Delhi because my interest was in this direction, something I wanted to do. So, I thought Delhi was the best place. I could have gone to any IIT as my CV was good, my research background was good, I was a good scientist. Everything was good. So, I joined as an assistant professor at IIT Delhi and at the same time joined Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a volunteer.
Which year was this? What attracted you to AAP and how did you meet Arvind Kejriwal?
This was in 2016. It was not as if I got attracted to AAP and then I joined politics. It is the other way round. I wanted to come into politics and I did not know where to go, what to do. In that frame of mind, I saw Arvind Kejriwal. He floated his new party. Then I thought it is much simpler, much easier to get associated with them, especially with Arvind Kejriwal’s party. I could relate to him very easily, especially coming from an IIT background, his entire approach and the way he talked, obviously all of us got attracted. Because his style of politics is very simple— straight from the heart and to the heart. I just thought that’s the best way. And I always wanted to contribute for the country. I always wanted to be in policymaking. I was clear from the beginning that if I have to serve the country, I have to be in the policymaking bodies. I did not know how, but I was clear. So, that’s how I just started with AAP as just another ordinary volunteer.
When did you meet Arvind Kejriwal for the first time?
So, when I came to Delhi and wrote an email to almost every leader, one of those leaders who responded was Ashutosh ji and he called me for a meeting. We met briefly for five minutes. After sometime, Dilip Pandey called me for a meeting and then he put me through to Ashish Khetan ji. So I started doing some research work, policy work with the Delhi Dialogue Commission at that time. When once Arvind ji visited DDC, I met him along with many other people. I was one among the group that met him, it was not a personal interaction. After that, Ashish ji sent me for a survey to Punjab (2017). I was not a surveyor. I had absolutely no idea about what it is, how it is. It was just a task. And I was a scientist. I was the guy doing physics, chemistry but OK … He sent me, so I just took paper, pad and pen and went to Punjab and took leave from IIT for a few days. I started roaming around in Punjab, talking to people, understanding what they were saying and documenting them. And those documents, I used to send Ashish ji, and eventually, they realised that my understanding was, to a certain degree, correct, post-election results.
It was the day of Punjab election results. It was very interesting. I was sitting on that campus, that lawn, as someone had called me for a meeting. And then he said, “Boss, I am in the CM house, I cannot come out, so why don’t you come to the CM house?” I had no access to the CM house, so I asked, “Yaar, I want to come, but how can I enter?” So, he said, “We will make you enter and we will do a meeting.” So, this guy brought me in, with the directions. “Aap chup chaap yahan pe baithe raho, aap Sir ke taraf mat ana, aap kinare pe baithe raho (Please sit here quietly, don’t approach Sir, please sit in that corner), I will come back to you and talk to you later “. So, I said, “perfect”. I sat somewhere, very far away, and Arvind ji, Ashish Khetan were sitting on the other side. Ashish ji’s eyes fell on me and, eventually, he waved at me and called me. So I went there. Ashish ji then introduced me to Arvind ji, saying that “this is Sandeep and he was the one who was doing the survey”. So, that was the first time, on the result day of Punjab elections in 2017, that I met him. Then he asked me a few questions, we exchanged our phone numbers, and then we started working together.
During the 2020 Delhi elections, did you get to work much with Prashant Kishor?
Initially, we were making policies, we were executing everything. And, then Prashant ji came into the picture. So, when Prashant ji came into the picture, he became a part of the campaign. So, in that sense, we got associated because all of us were already working. But it was not that we were close, we decided everything — no. His team was working with us. So, in that sense we had interactions. I know him very well.
What was your methodology when you went to do your survey in Punjab for the first time (2017 elections), which, in fact, proved to be accurate while others went wrong?
Basically, survey is also purely science. So, selection of sample, selection of date, selection of location. So I read up something about surveys, and I could understand two to three things. One thing is the sampling and the second thing is the honesty. You know it takes a lot of work and very hard work doing surveys. In most of the cases, people who do surveys are capable of doing it but they fudge the data. It is not that it is rocket science, it is the simplest thing one can do. But I am deadly honest. I don’t mess with my work. It is very clear. If I have been assigned a task, I do it fully. Every single data that I collected was correct. The data selection, the village selection, the location selection — I selected scientifically so that it could represent the entire constituency in Punjab. So, although I must accept with all humility that overall my sample size was representing Punjab but in later stages I learnt much more about the survey. At that time, it was brief but the data representation, selection were much more accurate and it was the hard work.
Can you tell us about your experience in Punjab? How the tide turned in your favour? Because it was clear that you were not winning from the first day; slowly the momentum built…
So, it is very interesting. February 24, 2020, is when we entered Punjab. Roughly, two years you can say. So, when we first went there, yes, I was not sure what was going to happen. We had people, we had energy, but it was not ordered in a proper way. We didn’t have sufficient data assembly wise and things like that. The organisation was absolutely missing. So that’s how we entered and we started working. We were not winning from day 1. My mind is very structured because I am a trained scientist. Since I am a trained scientist, I don’t do anything randomly. If anyone does anything randomly, I just feel uncomfortable. Everything I do is organised and systematic. Sometimes, it delays things, but that’s how I am. So, I started building the organisation for Punjab and I built it in a way that turned out to be one of the best and strongest weapons that won us the election.
Why do you say that there was no organisation in Punjab and how did you build that?
It would not be correct if I said that there was no organisation. There were people already, there were volunteers. But creating an order, channelising their energy and consolidating the available energy we had was the task. So, when you build an organisation, you just make some people, but I built the entire Punjab organisation merit-based— every single position that I gave was based on merit, based on how a person has performed, how loyal he is to the party, how hard working, how much time he has, and how competent he is. So, it is purely a merit-based selection for organisation building. And I presented myself just as a volunteer, not a leader. And I committed to them and clearly said about my honesty— “Koi khareed nahi sakta, paida nahi hua hai jo khareed le jayega” (There’s no one who can buy me off, a person like that hasn’t been born)— and that gave them confidence because they had so much apprehension over many things like mismanagement and other things. Slowly, I started winning their confidence and they started feeling confident about me and when selections in the organisation were done based on merit. So, people started being happy. And when your organisation is happy, everything falls in line, energy gets confined and unified and that is very helpful.
What was the turning point for you during Punjab elections and what were the most challenging moments?
I would say there was no turning point. It was all gradual. And it was from day 1, as my organisation started becoming stronger and stronger and stronger, I became more and more confident. Slowly, we built the organisation from the district level, then block level, then circle level, then the village level. I still remember the day when we had our organisation in place at the village level – that day I was content, and that day, I said, “Boss, we are going to win this election.” Because, you know, Akali Dal and Congress had strong people in every village. No matter how much “hawa” (atmosphere) you create, how good a campaign you run, but ultimately it is election day that will win you the election. And if you don’t have people to fight over there, you cannot do anything. When my organisation was ready in every village, I had eleven-member committees in every single village from all the communities, I was very confident that we would win. So, it was the organisation, it was the energy in the volunteers, it was the constant feedback we were taking from the public.
Our party’s survey system is one of the strongest in the country. And it can compete with any private agency. In fact, I can say that it is far superior than any private agency’s survey system. And it is very, very systematic, very scientific, very ordered and very intensive. So, we kept running surveys and it (the support) was gradually increasing. The public had some apprehensions about the chief ministerial face, but the day we got clarity that it is going to be Bhagwant Mann, it was all clear.
Did the announcement of Charanjit Singh Channi as chief minister and then as the face create any nervousness?
It did, yes. Not nervousness in a way but uncertainty. Because it was clear when Captain was there, we knew how to deal with him, we knew the modus operandi, we knew how he would have conducted himself and what he would have done. But when a new name came at the helm, in that way we were not clear in which way he would go. He could have done it much better considering the caste combinations and other things… But then, we also increased the intensity (of the campaign), the way we worked, we started organising Dalit Samman Sammel and Dalit Samman Sabhas in every village. No one knew about this… Thousands and thousands and thousands of villages we kept touching, every household. We did not let go of the Dalit community just because Congress announced a Dalit chief minister, we kept reaching out to all communities equally. Our campaign was very very rigorous. Not even a single data was fudged. That is the beauty of it.
In your assessment, how destructive was Navjot Singh Sidhu for the Congress party?
Well, that was good for us. The entire Congress party was destructive for themselves everywhere. Sidhu was one of them. What Captain was doing was also destruction in a way. What Mr Channi was doing, it was also destruction in a way. Sidhu is a bit more vocal, it was much more apparent. So, obviously, in your house, if people fight, it is not good.
Even Ravidass Jayanti, which saw thousands of people from the scheduled caste community on the streets, and many even saying that they supported Channi ji, could have proved to be a point of mobilisation of support for Congress and Channi. But that did not happen. Why?
That did not happen because of two reasons. One is that the Aam Aadmi Party was very strong, and two, people wanted to change the government. So, that sense was there. The strongest and most credible option was the Aam Aadmi Party. Number two, they had seen Arvind Kejriwal’s model of governance in Delhi. So, they already had first-hand experience because Punjab is adjacent to Delhi. Also, number three, because they lost hope in Punjab in Congress and Akali Dal. And number four, our organisation was very strong. Number five, our campaign was very intense and the campaign was right on the spot.
Bhagwant Mann also – who brought in his own strengths?
Two benefits. It cleared the confusion among our volunteers as to who will be the chief ministerial face, number two, he was someone among ourselves, and number three, he is a good orator, obviously. So, yes, the Bhagwant Mann announcement was helpful — consolidated and kept consolidating.
Any nervousness during the last days in the run-up to the polls with Kumar Vishwas’s allegations?
We knew Kumar Vishwas had no standing in Punjab and we knew that no one was buying what he said— we do surveys. It was a very opportunistic and motivated kind of thing. Our survey was reflecting clearly that it was not sinking anywhere. So we were not worried about it. Same when Rajewal ji floated his party. We were a bit confused watching how it goes for them. But then after a few days, after the first PC itself, it was clear that they were not ready… Surveying is the best thing we do all the time and that gives us an idea of whether we are on the right track or the wrong track.
Did you do any surveys on Balbir Rajewal’s acceptability, as AAP’s chief ministerial face?
We did for everyone, we did for everybody, everybody…when you do a survey you include all those people who are actually contenders. He made a party and he came at the forefront, fighting elections. So for his party, for the kisan party, not for us, not for anyone else, but for his own party we surveyed him and he was not acceptable.
Any other contenders that you thought could become the chief ministerial face of Punjab?
No, it was very clear. It was just about the timing. We wanted to make it scientific and we had calculated the trajectory. We did not want any decline in the vote share. We wanted it to go upward and therefore we had chosen the time. We had strategised clearly when we would disclose and what to do. It was clear from day 1.
You had a very long meeting with the Delhi chief minister today, looking at plans ahead. The most important states would be Gujarat and Himachal…
Gujarat, Himachal which are going to elections very soon, and then we have Haryana, Rajasthan where we have very good prospects…Chhattisgarh. So, all these states are important.
Tell us something about Gujarat. Because all eyes are on Gujarat and because AAP had announced in 2017 that it would contest Gujarat elections and finally, of course, it did not. How are you looking at this election?
Well, this election would be different. In this election, we will fight very seriously. And we have a very good chance.
Very good chance of?
We can form the government over there. We have done some surveys. In fact, the BJP government’s intelligence(input) is saying that there are fifty-five constituencies where we are very strong. We have done our own surveys and analysis, we don’t enter any state without doing our homework. I think we stand a very good chance. Twenty-seven years is a very long time and from the outside, if you look at it, it would look like it is a mandate for PM Modi or for Amit Shah – no, it is not. The chief minister of Gujarat is different. It is not a mandate for PM Modi, HM Amit Shah or anyone else. It is a mandate for local CM, local government, no work done, school system, health system does not exist. Corruption at an all-time high, minimum wages… everything is the same as in any other part of the country where the system is not working.
What do your own surveys in Gujarat reveal?
I think we are in a very good situation and we are progressing well. And at this point in time, we would not disclose anything and it would not be appropriate for any credible person to throw numbers. But there are about 55 to 58 seats where we stand on very strong ground at this point in time. And gradually, when we go up the ladder, we will further dent their vote share in many other places.
While talking about Gujarat, perhaps it is also important to remember that AAP did not do that well in Goa or in Uttarakhand. Why do you think that happened and how are you going to correct that when it comes to Gujarat?
We have started analysing what went wrong. We were very hopeful in Uttarakhand and Goa as well. So we are analysing. So, probably, the strategy needs to be re-looked and re-worked and we will go back again and work hard again. But definitely, we need to understand more about what went wrong. And there are so many other things we need to learn. We are not a party that knows everything. We are a very small party with limited resources.
Does it (AAP’s performance in Goa and Uttarakhand) have something to do with the CM face? Perhaps, you did not have a mass leader like Bhagwant Mann in these states?
Well, multiple parameters. In such a complex thing when public minds are involved, lakhs of public minds are involved, and one parameter cannot contribute to most of it. There are multiple parameters, multiple reasons, timings of things, campaigns we have. Obviously, you said about (CM face), it is very complex. Everything has to be in place, that too, when you are challenging a party like the BJP which is a very, very strong political party. And we don’t have resources. We stretch thin ourselves and work hard. Yet, I am confident.
As you have said you keep doing surveys. I want to understand how important is this ‘Hindu vs Muslim’ thing (polarisation) that keeps playing out? There are a lot of voters who cannot identify with this sort of narrative. And when there are other pressing concerns — I have asked this to many others also— why is it that unemployment is not an issue, why is it that inflation is not an issue? Is it the failure of the opposition parties?
Well, I would say good luck to those who rake up such issues and I wouldn’t want to comment on what these people are doing. They have been doing it for a very long time. It is not the first time. But our party’s focus and agenda are very simple. It is governance-related issues — schools, hospitals, basic governance, livelihood. Our agenda is this — we are in politics to improve this. We do not want to be distracted by any other thing.
I am asking this also in the context of Gujarat because it is considered by some to be the ‘laboratory of Hindutva’ politics. Could that be a challenge for you in Gujarat?
Well, I don’t think so. People are struggling with the same basic needs there. I met a few people there on my last trip. Their daily wages are Rs 200… Rs 6,000, Rs 8,000…kaise ghar chalega. Public ke dimag mein alternate nahi tha. Inka koi laboratory nahi hai, kuch nahi hai, koi kaam nahi karne waali hai yeh koi laboratory. Public ko achhi zindagi chahiye, public ready hai. Sataiees saal inhone raaj kia , ab inka time aa gaya (how will they run their homes. The public didn’t have an alternative. They don’t have any laboratory, it isn’t going to work. The people want a good life, they are ready. These people have ruled for 27 years. Now it’s time for them to go).
What about the Congress party in Gujarat?
Congress party exist nahi hoti, Congress party ladti nahi chunav. Yeh hum kehtein hain na, “Congress party haar gayi”. Congress party harti thodi hai, Congress party ladhti nahi hai. Hum ladenge (Congress doesn’t exist there. It doesn’t fight elections. We say the Congress lost. It doesn’t lose. It just doesn’t fight. We will fight).
But, in Goa, the Congress did better than AAP…
Better kia, kyon ki unka wahan purana organisation hai, infrastructure hai. Unka organisation bahut jagah hai. Ab unke pass leader nahi hai jo direction de sake. Unke organisation jahan hai, woh bechare confused hain. Unko kuch samajh nahi aa raha (They did better because they had organisation and infrastructure there for years. They have an organisation in many places. They don’t have leaders to show the right direction. Wherever they have organisation, the people there are confused. They don’t know what to do).
Last time, the Congress party did give a good fight in Gujarat. Why do you feel that the people are not going to trust the Congress there?
Last time, the Patidar agitation was also there. The Congress got the benefit of those things. Even after that, and strong anti-incumbency going against the BJP, still, they could not win. If they could not win last time, they cannot win this time.
But the Congress may approach Gujarat differently. How will you approach the Gujarat elections?
It is very simple. We will stick to our basic agenda and we will approach it in the same way. It is just that the public and people, and people want change.
How important would be the choice of a mass leader as CM face in Gujarat?
It is important. If you throw up a face, everything surrounds that person. So, it is important. It helps.
What about the popularity of the Prime Minister? After all, Gujarat is his home state.
He is popular, but after all, he is the prime minister. The mandate (in an assembly election) is not for him as a chief minister. Elections cannot be held in his name. He is the prime minister. Elections will revolve around the chief minister.
And what about Himachal Pradesh?
Himachal is also bipolar politics. People in general are fed up with both the parties. There is space. We will fight elections rigorously, vigorously, intensely in Himachal. The Congress, as usual, will surrender, and they have surrendered. We will defeat the BJP as well, they are unpopular.
When you fight an election, who is your adversary? The incumbent government?
Whoever is there, seat by seat.
What about your current role? What about Chhattisgarh?
Whatever the party decides I will do. For now, the focus is Gujarat. In Chhattisgarh, Gopal ji and Sanjeev Jha ji are working. So, Chhattisgarh is also bipolar politics. So things will be very good in Chhattisgarh; very good chances in Chhattisgarh.
How do you see your role as a Rajya Sabha member and a politician in the country?
Well, I don’t know how I would prove myself as a politician. I am a very ordinary person. My mind works as a scientist, not as a politician. But I think I will do the basic task, job, assignment assigned to me honestly. Honesty and hard work are there. So I would be able to justify.