Harsh Solanki, a sanitation worker from Gandhinagar, Gujarat, got a “surprise” invitation from Aam Aadmi Party convenor Arvind Kejriwal Sunday, for lunch at his chief ministerial residence in Delhi. By Monday, the 20-year-old had had a taste of the full course: flight tickets, airport reception, a tour of AAP’s mohalla clinics and government schools, and to wrap it up, a photo-op with Kejriwal against a life-size B R Ambedkar portrait.
While the Congress dismissed it as political showmanship, and the BJP called it a gimmick, AAP clearly enjoyed the day, from Delhi to Gandhinagar – as did the overwhelmed Solankis.
Harsh, a contractual worker with the Gandinagar civic body, was accompanied by his mother Lata Ben and sister Solanki. For the family, it was their first time on a flight; for Lata Ben, who also works as a safai karamchari, her first time ever in Delhi.
It was at a meeting with sanitation workers in Ahmedabad Sunday that Harsh had got up to ask Kejriwal whether he would visit their home, like he had gone to an autorickshaw driver’s home in the city a few days ago. The CM replied that before elections, politicians had made a habit of visiting Dalit homes and eating. But, no one called them home, he said. And he would.
The Solankis landed in Delhi at around 10.20 am Monday. They were welcomed at the airport by AAP Rajya Sabha MP and Gujarat election co-incharge Raghav Chadha, who gave them a shawl as a token of respect.
In the around three hours between then and when the Solankis reached the CM house, the family was taken first to a government school and then a mohalla clinic in West Vinod Nagar. They were given a tour of the school by Principal Mary Jyotsna.
Harsh, who studied up to Class 10 before taking up the safai karamchari job to supplement the family income, said he came away “mesmerised” from the school. “I have never seen a government school in Gujarat with such facilities like a swimming pool… These should be created in Gujarat too so that children from poor families can get a good education.”
The family of five survives on the money earned by Harsh and his mother.
Sister Suhani said she had studied in a private school up to Class 12, and the Delhi government schools were better than even her school. “There is no comparison. Private schools charge huge fees and yet the facilities are not up to the mark and there is discrimination between girls and boys.”
Her education halted after she finished Class 12 two years ago, Suhani said she expects she will be married off soon.
Lata Ben said she admired the infrastructure and roads in Delhi. “The city is very clean, there is no garbage and potholes on the road. In Gujarat, the entire area becomes a swimming pool, even if it rains for 10 minutes.”
At the CM house, an emotional Harsh hugged Kejriwal, and presented him a portrait of Ambedkar. He called it “a very proud moment for us”. “I cannot believe I am standing here with Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal sir… It still feels like I’m daydreaming.”
Harsh repeated what Kejriwal said at Sunday’s meeting. “In the last 75 years (of India’s Independence), no leader has invited a Dalit boy to his home for lunch… He (Kejriwal) is the only and first leader in the country to do so and eat with us.”
Kejriwal said: “My family members and I were very happy to receive the Solankis. I am very thankful to them for coming so far from Gujarat.” The CM added that the next time he goes to Ahmedabad, he would visit Harsh’s house and meet the people of his community.
Lata Ben said she never thought she would see this day. “Harsh keeps attending these political meetings and comes home and (talks politics)… Last night, when he said we should pack our things and be ready by 6 am to meet Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, I did not believe him. I though he is joking like always and said, ‘Tu pagal ho gaya hai, jaa soja (You have lost it, go and sleep)’. Later, at midnight, he told me the tickets were booked. In the morning, as a car arrived to take us, as did the media, my blood pressure went low in shock and excitement.”
The lunch with Kejriwal has huge significance, she stressed. “Who calls a Dalit family to their house in today’s time? That too for lunch,” Lata Ben, who is posted in the Gujarat Sports Authority office and earns Rs 8,000 per month, said.
Asked if they were regular voters and would tell their neighbours about Delhi, Harsh said: “Yes. We got electricity a year ago after 15 years of request. In Delhi, people enjoy free electricity, education, health services… AAP is growing and people like it for its honesty.”
The 20-year-old also has a personal wish: that his safai karamchari job is regularised by the new government.
After visiting Kejriwal’s house, the family was to visit Indira Gandhi Hospital in Dwarka before flying back to Ahmedabad.
Congress leader Romesh Sabharwal posted a video of Raghav Chadha welcoming the family to Delhi, while tweeting, “Good fixing. We did this our whole life but we don’t give publicity to this culture.”
AAP leaders, however, insisted the CM’s invitation to Harsh was entirely on the spot. “Once he asked Solanki to come to Delhi, we made inquiries and booked the tickets,” a leader said.
A senior leader added: “Of course, it was all part of politics and optics, but the CM’s decision to call Solanki and his family home was completely spontaneous.”
With AAP increasingly putting Ambedkar at the centre of its politics, the leader said Kejriwal regularly visits the Valmiki temple in Delhi, which falls in his constituency. “For decades, people have used the Dalit community for their gains, but this is the first time a CM has accorded respect to a person from the community,” the leader said.
While even before his Ahmedabad visit to an auto driver’s home, Kejriwal had visited another such driver in Delhi, and others in Punjab, it is the first time he has invited a common man to his home for lunch.
Back in Gandhinagar, there was some confusion over Solanki’s exact residence. AAP Gujarat spokesperson Karan Barot claimed he was a resident of Shahibaug. But later, the party shared an itinerary of his visit to Delhi in which Gandhinagar was shown as his address.
A contact of a family acquaintance, shared by AAP, told The Indiana Express, “I do not get to meet him much, but I know he has been working as a sanitation worker on contract for the last three-four years.”
(With inputs from RASHI MISHRA, Ahmedabad)