Vijender Singh is tired and tanned.
The boxer has always been protective of his perfect, square jaw and conscious about his appearance in public. Shailendra Singh, Vijender’s manager at the peak of his career, spoke giddily about the obsession of his former client to ‘look good.’ His coaches joked that ‘Viju’ often held a high-guard position so that he could protect his face — it explains why Vijender has had few facial injuries, rare for a pugilist, barring the odd occasion when he’s had a few cuts and stitches.
In his 20-year long career, Vijender has always had the looks of someone who should’ve walked the ramp but somehow landed in a boxing ring. However, in just 10 days of his political career, his face looks weather-beaten. Hair scruffy, face unshaven. Heavy eyes, dark circles.
He sits for lunch, but orders a black coffee instead. It’s his second since morning – the first helped him complete seven hours of campaigning in 40-degree heat; the second, he hopes, will carry him through the remaining seven. “I’ll stop when the policemen will come and tell me; that’s around 10pm,” he says. On the day the Congress’ South Delhi candidate filed his nomination for the Lok Sabha polls, Vijender wasn’t sure what he was getting into. A little over a week before Delhi votes, he’s certain about one thing. “We can use all the boxing metaphors we want, but politics is a completely different beast,” he says.
Four hours of sleep, erratic meals, 14 hours of campaigning and covering 25-30km of his constituency on foot: Vijender’s day these days looks much different from what it was a couple of weeks ago. But as a greenhorn pitted against a career politician — sitting BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri — he knows there’s a lot of ground to cover. “I am travelling to places where I’ve never been to in my entire life,” he says. “I don’t want to be like other celebrity candidates… I want to be there with the people.”
Although he’s largely remained apolitical as an athlete, Vijender’s choice of political party isn’t entirely surprising.
At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Rahul Gandhi dropped by to watch his bouts and since then, they’ve made a few public appearances together. Vijender’s wife Archana’s father is believed to be an influential Congress activist from Muzaffarnagar.
The timing, though, is intriguing. On April 12, Vijender was scheduled to make his US pro boxing debut in Los Angeles on the Vasiliy Lomachenko-Anthony Crolla undercard. An injury while sparring forced him to postpone his bout. Then, 10 days later, he announced his entry into politics from a constituency for which wrestler Sushil Kumar — a Beijing Olympics bronze medallist like Vijender — was also in contention.
Vijender does not get into the details of his dramatic change of plans. He does admit that the turn of events took him by surprise as well. It’s not the end of his boxing career. Vijender’s manager says, regardless of the result, they will start planning his next professional bout after May 23, the day the election results will be announced.
But since entering the political battlefield, Vijender’s barely had any time to dwell on any of those matters. “One of the first things I did was to Google ‘South Delhi’,” he confesses. “I broadly knew the area but I wanted to understand my constituency better.”
At first, his agenda was vague. When his candidature was announced, Vijender had said his campaign would focus primarily on two ‘Es’: environment and education. In the week that has followed, his ideas have changed.
“I will contribute in every way I can but those are ultimately policy decisions that need to be taken by bigger ministers. My priority is to deal with local issues. For instance, people in Bijwasan want a sports stadium; in Sangam Vihar, there is a desperate need for water and better quality roads… people are not concerned about religion or caste. They want their basic needs fulfilled,” Vijender says.
This last bit, the tendency to give some insight, is a new facet. Vijender was never media shy, but reluctant to talk much.
“I’ll let my gloves do the talking,” was his go-to response to tricky questions. As an athlete, he could afford to stay away from public glare. Vijender the politician, though, knows how critical it is to speak out. “A day after my nomination, my personal number somehow entered the public domain. That day, I realised there’s nothing private about my life anymore,” he says. “But let me assure you, this life is beautiful.”