On the auspicious 25th evening of Ramadan, in August 2012, I followed Sibal to an Iftar dinner at Faiz Masjid in his Lok Sabha constituency, Chandni Chowk. Despite having won the seat in 2004 and 2009, Sibal still seemed like a fish out of water among the crowds, clearly a little uncomfortable. (“He is not a born politician, not a people’s person,” one of his aides told me. “He doesn’t like too many people around him.”)
There were a few police vans outside the mosque, but nothing to suggest a minister was nearby. Inside, the fragrance of chicken biryani and mutton qorma wafted through the air, and people sat at tables waiting to eat. The event had been organised by Shoaib Iqbal, a Delhi MLA and the area’s political strongman. There was a small crowd, and a few TV cameras. Sibal sat with two of his assistants, looking a bit like a sheepish bridegroom; he had a tiny skullcap perched awkwardly on his head. People came over to catch a glimpse of the minister saheb. When the biryani was served, he ate two spoonfuls and drank water from a plastic cup. A man standing next to me asked Sibal a question about what the government was going to do about the communal violence in Assam. Afterwards, I asked him how he felt about Sibal. “Woh to hygienic MP hain, (He is a hygienic MP),” he said with a smile. “Yahan zayada aate nahin, Paris mein zyada rehte hain (He doesn’t come here often, he stays in Paris).”
After about 30 minutes, Sibal left for the next venue: a secondary school 100 metres away, where yet another Iftar party had been organised by yet another local politician. Farid Ahmed, of the Delhi Minorities Welfare Foundation, called out the names of more than 20 people, who came up one by one and handed bouquets to Sibal. He looked more than a little bored. Then he made a short speech, in eloquent Hindi, laced with many Urdu words. “I love this place, and I wish I could come here more often,” he said. “I’m restless sitting at home because I want to come here.” When Sibal was done, a woman got on stage to speak, and said to Sibal, “Aap Purani Dilli ke Dilip Kumar hain (You are old Delhi’s Dilip Kumar).” He got up, beaming at the comparison to the yesteryear film star, and said, “I used to be a big fan of Dilip Kumar in those days. When I became a successful lawyer, I got to know him—he used to visit me in Delhi.” And then, with a big smile, “It always felt like I was meeting a brother when I met him. He is from Lahore, and I am also from Lahore.” After the party had ended, Farid Ahmed described Sibal to me as “the most secular leader”. “His father Hira Lal always fought cases for Muslims, and so does his son,” Ahmed said. “After he became HRD minister, he’s not been able to fulfil his duties as an MP. But he is busy with the country’s education.”
For Sibal, who knows that he will always be regarded as an “outsider” by the career politicians in the Congress, having twice won a Lok Sabha seat—especially in Delhi—gives him a modicum of political credibility he would otherwise lack. “He had always wanted to be in the Lok Sabha,” Amit Sibal told me. Sibal’s first victory in 2004, Amit said, “was an emotional moment, which had come after so much hard work. It was the culmination of his desire to be in active politics. Winning the Lok Sabha election was much more significant than becoming a minister—there are many ways to get to the ministry, but winning in the Lok Sabha is unique.” Sibal meets with visitors from his constituency at his home in Lutyens’ Delhi every week, aware that retaining the seat—which he won by a considerable margin even after the boundaries were enlarged in 2009—is critical to sustaining his political ambitions. “He has told me, ‘If I lose this, I lose everything,’” a reporter close to Sibal said.
It’s clear that Sibal wants to be more than the government’s TV lawyer—to make his mark and leave a legacy behind. Those achievements have so far mostly eluded him, but his ambition remains, restless and highly visible. As a friend of his family said succinctly, “Sibal is not half as successful as he wants to be.”
An extract from 'The Argumentative Indian,' published in The Caravan's November 2012 issue. Read the story in full here.
Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.