The makeshift tarpaulin tent outside Aulia Masjid in Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi is sealed. Vijay Baba, the 60-year-old rickshaw-puller who lives in this cramped, 6x6-feet space with his 14-year-old son, four rabbits and a couple of dogs is nowhere to be seen. The adjacent shack that goes by the name of Rama Meat Pullao, a popular joint that doles out Mughlai and tandoori fare, is packed with people. But Vijay Baba isn’t among them.
"He's there, waiting for you in that car," points out a helpful employee of Rama Meat. The car turns out to be a white Tata Safari which belongs to Rajeev Kumar, a gym owner and an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) worker who is sitting at the wheel.
Vijay Baba, with a Main hoon aam aadmi cap firmly placed on his head, is lounging in the backseat, clearly at ease in the SUV. His beard is scraggy, his clothes are old and hang loose on him, and muddy feet peep out of his rubber slippers. He looks just the way he did when Delhi's new chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, got him to inaugurate a hospital — the upgraded Palika Maternity Hospital on Lodhi Road on January 25.
That extraordinary moment had shot this man from the streets to fame overnight. The next day's newspapers were splattered with pictures of him cutting the ribbon in the presence of the chief minister and senior officials of the administration. TV channels rushed to interview him. The headlines read: 'Aam aadmi inaugurates hospital.' 'Rickshaw-puller inaugurates hospital as Kejriwal looks on.' The aam aadmi, everybody declared, had arrived.
Only, Vijay Baba isn't just any aam-aadmi that Kejriwal randomly picked from the street to inaugurate the hospital - an honour reserved for VIPs. He has been a die-hard Kejriwal supporter from Day One. He enjoys direct access to the chief minister who, he says, 'treats me like a father'.
Vijay Baba, who was born in Patna and raised as Vijay Kumar, came to Delhi 50 years ago when he was barely 10. "And in these 50 years, I lost everything - my house and my family," he says.
He used to operate a piao, a drinking water facility for the public in the area where he lived. A local goon, he says, demolished that facility. "My wife, who was mentally disturbed, went into shock, and four years ago, she disappeared." He says neither the police nor the court helped him. "There was corruption everywhere."
So, when he heard about the Anna Hazare movement, he jumped in, and later joined AAP as a worker, campaigning furiously on his rickshaw. The party also gave him a mobile phone from which he would make hundreds of calls to Delhiites asking them to vote for Kejriwal. AAP would foot the bill for those calls.
He continues to carry the mobile phone which now has AAP's helpline number and is paid for by the party. "At times I get emergency calls at midnight, from people facing trouble getting admission to the hospital," he says. "I help them out. Since I inaugurated the hospital, the doctors all know me. If needed, I call Health Minister Satyendra Jain."
Every few days, Vijay Baba, who greets people with a resounding Vande Mataram, visits the hospital he inaugurated to 'inspect' the facilities, interact with doctors and talk to patients. "Patients have complained that there is no proper arrangement for food," says Vijay Baba. "I will take the matter to Arvind."
These hospital visits are mostly made on his rickshaw-cart that carries the flag of India and AAP's banners along with his and Kejriwal's pictures. On certain days, "when I am getting late," he says he calls for the car. And Rajeev Kumar promptly obliges with his Tata Safari.
Visits to the Delhi Secretariat are also frequent. "About 20 people approach me every day with complaints," says Vijay Baba. His son digs into their tent and pulls out a file containing applications from street vendors and requests for voter ID cards. "I take these to the secretariat. Though I don't get to meet Arvind there much, the AAP team deployed there looks into these complaints," he says.
A sizeable part of his day is spent at the nearby Press Road with the "rehri-patriwalas (street vendors) who are harassed by both the municipal staff and the police," says Vijay Baba. "But when they see me there, they don't trouble these people. I would like to nail them in the act, but they are very cautious with me around."
So, does he want to contest an election? "No. If everybody started fighting elections, who would work at the grassroots?" he says. While he puts all his time and energy into popularising Kejriwal's cause, the party takes care of his need for food and clothing. "One of the party's supporters from Japan also sends Rs 4,000 for me every month," says Vijay Baba.
Cycle-rickshaws are banned from plying in Connaught Place. "But I can take mine anywhere," says Vijay Baba. "Nobody stops me."