When the American magazine Fortune put together this year’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders, it included Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and our neighbour Tshering Tobgay in Bhutan.
Only one Indian politician made the cut: Arvind Kejriwal.
Kejriwal was credited with an anti-pollution drive in Delhi that meant “citizens could breathe deep”. For those who live in the capital, it was apparent the odd-even scheme had done little to clean the air, even if it unclogged the roads.
But the recognition was a mark of Kejriwal’s reputation – the idea he is a dynamic leader who does things differently, a common man who displaced the political establishment.
After some prevarication, the chief minister of Delhi has moved with his wife Sunita, an Indian Revenue Service officer, and their daughter and son into a spacious bungalow in Civil Lines. Outside, gardeners tend dahlias, pink petunias, a little lemon tree, banded palm trees, a line of money plants in terracotta pots. The residence has its own badminton court.
Arvind Kejriwal sits tucked up on a small sofa wearing dark blue trousers and a light blue shirt; the weather is too warm for a muffler. Although he lacks the manner of a politician, his entourage, most of whom date to his days as an insurgent campaigner, are protective and reverential in his presence. He massages his bare feet while we speak.
So how does it feel to be governing rather than protesting? “There has been no difference in lifestyle, apart from the responsibility. Relationships remain the same. My children get no special favours.”
Does he like badminton? “I haven’t used the court. Every day we might have 400 or 500 people coming, and I need the space on the lawn. In the morning I walk on a treadmill for one hour because I’m heavily diabetic. I’m quite indisciplined. Earlier I went outside, but it became impossible because people would ask for a selfie.”
His health is a concern. He is experimenting with a radical diet of raw fruits and vegetables, which has been known to reverse Type 2 diabetes. “I’m allergic to pollution. Every year in the winter I have a cough. It’s stress-related.”
Kejriwal’s childhood was not unusual, apart from a year when his engineer father lost his job and they had to return to his village. He was a bright boy in a middle-class family who grew up in Haryana and later in UP, and passed exams steadily.
“At my schools, although they were English-medium, even in class the teacher was speaking in Hindi. You would mug up and reproduce things in English.” His first shock was when he went to IIT Kharagpur. “I thought it was a completely different planet. I couldn’t even imagine that in India people spoke in English like that. The ragging period was very difficult. It went on for 15 or 20 days.” What happened to him? “There are some things that cannot be said. I had a lot of inferiority complex.”
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Rajeev Sharaf shared a room with the 18-year-old Kejriwal. “We were both from a small town. He was a quiet, shy kid. Not talkative. The secret of Arvind is that he micromanages each and every thing, and doesn’t lose energy.”
Today, Sharaf owns an IT company and helps to fundraise for AAP. “There was not much around campus,” he says, “and girls were few and rare. Arvind went several times and watched Tezaab with Madhuri Dixit. He was into playing video games in the computer lab. Tetris and Pac-Man in DOS, eating up all the things! He did acting, but he was not into politics. His transformation was maybe at the time of Mother Teresa.”
When I ask Kejriwal to describe this moment, he is hesitant. In 1991, he was working with Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, and taking civil service exams. He was in line for a R50,000 bonus at the end of the year. But something was wrong.
Watch Arvind Kejriwal taking oath as Delhi CM
“I had read Navin Chawla’s biography of Mother Teresa. I knew what she had done for humanity, how she worked for the poorest of the poor. I went to the management and said, ‘Shift me to the social welfare department. I’m not interested in electrical engineering.’ But they said no.” Inspired by the Albanian missionary, the young man quit his job and took a train to Calcutta. “I went to Kalighat Ashram and queued at the mother’s house in the morning. My turn came. I said: ‘Mother, I want to work with you.’”
For the next decade-and-a-half, Kejriwal alternated between working in the system as an IRS officer and campaigning against it as an activist. His early days among the devout gave way to a more engaged activism when he started Parivartan with Manish Sisodia, which used RTI and PILs to assert citizens’ rights. “One day I was sitting outside an electricity office in Laxmi Nagar giving out pamphlets which said ‘don’t pay a bribe inside, we can do the same work for you.’ A guy from Tata Steel saw me and felt a lot of pity and said, ‘I’ll talk to Tata management and see if they might give you a job.’” He laughs.
Although he is chief minister of Delhi, Kejriwal does not wear the crown easily. “My phone has been tapped for the last 4-5 years. All the agencies are there since the Anna movement. The Congress did it, the BJP do it. The central government is trying to destroy us, to make sure the Delhi government doesn’t do well and improve [AAP’s] chances in other states. My deputy secretary and immediate staff are called by the CBI every other day for questioning. We asked a PSU to do work with us on recruitment, and the CBI told them to cancel the contract.” The reference to ‘other states’ is the crux on which Kejriwal’s future rests: if the Aam Aadmi Party wins Punjab’s assembly elections next year, it becomes a major player across north India.
What is the root of his dispute with the centre? “Between a CM and the PM, once elections and politics are over, we should have cordial relations. It’s not a good situation. I said personally to the PM: ‘Sir, it appears you are angry with me. I will improve myself. I will make Delhi spick and span in two years without any extra funds. All I want is for you to allow me to take decisions.’”
Narendra Modi did not take the bait. Sources close to Kejriwal say the prime minister looks through him when they meet at official events. He can show political naivety when interacting with other leaders. On stage at Nitish Kumar’s swearing-in as chief minister, he was surprised to be forcibly hugged by Lalu Yadav, a man he had previously called corrupt. In the words of his colleague Ashutosh: “We didn’t expect that mischief.”
More than most politicians, Arvind Kejriwal offers different versions of himself in different situations. In private, he is preternaturally calm. Among his party workers in Delhi, drawn from the Hindi-speaking lower-middle class, he is relaxed and unceremonious, the cynosure of an admiration that amounts almost to a cult. In the less familiar setting of the campaign trail, he can sound like a self-appointed messiah.
I was struck during the 2014 general election, listening him to speak at a fund-raising dinner in a ballroom in Bangalore, by his tone of doom and his willingness to offer random allegations of impropriety against opponents with clean reputations.
He has parted company with many colleagues on his long journey from the Anna movement to high office, and those who were left behind say he does not tolerate dissent. “The promise of revolution has been reduced to populism and business as usual,” says Yogendra Yadav. “Shouting and accusing is no way to govern.”
Kejriwal is both a public firebrand and a thoughtful tactician. His movement remains a volunteer revolution, and just because he and his entourage are paranoid doesn’t mean the old establishment isn’t out to get him. He is elusive. When I ask about his wearing chappals to a state dinner in Rashtrapati Bhavan (which led to an irate voter sending him a draft of R364 for a pair of shoes), and the cloning of his sartorial style by his followers, he answers: “This is because we are with the aam aadmi. My appearance shows I’m not conscious of my appearance.” It is rarely so simple.
Watch a video of Kejriwal with Anna Hazare
Q and A with Arvind Kejriwal. ‘I admire Nitish and Mamata,’ he says
What keeps you awake at night?
I don’t stay awake at night. I am asleep.
Do you believe in God?
There is only one God.
What is your weakness?
I am impatient.
When were you happiest?
I’m happy when I’m doing Vipassana.
What music do you listen to?
Old Hindi film songs.
What books are you reading?
Lee Kuan Yew’s book on Singapore, about how he made Singapore successful.
If you weren’t a politician, what would you do?
I would do spirituality.
What one law would you change in India?
The Code of Criminal Procedure.
Which other politician do you admire as a professional?
I admire Mamata and Nitish – Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar.
Which non-Indian do you admire?
What will you do when you retire?
I will do spirituality. Just spirituality, not from any particular religion.
What is your first memory?
It was when I was at the Sonipat school in Haryana as a child, and my father was taking me to school on his cycle. I would have been in the second or third class. My mother was usually the person who used to teach me every single subject, almost up to the 10th class, and my father was not so much day to day. I had huge pressure to come first in class, and I did.
Do you prefer odd or even numbers?
I like both! Look, I’m open to new ideas given by outsiders. For example using a vacuum cleaner instead of a jhadoo, so as to make the streets less dusty.