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Kejriwal's party threatening political earthquake only a year after it was formed

india Updated: Nov 20, 2013 13:37 IST
Arvind Kejriwal

Arriving in a small and scruffy blue car, India's newest political star springs from the front seat, shirt untucked, and walks towards his supporters with the air of a low-key civil servant.

Which is just what Arvind Kejriwal was – until 2001, when he left his job as a tax official to embark on a career as an anti-corruption campaigner that would lead to national fame.

The bookish father-of-two turns up with no trailing security – a status symbol in the capital – and begins shaking hands at his first campaign stop in a dusty village on the far edge of the capital.

On December 4, the city of 16 million will elect a new state assembly, with Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party threatening a political earthquake only a year after it was formed.

For the next five hours, he stands in an open-topped jeep as it winds from the rural hinterland, through streets of open workshops, slums of sick and unschooled children, and culminates near Delhi University.

Along the way, he's garlanded with marigolds and gives brief fiery speeches at scheduled stops.

Read: The AAP effect on Indian democracy

"If all the youngsters get together, they can change the face of the country!" he says to cheers from a group of students, who are told that 50% of the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) candidates are under 30.

On the move, supporters dance to music calling politicians "blood-sucking devils" and "thieves". Many distribute the symbols of the party – the broom and the Gandhi cap.

The broom symbolises a clean sweep of the country's rotten politics; the white Gandhi cap connects Kejriwal to the father of the nation and an era "when we had a politics of honesty and a politics of public service," he said.

Using tactics popularised by US President Barack Obama, the party has raised 200 million rupees ($3.2 million) through small donations – with supporters' names listed on the website.

The government has since launched an investigation into whether it broke funding laws which ban donations from foreigners.

'Forced into politics'
As the winter sunshine starts to fade, he dismounts from the jeep and squeezes back into the same blue car to talk about his "revolution".

After leaving government service he campaigned to bring in India's Right to Information Act in 2005, which earned him "Asia's Nobel", the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

A few years later, he teamed up with a former army driver called Anna Hazare who launched repeated hunger strikes in 2010 demanding a new anti-corruption law.

Read: Anna seeks answers from Kejriwal over 'misuse' of name

Together they channelled anger about everyday corruption as well as graft scandals that have embroiled the national government.

Though their demands went unheeded and relations between the duo ultimately soured, their campaign panicked the government and propelled Kejriwal onto the national stage.

"We were forced into politics because there was an anti-corruption movement in the country and the government promised a strong anti-corruption law, but it went back on its word," he explains.

Support for his party fluctuates wildly, according to pollsters, from an impressive six to eight seats in the 70-member New Delhi assembly to an extraordinary 30 or more.

Analysis of Google searches shows him to be the fifth most-searched politician nation-wide.

As passers-by take photos of him, he says the inroads are down to two things.

"One, corruption became so much that it became intolerable for the people," he said. "Secondly, every time someone would defeat someone (in elections) rather than vote in someone's favour. This time they have an honest option."

With popularity comes enmity
The 44-year-old has made many enemies in the ruling Congress party, dominated by the Gandhi political dynasty and run in Delhi by chief minister Sheila Dikshit.

Read: AAP claims BJP, Cong afraid of its progress

Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra handed Kejriwal his most memorable nickname in an outburst earlier this year, in which he branded AAP "mango people in a banana republic".

"Aam Aadmi" can also mean "mango people" in Hindi.

Dikshit, 75, India's longest serving chief minister, has often appeared to struggle to respond to the often highly personal attacks.

"He is not even on our radar," she told Open magazine dismissively this month. "We must first know what he stands for."

But Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, views Kejriwal's movement as something "radically fresh" in Indian politics.

Though he questioned its economic policies, writing in The Indian Express last month he praised their simple focus on improving administration and tackling corruption.

"The potential demonstration effect that AAP's success may have on politics in other cities is not negligible. While politics is often local, successful examples are empowering," he wrote.

Kejriwal says his first priority is fixing the capital – "living in Delhi is so miserable today" – but he clearly has larger ambitions only nine months from national elections.

"Obviously we would like to get rid of corruption for the whole country but when and how? These are difficult questions," he says.

He also accepts that internal checks to weed out corrupt AAP candidates are not perfect, but "we are constantly struggling to have proper systems in our party and internal accountability."

Solutions include an internal ombudsman, background checks on candidates to exclude those facing criminal cases, and a pledge that must be signed by them promising to be clean and transparent.

"If corruption can be fixed, then we will start having good roads, good electricity, good education, good health," he says as he responds to criticism that he is a single-issue leader.

"I don't think the problems of this country are such that you don't have solutions or that it's rocket science to solve these problems."

Read: AAP nears target of Rs 20 crore, stops appeals for donation