The modest shirt stitched by a local tailor hangs on Arvind Kejriwal’s frail shoulders – he has lost 16 kg from the time of the first photograph that you may have noticed of him in early 2011. Meanwhile, he has gained 1.2 crore people on his SMS list and a spectacle. A wardrobe makeover is not on the cards though the activist has turned politician. “Except the cap,” he says. The cap has the slogan, ‘mein hoon aam aadmi’ – I am the common man. In Robert Vadra’s translation, mango man.
‘Mango man’ sounds affectionate, when compared to ‘guttersnipe,’ and ‘megalomaniac,’ terms that Salman Khurshid and Digivjaya Singh used to describe him.
Vadra tried humour against him and failed; those who tried logic have failed even more miserably. For, Kejriwal’s logic is his own. “I challenge the Congress and BJP to hand over all the corruption allegations against them to the committee that we have set up,” he says. One might wonder why, but there is no point asking. If the all the anarchists of India were to get together to elect their leader, Kejriwal would win hands down. If that sounds a contradiction in terms, Kejriwal is a bundle of them.
As Kerjiwal sat down to talk, one and a half hour behind schedule and profusely apologetic for it, half a dozen people were scrambling for his attention. Pradip Goel, an activist from Guwahati, wanted to invite Kejriwal to Assam; another activist wanted his presence at a land agitation – ‘the media will notice;’ and Sarasan, a Malayalee teacher in Agra just want a photograph with him. He gives his mobile number to everyone. “Otherwise people would feel bad,” he says. The phone is anyway diverted to his volunteer staff.
Since his fast for Jan Lokpal fizzled out in July, Kejriwal has been on the lookout for a comeback. In an environment saturated by scandals, it wasn’t easy to shock. Kejriwal thought more like an editor than investigator – that turned out to be the bad luck for Robert Vadra. Vadra’s land deals had been reported earlier in a laudatory tone, but Kejriwal turned it into a scandal. His allegations went live on three dozen channels; over the next ten days all dailies led with related stories.
“Naming Vadra was a deliberate move. We disturbed the ‘setting’ among political parties,” says Kejriwal. What Kerjiwal calls ‘setting’ is called ‘ethics’ by Digvijay Singh. “There are ethics in politics. Never attack family. We never attacked Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.” Kejriwal broke this cozy arrangement among politicians. The BJP and Congress are now attacking each other, following Kejriwal’s ‘exposés’ of Vadra and BJP president Nitin Gadkari. And he promises more.
In a country where there is no dearth of problems, Kejriwal is a man with all solutions. He has been likened to Hitler, but Kejriwal refutes this. “I am a complete democrat.” But he admits that the perception is the opposite. “Before he joined our party, Yogendra Yadav (political scientist), asked me. ‘Arvind, is it possible to work with you’.” “Anyone can differ with Arvind on his face. But yes he has greater influence than others,” says Yogendra Yadav.
Everyone can have his say, but it is Kejriwal who has his way. Far too many people could not stay too close to Kejriwal for too long. Anna Hazare himself parted ways. Kejriwal says he is attached to Anna and is “almost heartbroken” over the split. Justice Santosh Hegde, Medha Patkar, Swami Agnivesh, Rajendra Singh, Kiran Bedi – the list is long of those who parted ways with Kejriwal, who wants to persuade everyone but does not get persuaded by anyone.
India Against Corruption (IAC), Kejriwal’s banner, took shape at a meeting held in the basement of a church in Delhi’s Gole Market in November 2010. Kejriwal was part of the first ten who then roped in the mascot of the agitation, Anna Hazare. As the campaign caught on, activists from across the nation rallied around it — it now claims units in 400 districts. With Anna and Kejriwal parting ways, there is a dispute on who will keep the IAC banner.
The IAC secretariat has 10-15 paid employees and a clutch of volunteers such as Dilip Pandey, 32, an IT professional who left his job and now managing the SMS alerts. “It was a tough decision to leave my job. But I could not stop myself,” Pandey, who joined Kejriwal a year ago, says. A group constantly keeps a watch on the news environment and prepares responses; a legal department does the initial vetting of documents related to corruption. The final vetting of the documents is done by Kerjiwal himself and Prashant Bhushan. “For instance, there were more sensational allegations against Gadkari. But we went public with only that could withstand scrutiny,” Kejriwal says. Perusing papers, he did not sleep a wink the night before going public on Vadra. “As an IT officer I am trained to catch loopholes.”
Kejriwal is as much product of a cynical public mood as he is the creator of it. “My mission is to discredit and expose them all,” he says. The trigger-happy media have found a new ally in Kejriwal. “Nobody dared to raise it earlier. Now everyone has the convenience of shooting from Kejriwal’s shoulders,” says media critic Madhu Trehan, about the media overkill over Vadra allegations. “Our attempt is to make people fearless,” Kejriwal says. He’s not off the mark here. Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka’s actions are perhaps indicative of the times. “All historical figures are product of their circumstances though they partly shape the situation, too,” says Yadav. “Charisma of ordinariness works in extraordinary situations.”
It is early to bet on the political future of Kejriwal, but he has managed to paint as black, the political class in general. The electoral outcome of this may vary from region to region, but the maximum damage is to the Congress. Kejriwal’s theatrics are damaging the BJP too – he landed up at a BJP protest against power bill hikes and turned it into public trial of the BJP. In Delhi elections, he may split the anti-Congress votes and damage the BJP. But nobody – Kejriwal included - knows where he is headed. “We are taking up issues. Votes are only a byproduct in politics.”
Missing his movies
44-year old Kejriwal misses anonymity when he goes for a movie more than he misses movies. The last one, after a long break, was OMG last week. He is embarrassed when people throng him. Kejriwal manages to keep a semblance of a family man and is early to bed and early to rise. His wife Sunita is an IRS officer. His days start with one hour of walking and 45 minute of yoga. A vegetarian, he underwent a rigorous naturopathy regimen before undertaking his July fast. “I was told by doctors that I would not last 48 hours. But I stayed on for nine days,” he says. He has immense physical courage – he says the biggest threats came in 2004-5 when he campaigned against pilferage in public distribution system in Delhi. “Two of our workers narrowly survived brutal attacks.”
The constant agitation stressed him big time- in April, he lost sleep for 15 days and took sleeping pills. He overcame that through vipasana. These days, he’s giving sleepless nights to politicians.
Arvind Kejriwal’s closest aides
Manish Sisodia (40)
A former TV journalist, he is considered to be Kejriwal’s shadow, whom he met 13 years ago. Born and brought up in a village near Ghaziabad, Sisodia quit Zee News in 2005 to work full-time for Kejriwal’s NGO. He is credited with having quietly led the volunteers for a large mobilisation during Anna Hazare’s 12-day fast at Ramlila Grounds in August 2011. Sisodia has the responsibility of setting-up units of Kejriwal’s yet-to-be-named political party across the country. “I am with Arvind because I feel he has the courage to fight for common man, nothing can deter him from doing it,” Sisodia says. He has no regrets for having bid farewell to journalism.
Prashant Bhushan (56)
Well-known activist-lawyer is known to be the key player behind the decision to form a political party. Eldest son of former law minister Shanti Bhushan, Prashant dropped out from IIT Madras, then Princeton University to become a lawyer. He met Kejriwal in 2003 during the campaign for RTI. He and Kejriwal first discussed the idea of a political party on new year’s day this year following the lacklustre response to Hazare’s fast at Mumbai. “We have accepted the challenge thrown at us by the political establishment of the country who had asked us who we are,” he says.
Yogendra Yadav (49)
Noted social scientist and psephologist is the latest to join the team. Though Yadav regularly gave speeches whenever Anna Hazare fasted in the Capital, he was first spotted in a closed-door meeting with Kejriwal and his team after they announced their decision to form a political party on August 3. Yadav, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, convinced Kejriwal and Bhushan to take the political plunge with his argument all civil society movements were only partially successful because they do not pose a direct challenge to mainstream politics.
Sanjay Singh (40)
Social activist from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Sanjay Singh became an integral part of Anna’s team after volunteering to carry out a referendum for the Jan Lokpal Bill in Rae Bareli and Amethi, the constituencies of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul in July 2011. A qualified engineer, Singh used to his own social organisation, Azad Samaj Seva Samiti, before joining the anti-graft movement. During an indefinite fast by his colleagues in July, Singh gave the first indication that Team Kejriwal will not work with Baba Ramdev. He has been given the responsibility of building the proposed party’s organisational structure in UP.
Gopal Rai (37)
A student activist, who began his career with the ultra-Left All India Students Association in Lucknow University in 1992, Gopal Rai went on to form his own organisation. He has been a part of Anna Hazare’s Lokpal movement since its beginning. Rai was shot in the neck by suspected anti-social elements at Lucknow in 1999, still suffers from severe physical disability yet insisted on sitting on an indefinite fast with Kejriwal and Sisodia in July against medical advice. Known for his wit and humour within the team, he had urged Anna not to leave them orphaned when the veteran activist decided against supporting the move to form a political party. Rai’s parents wanted him to “become an IAS officer,” he says.
Kumar Vishwash (42)
A popular Hindi poet, is a childhood friend of Manish Sisodia — they grew up together in a village near Ghaziabad. Vishwas, who teaches Hindi in a Ghaziabad college, was associated with the Jan Lokpal movement since its beginning in March last year. His primary responsibility was to conduct stage proceedings during Team Anna’s public programmes and he made a mark with his sharp wit and humour on TV debates. Vishwas was initially not in favour of the movement taking a political turn and even made his reservations public on his Facebook page. Even on October 2, when Kejriwal announced the vision document for the party, Vishwas said he would not be a member of the party, but has been seen in every public action with Kejriwal and Sisodia since then.