The Congress developed a strong dislike for Arvind Kejriwal at the very beginning of the lokpal bill agitation about 16 months back, and they openly called him an RSS agent. The BJP opposition however tried to keep him in good humour till almost last month, but his announcement that Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement would now provide a “secular political alternative” has led the saffron party to also treat him like a stranger.
The Congress always suspected that Kejriwal polluted Hazare’s mind against the party with big dreams for a role at the national level. The BJP, which backed the movement initially, now feels aggrieved since the apparent anti-government sentiment growing in urban areas, which would have worked to its benefit, might be split between it and the yet-to-be-named new political party.
With Hazare having made it clear he would not join the new party, but would be the guiding force, the onus is now on Kejriwal to play a major role; possibly as leader. The short height and frail body of the 44 year-old Income Tax officer turned social activist, and now neta, almost presents a deceptive picture about the man, who appears to have taken the biggest risk of his life with a political plunge. Still recovering from the nine-day fast at Jantar Mantar — against medical advice since he is diabetic — Kejriwal, a vegetarian teetolar, is not yet willing to reveal much about the proposed party.
A mechanical engineer from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, he took an unlikely turn towards the Income Tax (IT) department after clearing the civil services exam in 1995, only to finally quit the job 11 years later. He bid goodbye to the post of assistant commissioner after he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award for his contribution to the Right to Information (RTI) campaign. He formed an NGO, Parivartan, and till end-September 2010, worked on spreading awareness about RTI, while keeping a low profile.
Those who know Kejriwal say he is a man with clarity of thought. His former colleagues at the IT department say it was clear he would not remain in a government job. “He would lament about red tapism which to him was one of the reasons behind public frustration,” said an officer who worked with him.
Kejriwal, who had been working with activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former police officer Kiran Bedi, sensed an opportunity to build a major anti-graft movement when the government first hinted about its preparation of a draft bill to set-up a lokpal towards the end of 2010. Nobody took notice when Kejriwal contacted veteran activist Anna Hazare to lead, but he was convinced that he had made the right choice. “Anna ji wrote numerous letters to the PM and Sonia Gandhi between November 2010 and March 2011, but there was no response. It was only after he announced that he will sit on an indefinite fast, that the government woke up,” says Kejriwal.
Top UPA ministers who interacted with Team Anna for months last year, found Kejriwal argumentative and inflexible. “Even in the joint drafting committee meetings for the lokpal bill... Kejriwal persisted with his view and was at times, unreasonable,” said a minister who was part of the deliberations. He rubbed many people, including civil society, the wrong way but did not regret any of his moves.
Kejriwal plainly requested Baba Ramdev to ask RSS leader Ram Madhav to leave the stage during Hazare’s first fast at Jantar Mantar last April. Ramdev did not oblige and the rest is history. Some colleagues were ready for Ramdev to share the stage when Hazare fasted at Ramlila Ground in August 2011, but Kejriwal insisted that the yoga guru speak from a step below like other speakers.
He even turned down spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s offer to take the team to top opposition leaders when Hazare’s health was worsening and talks with the government were failing. Kejriwal told him that more than the opposition, they needed to convince the government. Colleagues who quit the team, particularly after the decision to campaign against Congress in the Hisar Lok Sabha byelection last October, accused Kejriwal of being “intolerant and dictatorial.” Water conservation activist Rajinder Singh and Gandhian PV Rajagopal, both of whom left after the Hisar controversy not wanting to be part of a political move, blamed Kejriwal for targeting Congress.
He, however, defended his decision, and colleagues say the ability to convince through forceful arguments is one of Kejriwal’s biggest strengths. When the team was demoralised after the failed Mumbai protest in December, Kejriwal said it was time for something new. Other members were looking for excuses. But he just said the “movement was at crossroads and required a new direction.”
Though considered aggressive, Kejriwal called a meeting of all those sympathetic to the anti-graft movement, including journalists and government officers, and heard everybody patiently on what went wrong at Mumbai.
It was in this informal gathering where Kejriwal first floated the idea of a political alternative to his comrade-in-arms Prashant Bhushan, who initially appeared to be only partially convinced. Others present were divided on the issue and some cautioned against the peril of entering a dirty world, but Kejriwal was convinced that the political class would not agree to any of their demands and a new experiment was the only way out. He is also seen as somebody who does not accept criticism easily. “If he has made up his mind on an issue, you can’t make him change it, whatever be the consequences,” said an IAC volunteer.
Those who have worked with him say that this quick decision making and frank expression of views endeared him to a large number of youngsters who joined India Against Corruption and volunteered during Hazare’s fasts.
The last year and a half has been the most eventful period in Kejriwal’s life. He has had moments of glory. He has courted controversy, both by his remarks and allegations that he owed over Rs 9 lakh in dues to the government. All that is over. The big question is — will he pass the political test? The answer is awaited.