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Arvind Kejriwal: a genial face hiding a shrewd political mind

The Delhi CM has been labelled autocratic, stubborn, even mentally unbalanced. But the picture that's emerging is of a shrewd street fighter determined to change the shape of public discourse.

india Updated: Jan 26, 2014 15:59 IST
Saikat Datta
Saikat Datta
Hindustan Times

On a cold January morning, Delhi's new Chief Minister wrapped a couple of mufflers around his head and coughed all the way down the stairs, his party workers running to keep up. A food basket prepared by his wife Sunita is an essential part of the severely diabetic Kejriwal's routine.

Today, he is preparing for his first public appearance at an Eid function. An army of hopefuls, petitions and visiting cards in hand, waits to see him outside the colony gate. As bewildered UP policemen try to gauge his next move, a frail Kejriwal speaks to his visitors.

It is clear that, as the Aam Aadmi Party attempts a transition from unexpected success to emerging as a credible alternative to traditional political parties, much will depend on Kejriwal's ability to create and nurture.

Will this man change India's politics? Or will he disappear as political stars have in the past? In faraway Assam, nearly 20 years ago, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta had emerged from the All Assam Student's Union (AASU) to capture the Ahom vote and become a Chief Minister.

But Mohanty unravelled quickly and disappeared into political oblivion. "They were an identity-driven party. We are not," Kejriwal points out.

As Kejriwal's Suzuki Wagon-R, donated by a party supporter, weaves through the streets of Delhi, the UP Police van is asked to stop following. At red lights, auto-rickshaw drivers and motorcyclists rush to shake the chief minister's hand while others roll down windows to take a picture, clearly surprised to see a non-VIP-VIP in their midst.

In the car, as an official briefs him, Kejriwal takes quick notes and discusses ways to deal with Delhi's water supply challenges before the merciless summer hits. A media entourage keeps tailing him, the cameras intruding into every moment. Life, as Kejriwal knew it, has changed forever. But he is familiar with change.

Formative Years

In 1980, when his father GR Kejriwal lost his job, the family was uprooted and taken back to their native village of Siwani in Haryana's Hissar district to cut costs. They would live there until a new job offer took them back to Hissar town a year later.

The young Arvind used his time to study with the single-minded aim of getting into IIT.

"Till I went to IIT, I didn't have a clue about the world. There, I heard people having conversations in English for the first time and I was shocked to learn that people in India had such conversations."

Surviving the first few weeks of intense ragging would perhaps help him learn conversational English, a language he had studied but rarely spoken at home. As he grappled with his engineering classes, Kejriwal would also learn about the wider world. But his journey into public life began later, during a study break from the Indian Revenue Service, when he began to work on drafting the Right To Information Bill.

The National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), a loose federation of individuals and organisations campaigning for transparency, had already begun work on making RTI a potent tool when Kejriwal was drafted in as a member of the working committee. That was where he met his mentor and eventual detractor, Aruna Roy, who had quit the Indian Administrative Service to work with marginalised communities in Rajasthan.

Others like Shekhar Singh, who taught public administration to future bureaucrats, Nikhil Dey, Anjali Bharadwaj and Abha Joshi, among others, worked together to draft the law. "I remember a time when Arvind was very unhappy because Aruna was pushing him to hold the RTI convention in 2003. He was upset at being pushed into it and kept insisting we weren't prepared," says a former colleague.

"Aruna was dictatorial and Arvind was equally obstinate and we could see a clash emerging. However, the convention went off very well and Arvind would soon set up Parivartan to spread RTI across the city."

Soon after the RTI Act was passed in 2005, Roy wrote a recommendation for Kejriwal's nomination for the Magsaysay award. "As soon as he won the award, he came into his own. He would stand up to Aruna and question her ways. As they fell out Arvind became more independent and concentrated on Parivartan," the former colleague remembers. It was the end of a brief but intense association. 'Arunaji taught me everything about democracy," he says now of his former mentor.

By this time, TV journalist, Manish Sisodia had already joined him and the first battle against an opaque bureaucracy had started between Kejriwal and Sheila Diskshit. The Congress CM was proposing the privatisation of Delhi's water supply. A relentless use of the RTI by Parivartan revealed dubious claims and a massive jump in costs.

Arvind the autocrat?

While the campaign headed towards success, Kejriwal's intolerance for contrary opinions created fissures within the movement. Abha Joshi, an advocate, who had worked hard on the RTI Bill, and Anjali Bharadwaj, would move out as Kejriwal consolidated his position.

For them, he had become a man intolerant of criticism and with little time for consensus-building. This would be a recurring criticism as Kejriwal hurtled towards a clash with the established order.

"I agree he is extremely stubborn. But every time we write him off, he bounces back. He is extremely lucky and that, I feel, may prove to be his undoing," says a long-term associate. While many credit Kisan Baburao 'Anna' Hazare for the 'success' of the 13-day agitation for a Lokpal Bill in 2011, few knew that it was Kejriwal who was driving the movement. While Hazare lay on stage, fasting, Kejriwal led the backroom strategy meetings.

"He would tell us what to do, who to speak to, who to tap for resources. Anna would just wave but it was Kejriwal who would formulate the positions that the movement was adopting," says a senior party colleague.

As the agitation began to gain critical mass, Kejriwal deftly navigated Hazare's name and face, which seemed to match his messianic belief in rooting out corruption from the prevailing public discourse.

Hazare, a former driver in the Army Service Corps, with his puritanical streak was the perfect choice. The 13-day fast, relentlessly covered by the media, brought lakhs of people to Delhi. Everyone was seeking a solution to their individual woes and hoped this unlikely duo would have the answers.

A few kilometres away, in Parliament angry legislators were taunting Kejriwal. Critiquing a man like Anna Hazare could be counter-productive so they tore into Kejriwal, taunting him to gain legitimacy through electoral politics because "laws are made in parliament, not Ramlila grounds."

Even as the Lokpal discussions between "Team Anna" and the UPA government marched towards inevitable failure, Kejriwal was readying himself for another change. While fasting for the dismissal of a series of union ministers facing corruption charges, he began to make up his mind.

"We had tried everything. From agitations to petitions but the system just wouldn't buckle. So we decided to look at politics as the final solution to tackle corruption," Kejriwal said during that drive to the Eid function. Once again, painted into a corner, he fought his way out.

Between that day and now, the man has been praised, pilloried, questioned, admired and eulogised. The inexperience in governance, the perils of political life and the burden of expectations could have crushed a lesser man. But that genial face hides a shrewd political mind and once he takes a position, he defends it stubbornly.

Raid alert

The midnight raid by cabinet colleague and party MLA Somnath Bharti on Africans in Delhi's Khirki Extension has been Kejriwal's biggest challenge so far. The incident has marked Bharti as someone who inadvertently supports the inherent racist biases of mainstream India. Some Africans living in the area could be part of prostitution and drug rackets, but they are also an easy and vulnerable target.

A situation that could have been sensitively handled was instead bludgeoned by self-righteous vigilantism. For a party that includes those embedded in the human rights movement like Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, this episode epitomises one of the many contradictions that Kejriwal has to negotiate in his politics every day.

"As the news spread, and hostile reactions began to pour in, Kejriwal decided that this was an opportune time to strike," says a party office bearer. "It wasn't planned and scenarios weren't worked out, but he was a street fighter and this was a battle fought best on the roads. He recognised that." Privately, Bharti told people that if he was wrong Kejriwal would have removed him at once. That is possibly true and is perhaps why the AAP continues to support its Law Minister till the judicial inquiry is over.

Kejriwal became a rare CM to be both the government and the agitator at the same time. The media, so far supportive, began to get combative. However, for the average person on the street, who bears the brunt of police insensitivity every day, this was a battle worth watching. Two days of a dharna in the biting cold and rain signalled the emergence of a new language in politics.

Standing up for Swaraj?

Key to AAP's actions is Kejriwal's understanding of self-rule or Swaraj that he has formulated over several years. Gathering experiences from as far away as Brazil and Bolivia and from neighbouring Nepal, he has scripted a form of governance that works on the devolution of financial power to local colonies.

"Once they are in a position to decide what to spend on and how to use resources, corruption will end while people get to responsibly decide what they want within their available resources," he says. But can this model work in matters of policing? What if majoritarian biases, as witnessed in the Khirki Extension-episode, force the police to violate the rights of the minority? These are questions Kejriwal is still mulling over as the AAP gears for the 2014 general elections.

"For over 25 years we have tried agitations. We have petitioned governments, moved the courts and fought on the streets, but always avoided politics" says Pune-based Shripad Dharmadhikari, an IITian and a veteran of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Dharmadhikari, who is no longer with the NBA, is a grudging admirer of Kejriwal and the AAP.

"So far, we had always followed the narrative that politics is all about money and lineage. Kejriwal has shown that both are no longer necessary. His ideology isn't well defined, but it is a language that is attempting to escape the framework of isms and to shape a new discourse," he says.

Now, as the first flush of success abates and the burden of governance grows heavier, it is clear that Kejriwal is back to painting himself into a corner, where he fights best.

Scenes from Kejriwal’s public life: From addressing rallies and wielding a mean jhadu to making an appearance with Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi and receiving the Magsaysay Award.

First Published: Jan 25, 2014 22:52 IST