Arvind Kejriwal became a populist for 800 million

The former tax official emerged as a big threat to India’s old political order

PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

In the world’s largest democracy, two major parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have dominated the political space for decades. But when 800 million Indians go to the polls in April and May, things will be different, largely because of one man—Arvind Kejriwal, a former mid-level civil servant turned activist and self-styled corruption fighter whose newly formed party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man’s Party, has built a constituency from among the marginalized.

India’s complex elections process will usher in the 16th Lok Sabha, or parliament, after a six-week voting period ending on May 12. Congress, the country’s ruling party, has been in power for 55 of the 64 years India has been a republic, largely due to the dynastic strength of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Today, the party is facing a leadership crisis. Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, is the party’s reluctant vice-president. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, is his boss, the party president. The two have very different styles, with the younger Gandhi wanting to democratize a party that has long relied on entrenched loyalty. Congress is also reeling from a string of corruption allegations in a wide-ranging series of cases involving large-scale government projects. Congress is expected to perform poorly. Its political rival, the centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had high hopes of forming a majority government.

Kejriwal has, however, given the BJP reason to worry. Although not likely to win a large number of seats—he’s expected to take at most 30 of the 543 seats—the AAP can impact the extent and scale of the BJP’s success, perhaps forcing it into unwanted coalitions among six national parties. Last week, for instance, Kejriwal was making waves in Gujarat, where the BJP’s candidate, Narendra Modi, is the state’s chief minister (the equivalent to a premier in Canada). Modi, who has run a successful PR campaign selling Gujarat as a model state, has suddenly found himself in Kejriwal’s crosshairs. Kejriwal has been showing evidence of Modi’s corrupt business partnerships, misuse of public money and of the state’s poor health and education indicators. “What this is doing for the first time is bringing Modi down to earth and showing him as just another corrupt, venal politician,” says Praful Bidwai, a journalist and political commentator based in New Delhi.

The AAP’s headquarters are a stone’s throw from Delhi’s central market, Connaught Circle. Their digs are not posh—a small yellowish bungalow (donated for the election period by a Delhi businessman) with a small media room, a conference space and a backyard where party meetings take place. A large poster is tacked onto one wall showing the black-haired, moustached and bespectacled Kejriwal in a blue shirt wet with perspiration, his face contorted in concentration. “For the country,” it reads.

“An ordinary citizen feels empowered at the time of elections, and powerless otherwise,” wrote political commentator Ashutosh Varshney in his Indian Express column last December. “On the whole, neither the politician nor the bureaucrat shows signs of routine accountability. This is the key problem the AAP wishes to address.”

Kejriwal hails from a small town in Haryana, the son of an engineer and a housewife. He studied at one of the India Institutes of Technology, the local MIT equivalent, and ended up working as a tax official. He eventually became disillusioned with his work and quit his plum government job to canvass for a more open political system. His major effort was a grassroots campaign to develop the public’s right to information. It resulted in the Right to Information Act, which gave citizens an instrument through which to demand information from government bodies.

Soon after, Kejriwal won national fame when he was seen as a chief architect behind the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement in New Delhi. A former army officer turned social activist, Hazare became the face of a large, national movement against corruption, which is seen as systemic across India’s complex class and caste system. In his signature white outfit and cap (known in India as the Gandhi cap) Hazare launched a hunger strike in a large New Delhi public ground in 2011, drawing crowds of middle- and lower-class people to rally with him and Kejriwal.

Though the two men parted ways—Hazare was loath to enter politics—Kejriwal succeeded in showing Indians that politics can be done differently. “Their strength is that they are clean, they are new, they are anti-establishment and anti-system and have a lot of credibility,” says Bidwai. Indeed, within days of launching the AAP in November 2012, some of the country’s best-known activists had signed up. The AAP team set its sights on the assembly elections for the national capital territory of Delhi.

Political pundits expected that the AAP would win hardly a seat or two in the Delhi elections. The party seemed disorganized, and Kejriwal had none of the political and business privilege that most Indian politicians enjoy. His support base consisted of the middle class and Delhi’s most marginalized communities: slum dwellers, contract workers and others ignored by the state. Yet in the run-up to the elections, almost every yellow and green auto-rickshaw carried posters bearing Kejriwal’s face and the party’s symbol, a broom, to sweep away corruption.

The AAP won 30 per cent of the city’s vote. Kejriwal ended up as the city’s chief minister (also somewhat akin to a provincial premier), ending the rule of the three-times-elected Congress chief minister. But he proved a far better provocateur than politician. He lasted only 49 days in office. During that time (seemingly forgetting that he was the one now in power), he launched a protest against the city’s police and spent a night sleeping on the pavement. When the Delhi Assembly voted against a bill to usher in a state ombudsperson—his party’s central demand—he quit. His unorthodox behaviour as chief minister likely lost him some followers but also added new ones.

Still, his party’s sudden rise has exposed some holes in its collective vision. “The AAPs weakness is that they don’t have an ideology,” says Bidwai. “They don’t have economic policies, they haven’t addressed communalism, or the danger of a fascist movement. They have very ad hoc policies.”

The party shrugs off criticism. It says it’s after serious systemic change: “Our aim in entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever,” the party’s website states. “So that no matter who comes to power in the future, the system is strong enough to withstand corruption at any level of governance.”

It is this mandate that has drawn many disgruntled citizens to stand alongside the 45-year-old activist and politician. The AAP has done what no party has dared to do: challenge the nexus between big business and political parties, and call out big-name players. One of the AAP’s central committee members, Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer, has taken several large-scale corruption cases against the ruling party to the Supreme Court. The list of corruption charges against the Congress party is long and diverse, including a Commonwealth Games scam, a major coal scandal, illegal mining and a telecom scam.

Frustration with corruption is why thousands have joined the AAP. “For nearly 7½ decades in my life, I’ve steered clear of politics, but I’ve always believed in honesty and integrity,” says Ramu Ramdas, former chief of the Indian navy, who became intrigued by Kejriwal in 2010 and ended up becoming the internal lokpal, or ombudsperson of the party. Ramdas had written numerous letters and campaigned on issues such as illegal mining and the displacement of people for development projects that benefited elite business groups. Then he met Kejriwal. “I was impressed by his sincerity and his effort, and the issues he had taken up also resonated with me.”

The AAP’s headquarters are filled with people who have travelled from across India to add their grievances to the long list of unheard woes. Basavaraj Veerapa, 43, came from Karnataka. “I’m working against corruption, against the political system, against child labour, against illegal construction. I sell tea door-to-door and do this in my free time.” Veerapa had hoped to get an AAP ticket to stand for elections in his area. He didn’t get it but was still sporting his Gandhi cap. “I’m not angry about it.” He pointed up at Kejriwal’s photo on the poster, and his eyes welled up. “I think of him as my God because someone is finally saying all the right things.”




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