For many people who have vested interests, Arvind Kejriwal is
the most dangerous man in India today. For those who admire him, he can be
called the most courageous man. He fought battles that seemed impossible to
win; he lost some, and then won so handsomely that he made a little slice of
contemporary history in India. The magnificent win in Delhi places him on the
trajectory to becoming one of the most significant leaders in recent times, one
who has captured the imagination of the Indian people.
I met Arvind Kejriwal for the first time in the midst of the Anna movement for an interview. The interview took place in an office of one of his NGOs in Ghaziabad; by his side was Manish Sisodia. At that time, many charges were being flung at Kejriwal, both by the Congress and other activists who saw him as a usurper of their platform. He was accused of being an RSS agent and an agent of the Ford Foundation—basically a man who was a front for other forces. Within the established left-liberal intellectual elite of Delhi, there was great unease over this personality who was suddenly getting national attention. Nobody really knew how the energy of the movement would be channelised.
I asked Kejriwal about his ideological inclination. He replied, “Let me speak about the people in the leadership as I cannot speak for all the people who have participated. There cannot be anyone in the leadership who has a communal background. Our core team consists of 25 people and most of them are left-of-centre. I hope that answers your question.”
I persisted and mentioned that people saw the movement as an RSS plot. He replied, “I’m aware of that. Someone from another activist’s organisation has written an article that my father is an RSS office-bearer and close to Advaniji. What nonsense is this! The VHP and RSS have also been making claims about feeding thousands of people and mobilising their cadre. Please be clear. We have no space for any communal force, although some may be trying to take advantage of the movement and that does concern us.”
The next stage in Arvind Kejriwal’s journey would be to create the AAP, which was formed in November 2012.
How did Kejriwal plan and conceive a mass movement like the anti-corruption movement?
I got nuggets for this from Ram Kumar Jha, who handled logistics for the 2015 Delhi campaign. He is 29 years old now, but has a history that goes back some years with Kejriwal, the RTI activist, with whom he started working in 2009, when he was fresh out of college.
By that time he had gone on leave from the Income Tax department and in 2000, along with Manish Sisodia and a few others, founded a movement called Parivartan in east Delhi that ran on donations and was described as a jan andolan that addressed grievances linked to the public distribution system,electricity, water and social welfare schemes.
If we examine Kejriwal’s history as an activist and then see the positions he has taken when he became a politician, the evolution of his thinking becomes clear. So if the leader of AAP, now Delhi’s chief minister, believes that he can meet the extraordinary promises made about water, electricity and public schemes, it is because Kejriwal, the activist, worked on all these issues. He understands the processes involved, how money is siphoned off, and how systems meant to deliver do not. It remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to bring about genuine transformation (and there are some experts who rubbish the AAP approach), but what is clear is that Kejriwal believes he can.
In 2001, when the Delhi government enacted a state-level RTI Act, it gave a big opening to Parivartan, which used the new law to analyse how money allocated to various schemes in public works was being squandered. They conducted audits and acquired documents about public works and helped people get what was due to them. They organized public hearings and exposed many scams in Delhi.
By 2006, Kejriwal had made a mark as an RTI activist and was given the Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership. The $50,000 award money was used to set up the Public Cause Research Foundation and Parivartan employees were now paid from this fund.
Ram Kumar Jha was in his early 20s then, and it is at this stage that he started to work with Kejriwal as a volunteer out of their offices in Kaushambi, Ghaziabad. Despite being only 29, Jha is quite a veteran compared to some of the other youngsters and he had a small tale to narrate: “Arvind used to get up at 4 a.m., and with Manish, Baibhav (now the CM’s personal assistant) and some other volunteers like me would go out and paste posters before any agitation. I remember Arvind climbing a tree to put up a banner and persuading autorickshaw drivers to carry our posters. He would oversee everything himself, from the text of the posters to where to place them. That kind of energy is what inspired people to go along with him.”
By 2010, the Commonwealth Games (CWG) scam had unfolded, and Kejriwal was racking his brains for an innovative way to protest against it. He had used RTI, public hearings, fasts and satyagraha for this purpose, and though he had got some attention, he knew the scope was limited. He needed a big idea that would work.
In his book Swaraj, Kejriwal writes about the CWG scam: “In Delhi, in the name of the CWG, the government blew up ₹70,000 crore. Perfectly fine roads were demolished and redone. At the same time MCD sweepers did not receive their salaries for three months.” He began to think of an all-India plan to bring together a group of individuals who would highlight the need to clean the system. He established contact with Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar among others. Kiran Bedi and Prashant Bhushan were already trustees of the foundation that Kejriwal had set up after winning the Magsaysay Award. The yoga guru was to play an important role in setting up the momentum as he could quickly mobilise thousands of his followers...
The first public meeting of what would evolve into the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement took place in November 2010 and was organized mostly by Ramdev’s followers. After the meeting was over, Kejriwal was among those who went to the Parliament Street police station to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) against those responsible for the CWG scam.
The IAC group started to meet every day at 6 p.m. in central Delhi at an NGO run by one Father Sebastian. Kejriwal began to work on his early drafts of the Jan Lokpal bill. Jha said, “In early 2011, IAC was struggling to plan a big protest. We were all wondering.” Then it was remembered that a Gandhian named Anna Hazare had
come to one of the IAC meetings in December. He had also led protests on RTI. Kejriwal went to his village in Maharashtra and invited him to lead the protest. Anna agreed. The date was first set for April 2, 2011 then shifted to April 5, 2011 because the Cricket World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka was on April 2, 2011.India won, and three days later the fast and protests began.
Jha recalled, “Arvind oversaw everything, from drafting pamphlets to setting the stage. All of us at Parivartan were told to spread out across Delhi to spread the word. We would go by bus to parts of Delhi, try to collect donations, put up posters and return. Anna arrived the day before the protest. Only two faces were put in the early posters–Anna and Kiran Bedi.”
A year after the Anna movement started, towards the end of July 2012, Arvind Kejriwal, Manish Sisodia and Gopal Rai (now a minister in the Delhi government) sat on a fast again to press their demand for a Jan Lokpal bill. Anna Hazare was back in his village in Maharashtra. Their fast went on for several days, but this time the crowds were not so big. After three rounds of the Anna movement, it appeared that interest in the fasting activists was waning. The government, meanwhile, had not conceded on the kind of anti-corruption law demanded. It was after this round of protest that Kejriwal reportedly concluded they would have to join politics to change the system from within.
Two streams emerged at that point from the Anna movement: those who did not wish to join politics, such as Anna Hazare himself and Kiran Bedi (though she would later grab an opportunity to join the BJP), and those who did. In November 2012, the Aam Aadmi Party was formed. Just a year into its creation, the party would take on the biggest corporate house in India, run an agitation against power distribution companies, and face a media blackout. Right through it all its members were running a campaign in Delhi, often under the radar of the media that did not really give them much of a chance at politics. All the techniques that would later be fine-tuned for the 2015 battle were being tried out. A funding model was set up through transparent donations. Activists spread out across the city and transformed into political workers.
On December 8, 2013, the AAP sprung a big surprise when it got 28 seats in Delhi’s 70-member Assembly. Kejriwal himself was decribed as a “giant killer” by TV channels as he had defeated three-term Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit.
It was a significant moment in India’s electoral history. The AAP had made it possible for ordinary citizens to break through into politics. Kejriwal had evolved from being just an activist to a politician.
Manish Sisodia, who gave up a comfortable job in a TV channel to join Kejriwal’s work as an activist, has this to say about his friend and leader: “The great thing about Arvind is not that he is honest, committed and courageous … what makes him so special is that he genuinely loves people and being around them.”
On December 28, 2013, I took a metro ride with a friend to attend Kejriwal’s first swearing-in as Delhi’s chief minister. That day, Kejriwal made a ceremony that is usually dull into one full of political symbolism. He made a speech and then sang a song about universal brotherhood; the song was “Insaan ka insaan se ho bhaichara”, from the 1959 film Paigham.
Kejriwal singing that particular song has significance because at that time one of the most persistent and valid critiques of the AAP was that it did not have a larger idea of India beyond the narrow good-versus-evil idea of fighting corruption. AAP had not taken a strong stand against communalism or Narendra Modi.
A Muslim family I met that day at Ramlila Maidan told me that the song had been enough for them. The people who claim to be fighting communalism, they said, were the ones who “keep us frightened”. Why should everyone talk about Modi when there are other issues as well. Arvindbhai “must have chosen” that song because it was the day after Modi gave “false testimony” expressing remorse for the 2002 riots in Gujarat.
When the swearing-in was over, I had to walk a few
kilometres to find an autorickshaw as there was a near-stampede at the metro
station. Finally, I came across an empty one. The driver, Mohammad Insaaf,
lived in Madanpura slum across the Yamuna. He was full of hope about the AAP.
As he saw it,
communalism was less of a problem than the fact that at every step of his life he had to pay bribes to the traffic police and the transport authorities. “These thieves are our killers, madam, if I can punish one of the people who have harassed me for so long, I will be a
or the first time in decades political pundits in Delhi were being compelled to take note of local politics as opposed to pontificating on the nation. From the very beginning it was clear that Kejriwal intended to be different from the usual member of the political class that had ruled this rambunctious democracy for 66 years. As 2014 began, he stunned the city with the speed of his decisions. An audit of private power companies was announced, which only added to the sense of foreboding the traditional business class had against a party that had made fighting corruption its central theme.
It was clear that Kejriwal was talented and courageous. But he was also rash and tempestuous. This first stint was highly controversial and full of dramatic announcements and events.
After getting 28 seats but failing to get a majority, the AAP insisted it would organize mohalla sabhas (public hearings) to ask the people if they should take the support of the Congress to form a government. Then, after forming the government and the very successful swearing-in, there was a chaotic Janata Durbar on January 11 from which the chief minister had to walk away due to the massive crowd.
The AAP made a lot of announcements in its short stint, most crucially in the sectors of power and water, but several controversies racked its time in power, making it seem increasingly like a tamasha, a spectacle. On January 16, visuals emerged of night raids conducted by AAP minister Somnath Bharti in Khirki village in Malviya Nagar. The footage suggested that Bharti had misbehaved with African women and had perhaps demonstrated a racist attitude.
Kejriwal defended his minister and Bharti came up with a counter explanation. Still, the Delhi Police registered a criminal case against Bharti and supporters for allegedly misbehaving with the women.
A few days later, Kejriwal sat on a dharna at Rail Bhavan against the Centre and Delhi Police. The protest went on for some days, disrupting life in central Delhi, and Kejriwal was accused of having no respect for the Republic Day parade for which preparations were underway. During that time, Kejriwal famously spent a night on a pavement even as he was labelled an “anarchist” by sections of the media and the opposition.
That sort of definition certainly sticks when you attack an individual like Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man whose Reliance Industries has been perceived to have benefitted from lobbying with the political class to get favourable policies. After the Bharti episode was over, the AAP kicked up another mini-storm when on February 11 it directed Delhi’s anti-corruption branch to file an FIR against Mukesh Ambani and former Union Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily among a few others. The charge: conspiracy to double gas prices in order to benefit, among others, Reliance Industries. Kejriwal had positioned himself as the common man taking on the richest man in India.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan was crucial to preparing the brief against the Ambanis. At that time he told me, “The gas scam is not one scam but a series of scams. We know that both the Congress and the BJP are beholden to the Ambanis and on this issue both parties would have a similar attitude.” He also said on February 12, 2014 that it was a matter of speculation how long the system would let Kejriwal survive.
In the battle against crony capitalism, Kejriwal was actually taking on people who owned half the media or had considerable influence over it. These were conglomerates that some said were the most powerful in determining policy in sectors where they had business interests. Although the first AAP government lasted only 49 days in Delhi, they left a legacy no one could ignore. For instance, after the Narendra Modi government came to power at the centre, they took some pains to appear as if they were not doing the bidding of Mukesh Ambani in the manner in which the Congress did. When Mukesh Ambani was sighted at Narendra Modi’s swearing-in on a hot summer day, everyone presumed the Modi regime would be as Reliance-positive as previous governments. But subsequently the BJP did change the formulation of gas pricing. Whether or not they would actually challenge the Reliance model of business is debatable, but Modi gave the impression that his government could if necessary stand up to the Ambani might.
With the AAP carrying on its incantation about crony capitalism, it was just a matter of time before they asked questions about Gautam Adani being the favoured businessman of the Modi regime. Even as Kejriwal walked out of power after 49 eventful days, he continued with the chant that all the AAP workers would persist with: Ambani, Adani, Ambani, Adani…
Here, I must digress to tell a tale of how I came to internalise the belief that Kejriwal’s commitment to the poor was genuine. It is the story of a night of reporting about Delhi’s homeless during AAP’s first term. It was bitterly cold that night in January 2014 when Kejriwal slept on a pavement in a controversial act of protest. The next night, I set out to chronicle the life of those without homes in the city where every year many die of the cold.
It had rained and the night was damp and windy, a light fog covering the city. Clad in heavy layers, I travelled with activist Indu Prakash Singh who had worked with the homeless since 1999.That year, he said, 17 homeless people he personally knew had died in Delhi between January 1 and 22, but the total figure could be upwards of 100. He explained that the Crime Records Bureau figures for the same period showed 394 unidentified bodies—many of them people who died quietly in some corner, homeless, with no one to ask after them. With activists pursuing the cause of the thousands without a roof over their heads in the national capital, about 11,000 Delhi residents got voter ID cards in 2012 with their addresses listed as “homeless”.
Singh told me why he was hopeful of the AAP having a different attitude to the homeless of the metropolis. On December 29, 2013, the day after Kejriwal was sworn in, Singh had received a call from Manish Sisodia ... Sisodia had said that something had to be done for the homeless before the cold got worse. On January 1, 2014, Kejriwal himself called Singh. “We have to do something urgently and quickly,” he said. That afternoon the activist met Kejriwal and his colleagues at the Delhi Secretariat. Lots of plans were talked about, such as immediately setting up portacabin shelters. One of the AAP ministers came up with a rather audacious suggestion: “We are not occupying the ministerial bungalows, why not house some of the homeless in them?’
Some research would later reveal that Kejriwal’s concern for the city’s most unfortunate drew from his past as an activist and was not some tactic that he developed overnight as he morphed into a politician. He had engaged with the issue of homelessness since 2000, and had trained people on how to use RTI to get them their rights. One can only speculate whether this sort of engagement also shaped Kejriwal’s attitude to the policemen on Delhi’s streets, eventually leading to his dharna against them in 2014, for it is the homeless and the urban poor who face constant police harassment.
In his short first term, Kejriwal gave orders that new shelters should come up in places where people sleep on pavements. The wretched of the metropolis must not be pushed out to other places by the police, he ordered, something that had happened all the time during the reign of the previous Congress governments led by Sheila Dikshit. Most famously, it happened in the city during the preparations for the Commonwealth Games.
The first Kejriwal-led government in Delhi ... did come up with one rather innovative solution that was very typical of the AAP ... They suggested using abandoned buses as shelters for the homeless. Seven such buses were picked up by cranes and delivered to specific spots. Four stood outside the AIIMS hospital crossing, where patients and families normally waited through the night. At 1.30 a.m., when I reached, the buses were packed with sleeping people. During the subsequent Lieutenant Governor’s rule in Delhi, however, they were removed.
That night, as I travelled further to shelters in Dev Nagar, Karol Bagh, I met workers who needed a place to crash after a hard day’s work. Many were migrants and on wet winter nights, they slept crouched on their rickshaws or on wet ground. Ragpickers found spots under flyovers and huddled next to each other. By the Yamuna river, when moonlight broke through the fog, one could see bodies huddled on the banks. They too were residents of the national capital of the world’s largest democracy. What was remarkable was the fact that some of them still thought they had enough of a stake in the system to consider voting.
hree days after his government lodged an FIR against Mukesh Ambani, Kejriwal would resign as chief minister. He appeared rash, he was certainly headstrong, and many supporters, voters and people in his own party were upset by his resignation. Kejriwal had expected Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung to dissolve the Assembly and have simultaneous
state elections with the Lok Sabha polls that were due in two months. But by then he had ruffled the feathers of those who run the system and no one was going to let him have anything the easy way. The elections were eventually held after the longest possible delay that was allowed within constitutional norms, after a whole year of President’s rule.
But before that Kejriwal would undergo another rite of passage in Varanasi, where he had decided to take on Narendra Modi. An initiation by fire awaited him.