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Arvind Kejriwal: The man the govt loves to hate

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: September 08, 2011 12:43 IST
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Arvind KejriwalSheela Bhatt profiles Arvind Kejriwal, a crucial member of Team Anna, who has emerged as one of the key players in the movement for a strong anti-corruption law.

A new leader is born. Arvind Kejriwal these days is one of the most frequently interviewed leaders of Anna Hazare's team.

It is not that he was an unknown entity before. He won the prestigious Magsaysay Award in 2006 for his contribution to the common man's right to information. Before he attained celebrity status during Hazare's fast, he ran a non-governmental organisation called Parivartan and is one of the brains behind the India Against Corruption campaign.

Along with Hazare, Kejriwal, 43, has shaken the government, enthused sections of Indian youth and changed the course of public debate. All that in a few weeks! All this because he teamed up with Hazare.

In Team Anna, several different personalities have clicked. A conventional social worker, a maverick former police officer, a lawyer with conviction and a representative from the middle class with a crusader's zeal have nothing in common between them, but they have done something that political parties with disciplined organisational structures have not been able to do.

Kejriwal is, largely, considered the brain behind the Hazare phenomenon.

In person, he comes across as a simple, but stubborn man, with no material taste. He wears trousers that seem a size too big, his shirts are what government clerks in small towns wear. His body seems weak. These days he constantly coughs and hardly sleeps. He is severely diabetic and says he does not have much personal wealth.

His small family lives in Kaushambi on the outskirts of New Delhi. His wife, who zealously keeps a low profile, works in the income tax department and takes care of their two children in her activist husband's absence.

It sound unbelievable to anyone who saw and heard him in the run-up to the end of Hazare's fast on August 28 -- when he delivered a 20+ minute speech at the Ramlila Maidan -- but he is basically an introvert. He smiles rarely, but he always looks into the eyes of the person whom he is talking to. He is media savvy and a clever communicator. He has a clear picture of what he wants to do and is quite assertive about it.

He is comfortably a part of the 'new India' and he uses the fruits of liberalisation in communication and technology with elan.

Kejriwal has a penchant of going into the nitty-gritty of the subject at hand. At times, he is too argumentative. Cabinet ministers Pranab Mukherjee, Palaniappan Chidambaram and Salman Khurshid found him unrealistic, his demands almost absurd and were exasperated by his tough posture.

Kejriwal finds these powerful ministers not just unreliable, but uncaring of the people's demands. Currently, he is anxious about the support he may or may not get from the political parties in his endeavours in the coming months. That keeps him stressed. He will attend a Vipassana meditation course in Jaipur for ten days in mid-September.

The coming days will reveal if Kejriwal is a man of substance or not. How he navigates the emotions generated during Hazare's fast at the Ramlila Maidan to get an irreversible outcome from the establishment in curbing corruption will be watched.

His critics in the government want him removed from the scene, but less harsh minds think he is self-righteous and his assessment of the Indian political class is unrealistic.

If you debate his weaknesses with him, one finds that his contemptuous view of the political class may be a blessing that keeps him going with the hope that one day he will achieve a strong Jan Lokpal.

Kejriwal has no halo like Hazare, but the government knows it has to deal with him. That is why he is under scrutiny. Social activist Aruna Roy, once Kejriwal's associate in the Right to Information campaign and a member of the government's National Advisory Council, has said that Hazare's team does not respect dissent from others while they dissent with the government.

Some find in Kejriwal shades of an autocrat who wants to dominate Hazare and his mind. He is accused of manipulating the Indian instinct for idol worship to achieve his goals.

Author-activist Arundhati Roy has strongly discredited the Hazare movement. Team Anna is a bit rattled by her criticism. The Congress party's major accusation is that the India Against Corruption campaign is a right-wing movement with a hidden Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh agenda. Kejriwal's alleged comfort level with anti-Congress political forces disturbs government ministers greatly.

Kejriwal may emerge as an impressive leader who can articulate his views clearly. But he has not, so far, proved to be a successful negotiator. In real terms, Team Anna's movement to enact the Jan Lokpal Bill has not achieved substantial success. The Ramlila Maidan fast's success has given Team Anna a moral edge, but nothing more.

Most of the criticism of Kejriwal could be attributed to envy. But he is trying to convince whoever cares to listen -- "Leave me alone, talk about my agenda."

Congress leaders allege, privately, that Kejriwal has logistical support and funds, supplied by a couple of corporate houses including a leading automobile major, and two media barons, to do whatever he dreams of. Kejriwal staunchly refutes charges that he has the kind of resources which Congress leaders allege.

Right now, his only strength is that middle-class India's support to the Hazare movement appears to be increasing. Like Hazare and another Team Anna member, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Kejiral is stunned to see that after the Ramlila event they have a sturdy platform to fight a long-drawn battle.

Team Anna is facing a crucial moment full of possibilities that could lead India to commit itself, through Constitutional means, to fight corruption. But seeing the mood of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, it is likely that Team Anna will achieve only mixed results, in the best possible scenario.

The original draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill is already buried. It is also possible that the government's pressure and tactics can break Team Anna's cohesion. Another issue is that Team Anna wants to achieve something while bargaining with vital constituents within the framework of the Indian Constitution, but it fought and mocked the very same constituents during the Ramlila Maidan event. This is an inexplicable and inherent contradiction.

Team Anna and the government do not have any common meeting ground. Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi's strong stance and body language, while speaking in the Lok Sabha on August 26, is testimony to this. The BJP is merely grabbing its opportunity by supporting Team Anna and making politically correct noises. The people in power and members of Parliament just do not want to acknowledge Team Anna's success.

They do not want to endorse what some experts have said -- that Team Anna has brought the middle-class into the political discourse. Ranbir Sammadar, director of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, noted on Monday that 'The legitimacy of the streets has increased' due to Hazare's movement.

The middle class is back in the public discourse and that will be Kejriwal's weapon in coming days.

Kejriwal is a dreamer from small-town India who arrived in the national capital with clear thinking of how to make changes in the real India. He is no less a dreamer than the czars of corporate India who want to see the nation on the path of development.

The government, which is in a mood for confrontation, will have to accept one day that, in the short term, Kisan Baburao 'Anna' Hazare and his team are the current reality. Government ministers will also see that Kejriwal has an agenda to change India. One can ridicule him, but one will not be able to suppress him easily with or without Hazare.

Kejriwal is looking for the decentralisation of power that the Indian establishment wields. He wants to see the power gifted by the Constitution to govern and shape this vast country shift from the national and state capitals to the villages. Kejriwal wants Swaraj. Hearing such talk, powerful ministers and government supporters laugh at him and Team Anna.

In this tussle, the income tax department, Kejiwal's former employer, sent him a notice to recover dues from 2007 onwards when he worked in the government's IT wing as an Indian Revenue Service officer.

In Parliament, the government wants a privilege motion issued against another Team Anna member, Kiran Bedi. The government, it appears, has not learnt lessons after bungling Hazare's arrest on August 16 and sending the Maharashtra-based social activist to Tihar jail.

Kejriwal's everyIndian looks, dress sense and his 'aam aadmi' Hindi misled the people in power and some Opposition leaders to treat him as just another 'ordinary activist' who could be humbled by the use of State power.

This arrogance misled the government on August 16 and will likely mislead it again.

The wind is blowing in Kejriwal's favour. It is time the government takes notice of the challenge he poses. It appears the government is underestimating Hazare, Kejriwal and Bhushan's pursuit of the anti-corruption movement and overestimating the possibility of anarchy that they may bring to the established power structure.

It is possible that in this intensely psychological and riveting political war, Hazare and Kejriwal are consigned to the dustbin of history and the political class may prove cleverer and shrewder than them, but the government's counter-war cannot be motivated by vindictiveness alone.

It is time to listen to what Arvind Kejriwal says before branding him an enemy of the State or dismissing him as a stubborn megalomaniac. The government's counter-strategy needs to be on the basis of a correct assessment of the man and his mission.

Image: Arvind Kejriwal | Photograph: Sanjay Sawant/

Please read Sheela Bhatt's not-to-be-missed exclusive interview with Arvind Kejriwal!

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi