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Arvind Kejriwal, before politics happened

By Pran Kurup
February 11, 2020 15:10 IST
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I asked him, 'How did you manage to drop everything and just wander into these things? Was your family cool with it? They didn't create a fuss?'
'My parents were not very happy. But Sunita (Arvind's wife) has always been supportive,' he replied.
'My parents live with us, so it helps. Over time, I think they have come around and learned to accept it, though not wholeheartedly.'
'Let's be realistic. Which parent would be happy about their child abandoning a lucrative career and doing stuff like this?'

Arvind Kejriwal

IMAGE: Arvind Kejriwal burns a copy of the draft Lokpal in 2011. Photograph: Kind courtesy Arvind Kejriwal/Twitter

Pran Kurup, who succumbed to a cardiac arrest on September 3, 2017 was a close associate of Arvind Kejriwal and a prominent member of the Aam Aadmi Party. His book Arvind Kejriwal And The Aam Aadmi Party takes a close look at the man whose dream was to change India.


It was sometime in the early 2000s -- I don't recall the exact date. Arvind (Kejriwal) was visiting the University of California, Berkeley, for a conference on democracy.

After IIT, we had stayed in occasional contact. I had moved to the US to do my Masters. I later moved to the Silicon Valley area, where I worked at a couple of technology companies and later ventured out on my own.

Since Arvind was visiting Berkeley, and I lived pretty close by, I suggested that we meet up. I had read media reports about his work on Right to Information and his non-governmental organisation, Parivartan. This had naturally piqued my curiosity.

I had also heard through the grapevine that he had quit the Indian Revenue Service to focus on his NGO work full-time.

We met over coffee at the popular Strada coffee shop in the UC Berkeley campus.

We had not seen each other since 1989. It is always interesting to see how people evolve as they go through their unique personal experiences in life, especially friends you grew up with and knew well during those young and impressionable years.

Arvind had plenty of interesting personal experiences already. He had spent time in the corporate world at Telco. He also had a good feel for the government and bureaucracy from his experience at the IRS. Additionally, he had spent time serving at Mother Teresa's ashram.

I recall thinking to myself, 'Boy, this guy has done some serious soul-searching, experimentation and self-discovery already.'

Arvind Kejraiwal's family

IMAGE: Arvind Kejriwal's family -- son Pulkit, father Gobind Ram, mother Gita Devi, wife Sunita and daughter Harshita. Photograph: PTI

I asked him, 'How did you manage to drop everything and just wander into these things? Was your family cool with it? They didn't create a fuss?'

'My parents were not very happy. But Sunita (Arvind's wife) has always been supportive. She never says don't do yeh-woh or anything like that,' he replied.

'Good for you!' I said. 'You are lucky on this front, for sure.'

'Yeah, very much,' he agreed. 'My parents live with us, so it helps. But over time, I think they have come around and learned to accept it, though not wholeheartedly. Let's be realistic. Which parent would be happy about their child abandoning a lucrative career and doing stuff like this? It is tough on them, I am sure, but we don't talk about it so much.'

He went on to explain Right to Information and its virtues -- he also explained the ration card, driver's license, road construction, streetlights, corruption and all manner of issues he saw as pressing concerns in India. He didn't need any prompting -- his thoughts and ideas flowed freely.

I asked him, 'All this is well and good, but when does this all go somewhere and make an actual difference in India?'

'When the Government of India passes a law on Right to Information,' he said, sounding rather optimistic.

'Yeah, sure,' I mocked.

He chuckled at my implied humour and said, 'No, It is going to happen. The government is actively considering it. There is a good chance it will be passed. But it could take some years,' he added.

'But why would they?' I asked.

'Because of public pressure from NGOs, people who advise the government and so on.'

'That is great!' I replied, feeling a little of his optimism.

He went on to reiterate the benefits of RTI -- his key project at the time. The RTI would give citizens the legal right to request information from public authorities, with the aim of empowering citizens to stand up for their rights and to provide an avenue to highlight corrupt activities.

'What happens when the law is passed and it does not work in practice?' was my next question.

'Penalties, how to deal with cases and these sorts of details will all be worked out as part of the law,' he explained.

Arvind Kejriwal

IMAGE: Kejriwal spends time with AAP volunteers during the party's second campaign for Delhi in 2015. Photograph: Vijay Verma/PTI

I could see the excitement in his eyes. He had thought about these things through and through and he knocked all my questions, one by one, out of the park like M S Dhoni's helicopter whacks!

'So, how does it make your Parivartan better?' I asked.

'At Parivartan, we are just trying to help poor people get their due from the government without having to pay bribes. If they are educated about it, then more people will step forward to use it. We are already going around in bastis and telling people in small groups about these things. We even do street plays to illustrate this,' he said.

'That is an innovative approach.'

'Yeah, it really helps.'

'Cool, your TDS (Technology Drama Society -- Arvind was part of this at IIT) is coming in handy!' I remarked.

'I don't do the plays myself. There are many talented people who script, write and act out these plays. They don't need me. They do a fabulous job without me ever getting involved,' he added.

Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia

IMAGE: Kejriwal, watched by his closest aide Manish Sisodia, waves his resignation as Delhi chief minister. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

That is when he first mentioned Manish Sisodia -- currently the deputy chief minister of Delhi -- and his documentary work.

'Next time you visit India, do come to Delhi and you can see all this firsthand,' he offered.

I learned that Arvind had travelled quite extensively all across India already. As for myself, I had never even visited New Delhi, India's capital, yet.

'Once the law is passed, awareness will improve even further. Nowadays, people think they have no other option but to pay bribes. This is true at all levels, not just the poor. That is part of the problem. We need strong laws and a change in people's attitudes,' he added.

I couldn't resist and asked about his IRS days. 'Boss, most people think that in the IRS, people make money left, right, and center. You must have also?'

He laughed and said, 'Nahin! Never! I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I did something like that. Besides, why would I start Parivartan if I could do that?'

'But you are right, it is very common,' he continued. 'The amount of hard cash IRS people find during raids is not funny. Believe it or not, people are caught with hard cash -- yet nothing ever happens to them. Even if you want to file a case, someone upstairs will be influenced and they'll hush things up.'

'It is pretty sad. You can't imagine the extent of corruption. The country will really go to the dogs if something serious is not done quickly.' he added.

'The entire system will have to change. That is why we called our NGO, Parivartan. It is just a small step in bringing about comprehensive change.'

'It's good to be a dreamer. In America, there is always talk and hype about dreaming big, having ambitious goals, risks and rewards, and changing the world. So who knows, you might be on to something really big, though it sounds like a long road.' I said.

'Yes, it's not an overnight thing. But we should try,' he said. 'Rome was not built in a day. Aisa kuch saying hai, nah?' he asked rhetorically.

'Absolutely right, this is a very long road,' I agreed.

Arvind Kejriwal

IMAGE: Kejriwal detained during an anti-government protest in 2013. Photograph: Kind courtesy AAP_tivists/Twitter

'It's not just about stopping corruption. The entire system has to change. There has to be a way by which people are consulted in how government funds are spent, how natural resources are used. Right now, in India, none of this happens.'

He then proceeded to tell me about a fountain not far from the Parivartan office put up by the government where there is no water.

'It shows how the government spends its money without proper consultation with people. Anyone could have told them they don't need a fountain there!'

He asked me pointed questions about the federal and local governments in the US.

It turned out that Arvind knew more about how things worked in the US than I did, although I lived in the US! I was quite embarrassed and confessed after a while that my funda was quite gol on this, but I promised to look into it and build my understanding.

Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare

IMAGE: Kejriwal listens as Kisan Baburao 'Anna' Hazare speaks at a protest in New Delhi, before they parted ways. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Then I asked him, 'Boss, how did you decide to quit and do this full time?'

'It was not a sudden decision, it happened slowly over time. I kept doing Parivartan work and it just grew, as more and more people needed help. We have expanded into the nearby slums quite a bit. Then I figured, what is the point in going back to regular work? There is nothing new there. Same story, corruption everywhere.'

'So I figured, let me just continue with what I am doing and help the common man solve his little problems.'

Excerpted from Arvind Kejriwal And The Aam Aadmi Party by Pran Kurup, with the permission of the publishers, Bloomsbury India.

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