AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal sleeps out in a Delhi street earlier this year.
He's a moustached and a bespectacled guy in his early 40s. An unremarkable-looking fellow with a receding hairline and a funny muffler wrapped around his head. He is not your immaculately dressed Narendra Modi, nor your polished Rahul Gandhi – the handsome scion of a political dynasty. If you watch him in action, even with the TV on mute, his body language and animated hand gestures speak volumes. He’s aggressive and restless. He’s Arvind Kejriwal.
A self-styled, 21st century Indian socialist-turned-politician he claims – as any candidate worth his salt will do – to represent the common man. What is uncommon about this one is the rampant success of his strategy, and the pace with which he has become a political sensation in India.
Had you asked about Arvind Kejriwal back in 2011, few people would have been able to describe him. Today ask any Indian and they will almost certainly have an opinion about him. Those withholding judgement are, at least, curious.
Arvind Kejriwal – who launched his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man Party, only in 2012 – has come a long way. Just 13 months after the party formed it won 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi elections and he was installed as Delhi's Chief Minister.
The fact that his government lasted only 49 days is another story, but one that hasn’t deterred him from greater political ambition. Banking on the success of his state election performance, Kejriwal is now contesting a tough electoral fight against the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate – and ranking favorite - Narendra Modi in the Varanasi constituency.
Kejriwal now looms as an unstoppable force in the Indian political arena.
What motivates him to take up such seemingly impossible challenges? For that, there are some clues in his personal history.
Raised in a middle-class family, he is a qualified mechanical engineer who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. In a report published in India’s Caravan magazine, his father, Gobindram Kejriwal, himself a retired engineer, talks of his son’s determination. He recalls how young Arvind set his mind on getting into the prestigious IIT engineering course, refusing to enrol in any other college as a backup. He focused only on passing IIT's entrance exams – and cracked it.
“If he starts chasing something, just believe it that he’ll get it,” said Gobindram to the magazine.
After passing out from IIT, Kejriwal worked for a few years in the private corporate sector. But that didn’t interest him much and he decided to join the public service. He cleared the Indian Civil Services examination and served as a bureaucrat with the Indian Government, working in the Income Tax Department. But the job frustrated him, and the corruption he observed angered him.
His close associates say his passion for social service led him to seek voluntary retirement from his job in 2006. He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award - a coveted award named for the late Philippies president – in 2006 for his contribution to the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which empowers Indian citizens to seek information from public authorities.
Kejriwal, along with like-minded people – Manish Sisodia and Abhinandan Sekhri – floated a new non-government organisation, the Public Cause Research Foundation in New Delhi. He donated the prize money from his Magsaysay Award to help establish the foundation which collects, analyses and disseminates information about government rules and laws and ensures their enforcement. For this they use the RTI Act extensively and have helped Indian citizens hold the public service accountable.
Arvind Kejriwal’s focus soon turned to anti-corruption efforts and the Jan Lokpal Bill, which sought the appointment of an independent body to investigate corruption.
Kejriwal was a member of the committee constituted by the Government of India to draft the Bill, playing an important role in its development. He shot into the limelight when he joined hands with a veteran social reformer – Anna Hazare – to launch a massive anti-corruption movement that aimed to compel the Indian Parliament to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill.
While Anna Hazare became the face of the movement, it was Arvind Kejriwal who masterminded the campaign. Working tirelessly, his devotion to – and micro-management of – the initiative not only got the masses motivated, but also captured wide media interest.
It was Kejriwal’s idea to start the movement right after the Cricket World Cup and before the Indian Premiere League (IPL) began. This inspired timing helped the anti-corruption movement become a huge success, bringing citizens out to march in the streets and almost bringing the Indian Government to its knees.
Despite its success, Kejriwal parted ways with Anna Hazare due to differences of opinion, most crucially because of Kejriwal's enthusiasm to launch a political party to bring about the desired change in governance. Kejriwal wanted to capitalise on the wave of public support. Team Anna disagreed. Arvind Kejriwal, once again, this time with a handful of supporters by his side, decided to take the plunge.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s website clearly states its mission for entering politics. “The time for peaceful fasts and protests is gone. This is the time for action. Since most political parties are corrupt, greedy and thick-skinned, it's time to bring political power back into the people's hands.” With that aim in mind, Arvind Kejriwal set out to fight the Delhi elections, selecting a “broom” as his party's electoral symbol.
Support flowed in from all corners. One of the most talked about aspects of AAP's campaign was the transparency of donations to the party. Each penny was accounted for, the figure proudly displayed on the website.
On the counting day, when the news poured in about AAP's astonishing performance, crowd shots showed brooms being waved in the air as a mark of celebration.
But the euphoria was short lived. After failing to table the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Delhi Assembly, Kejriwal decided to dissolve the assembly and resigned as Delhi’s Chief Minister. Why? Because he had promised that if he failed to bring in the Jan Lokpal Bill, he wouldn’t continue as Delhi’s Chief Minister. Kejriwal is a stubborn man, and one who honors his promises.
He works hard, lives frugally and is often photographed travelling in his economical small car or taking the Delhi Metro or an auto-rickshaw (public transport) to campaign events. The woollen muffler wrapped around his head, and his perennial cough, have become trademarks of a sort, often utilized in political satires.
Kejriwal now looms as an unstoppable force in the Indian political arena. He has thrown himself into an eventful, closely-watched campaign in Varanasi against Modi, and seems to thrive on it. He has slept on the streets of Delhi on cold winter nights, protests at every opportunity, and has become a compelling subject of conversation across the country.
His critics complain he is the creation of his own hype. “Take away the camera from his face and then see what remains” is the mantra of the cynics. But say what you might of him, Arvind Kejriwal has definitely captured the the imagination of ordinary Indians, and the interest of edtors and TV news directors. He is a political phenomena that no one can ignore. Not even Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi.
Whether the Aam Aadmi Party ultimately puts up an equally brilliant performance on the national scene won't be known until the votes of the epic national ballot are counted next Friday (16 May). But regardless of the result Arvind Kejriwal, anti-corruption crusader, has changed the political discourse in India.