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Arvind Kejriwal: Feet of Clay

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The unmaking of Arvind Kejriwal

What a handful of senior leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) discovered late at night on 16 May 2014—the day the BJP won a resounding win after a decade of being out of power at the Centre—was a man steeped in paranoia. When Yogendra Yadav and his other comrades called upon Arvind Kejriwal at his Ghaziabad residence, the maximum leader of AAP was in no mood to listen to his earnest counsellors—a trait that would play out in public glare many times over in the months to come. By this time, Kejriwal had already stopped listening to anyone except to his own voice. Against the wishes of some AAP leaders, the next day, even before Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi would perform his Ganga Aarti on the ghats of Varanasi, Kejriwal met Delhi’s

Lieutenant Governor to express his readiness to form Delhi’s state government, retreating from the very values he had cited barely six months earlier when he stepped down after 49 days of being in power and realised that he was more at home on the street. He now wanted to be Delhi’s Chief Minister at any cost—moral or otherwise.

He also called a Political Affairs Committee (PAC) meeting, and then the fledgling party’s National Executive, and both rejected his proposal. The author of Swaraj, a book-length pamphlet in which he had set forth lofty goals of participatory leadership, imperiously shrugged off the party’s majority line. He was a man possessed, a dictatorial aspirant drawn single-mindedly to the trampling of all dissent. After all, the decision to pitch himself against Narendra Modi in Varanasi was his own, and he had expected a shock victory similar to the one against Sheila Dikshit in Delhi. In defeat, this time, he showed no grace and tried vainly to apportion blame on others.

Ironically, they would rediscover the leader’s paranoia shortly after they visited him following AAP’s re-election in Delhi’s February 2015 polls, winning 67 of 70 seats. The Chief Minister-designate didn’t attend AAP’s National Executive meeting held after the thumping victory. It was an indication that he couldn’t be bothered extending such courtesy to his colleagues. Not any longer. “He is a combination of paranoia and megalomania,” says Professor Anand Kumar, a sociologist and founding member of AAP. “I think I am the first pathologist to diagnose his disease. Is there any party in the entire democratic world which has the face of its leader on its flag?” he asks. It’s a valid question, especially since even the most dictatorial of regimes shy away from doing this and instead use an ideological motif to soften connotations of hero worship.

But it was on 28 March that Kejriwal the autocrat come of age. At the carefully choreographed National Executive meeting, his henchmen did their best to handpick AAP party members along community and caste lines to ensure ‘all-round’ support for a move to oust four counter-revolutionary bad eggs, including Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, from its top decision-making body. His intent was stark: hound and humiliate peers, especially those who played crucial roles in shaping the super-structure of AAP as a political party and got it its intellectual heft. The treatment meted out to them has had some impact on the party with many AAP leaders, including National Executive members, tendering letters of resignation over the past week. Yadav and Bhushan have been the intellectual faces in an organisation otherwise populated by empowered lumpens. Through their engagement with media and their argumentative powers, they provided a voice that was more acceptable than the inanities of Kejriwal to the discerning in the middle class.

That is why Professor Kumar suggests that Kejriwal take recourse to psychological counselling. “When he says that he is scared of the Delhi victory, he means it. He does not know which way to turn—left or right. And in that confusion, he has started hating his own friends. A good leader is one who expands his orbit of support. Not one who behaves as a loser. Look at what is happening now. Only defeated leaders sack people,” he says.

“I told Arvind that he needs to read one book. The book is called Swaraj and it is written by a gentleman called Arvind Kejriwal,” says Yadav (Click here to read the interview).

The Delhi Chief Minister who, according to one of his closest friends, “childishly insisted” on expelling some of his comrades-in-arms for ‘badmouthing’ him, has exposed a disposition so vengeful, that it has left some of his admirers stunned. Behind that persona of a superhero of a leader who has meticulously crafted an image of a Gandhian and die-hard democrat, lies a flawed man, according to Professor Kumar, now a rebel AAP leader. “He can be easily persuaded to believe that there is a conspiracy against him,” he says, “He is a deeply insecure man.”

The question of why the likes of Yadav, Bhushan and Kumar clung on to an AAP where Kejriwal was fast emerging as a demigod is worthy of a debate, but it is crucial to first place the spotlight on the man who promised change, sold hopes, pulled in anti-establishment vote en bloc, and, as an anti-climax, suddenly turned prickly, vindictive, sullen, manipulative and ended up sounding like the usual politicians he once raged against. Is he what he was projected to be? Or is he just another neta of the old mould with vaulting ambitions?

For his part, Kejriwal prefers to say that “all is well” with the party, unmindful of the turmoil around his efforts to slay political equals and intellectuals. And this has led several political pundits to believe that the supremo of the so-called common man’s party has feet of clay apparent to more people than he cares to acknowledge. Kejriwal’s speech of 28 March justifying the ruthless National Executive purge highlights little but malice in a leader who should know better than to be so dictatorial.

Senior party members say Kejriwal feels threatened by equals. First, it is unbecoming of a democrat to force an either-me-or-them choice upon his followers over matters of policy. But that is what he did. He asked AAP members to choose between him and the Yadav-Bhushan duo. He doggedly glossed over their demand for a probe of dodgy donations and their sources. Worse, he pronounced, as if detached from reality (and his own professed principles), that AAP could not have accepted the demand for a probe of the Rajesh Garg tapes because that would have led the BJP to demand his resignation. AAP functionary Garg had lashed out at Kejriwal for “manufacturing” charges against BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari by planting a story in the media that the two had offered him and others money to switch support to the BJP after the 2013 Delhi state polls. Kejriwal’s argument on this scandal, as any political analyst can point out, does not wash because AAP had made such a virtue of transparency in the party’s internal affairs. “The calls were made with Arvind Kejriwal’s consent from private numbers. We have evidence regarding the same,” in the words of Garg, who claims that the callers had been coached by the party’s dirty tricks department to offer its own legislators Rs 10 crore each to support the BJP. Early in March, Garg had released an audio tape which purportedly showed Kejriwal asking him to poach six Congress legislators; in response, AAP sacked Garg for his ‘designs’ to defame the party.

In his haste to cobble together allegations against rebels, Kejriwal has also betrayed what an AAP leader describes as “creeping ignorance” of the poll process. He has accused the likes of Yadav of making the list of AAP booth agents public. Funnily enough, he was taking the culture of secrecy to a new high, considering that the list of booth agents is invariably submitted to returning officers in any case. They are also visible to voters and their rival party counterparts.

In a speech that smacked of desperation, Kejriwal also trivialised the issue of involving party workers in decision- making, thus contradicting what he himself had argued in Swaraj (literally, ‘self rule’) where he envisages greater internal democracy in political parties. His speech made it clear that ordinary party workers had very little role to play in the party’s big decisions. Opportunistic and belated, it amounted to a confession—since he has been ranting all along about the ‘high command’ culture of other parties. If going back on his vow of constant consultations with leaders from the top echelons to the grassroots level was not enough, in another outburst that bordered on the farcical, Delhi’s Chief Minister also ended up making an admission that his brief imprisonment—on refusing to furnish his bail—during the anti-corruption movement was the outcome of a cue he took from Bhushan (a lawyer) in court, and not a sense of principled martyrdom.

For all the claims about a ‘collegium’ that AAP believes in, Kejriwal’s speech showed that he resents being advised, and is determined to do away with fetters and turn into the helmsman all others must defer to because he is the ‘people’s choice’.

Says a senior AAP member asking not to be named because he fears being victimised: “[Kejriwal] has the ability to dump human beings who have sacrificed their lives for him and walk away. I know many ambitious people. They suffer from guilt. You can see that in their eyes. But you can never see any guilt in Arvind’s eyes. He can look through your eyes. It is a super-or-sub human quality. It is not human. Maybe that is what Vipassana has done to him.” Kejriwal’s associates dismiss such charges. “Arvind is a very sensitive person,” says one.

But then, such signs are highly elusive, laughs Professor Kumar, who says that since he is a leader in a hurry, he is mostly in no mood to listen to sensible advice. Chips in Bhushan: “From an RTI activist, he has now turned himself into a ‘it’s my way or highway’ kind of person.” He adds, “He was ambitious and we all saw that in the beginning. We supported him considering his leadership qualities and connect with people. But that has made him behave like a dictator with a coterie of yes-men around.”

There is no denying that in February’s election AAP blotted out the BJP and eliminated the Congress from the 70-member Delhi Assembly. The Magsaysay laureate, alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and former Indian Revenue Service officer proved himself the consummate comeback man, a leader who turned the great big bang of the poll campaign run by the BJP’s Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo into a whimper, at least in Delhi. But the leader-in-a-hurry wasn’t content with just being in power. A chronic diabetic whose health is fragile—he recently went for naturopathy treatment to lower his blood sugar levels— was dismissive, recalls Professor Kumar, when he once told him to adopt the Kanshi Ram formula of a long-drawn political fight (the first election is fought to get defeated, the second to have a strategic opponent defeated, and the next is contested to win). Professor Kumar, who has watched Indian politics for decades, had recommended that AAP’s had to be a 10-year project. “But he is a man in a hurry and processes have little meaning for him,” he rues, adding that the Chief Minister’s intolerance of intellect and meaningful internal parleys are to blame for his misplaced efforts to mobilise the masses to a frenzy.

None of his former comrades, including Yadav and Kumar, deny Kejriwal what’s due to him. They agree that he has had his ear to the ground and an amazing ability to connect with people. Their grouse is that he is no longer the idealist that he once projected himself as. Professor Kumar explains, “He has a passion for change. He has written a very good book. But unfortunately, these days, he is lampooning his own book and its idea though his actions. But his book is a labour of love. It stands tests of reason with its non-dogmatic, non-ideological approach. It tries to recycle some of the time-tested ideas of decentralisation, good governance and communitarian democracy. He has come close to successfully selling the idea of small government, big community life and so on.”

According to another rebel AAP leader, Ajit Jha, Kejriwal has had an endearing style. “But the other side of his personality began to emerge soon. He wants only assistants, only people who are ready to serve him. In the PAC convention to discuss government formation after the Lok Sabha polls, he was in a minority. Those who opposed him included his supporters Gopal Rai, Pankaj Gupta and Kumar Viswas.” Kejriwal did not even ask for Yadav and Bhushan’s views, he adds. “They came to know when the Lieutenant Governor made the letter from Kejriwal seeking one week’s time public.”

True, for most of them, ‘AK the author of Swaraj’ is a likeable person. “But as a man, I am quite baffled,” says Professor Kumar, “He is a man who needs not just natural therapy for blood sugar and blood pressure, but he also needs a lot of affection to reassure himself about him. He is very unsure of himself. Rightly so, he is identified in [sections of] civil society as… someone who can take people for a royal ride. Look what he did to Aruna [Roy] and Anna [Hazare]. Maybe we are the latest in that long list.”

Kejriwal, who waltzed into Indian politics with much vigour, has had a rollercoaster life as a politician and social activist. The Siwani, Haryana-born mechanical engineering graduate who later served as a joint commissioner in the Centre’s Income Tax Department, has been an anti- corruption activist while in service, floating an NGO called Parivartan as early as 2000, taking leave from work. He resigned from government service in 2006 to plunge into social work, and soon earned a reputation as a fiery Right to Information activist as well. When the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement was launched in 2011, he became a key lieutenant of Gandhian activist Anna Hazare. In 2012, Kejriwal parted ways with his mentor to launch AAP, a political entity. Since his party’s General Election setback—it won only four of the 400 Lok Sabha seats it contested—he has fought numerous defections and rebellions within the party.

Kejriwal, who attended Vipassana meditation sessions until a few years ago, has successfully projected his perseverance and ability to listen to the masses without grudging them their rants. While he was campaigning in Varanasi, he often had to face taunts from people disappointed with governance since he was the lone senior leader who interacted closely with people. Kejriwal’s brand of politics, it was thought, promoted accessibility and offered the common man far greater access to political processes. While both the Congress and BJP had high entry barriers for new politicians, AAP offered rays of hope and Kejriwal was seen as a messiah of transparent politics.

It is that sense of hope that made him a darling of the masses and also of people such as Shanti Bhushan, a senior lawyer of great repute and the father of rebel AAP leader Prashant Bhushan. Shanti, never apolitical, was, however, not in favour of any one political entity. Even in the 1970s, in those tumultuous days of political hyper- activism, he charged a fee of the late socialist leader Raj Narain to fight a case against then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. At that point, Narain had complained about Shanti’s lack of ‘political commitment’ and insistence on being paid promptly. Strangely enough, Shanti Bhushan saw ‘something’ in Kejriwal that he gave the party Rs 2 crore of his own money, says Professor Kumar. “He used to argue with us that ‘Arvind is your Barack Obama’. We were not convinced then. Even today we are not convinced when he goes to the other extreme and says [Congress leader] AjayMaken is better than Kejriwal,” guffaws Professor Kumar.

Atul Kohli of Princeton University has often talked about the price of high expectations in politics. “The fact that the AAP won more than half of all votes cast—a rarity in Indian elections—suggests that people are fed up with corruption in high places. Since this is not likely to alter readily, AAP needs to figure out quickly how not to lose support once the reality of governance sets in,” he says.

That erosion of goodwill now seems faster than expected. Sample this: on 24 March, after Kejriwal said the party had to decide between him and the Yadav-Bhushan duo, some leaders went to meet him at night. The AAP chief went berserk, reports a party leader, hollering that leaders like Bhushan and Yadav have made his life miserable in the past eight months. “He also blamed them for his troubles on the health front,” adds Professor Kumar. “On 25 March morning, we met him again. He behaved like an arrogant brat. I was taken aback. I shouted back at him, ‘Don’t talk like this.’ I told him if he was unwell, he should take medical help.”

He goes on: “[Kejriwal’s] language of politics is not good for politics. Sample his demagoguery. His political stage is a bully pulpit from where he paints every politician with a nasty corrupt brush. Is this good for democracy? Unfortunately, Anna too did the same thing. Not everyone is in politics to make money. The electoral process is routinely demonised. I feel sad and disappointed.”

It has now emerged that Kejriwal let differences over policies—all of which are par for the course in politics all over the world—precipitate into personal rifts. True, it was Yadav who persuaded him to fight the Lok Sabha polls (though not against Modi), and therefore AAP’s dismal showing in the Lok Sabha polls got Kejriwal and his acolytes worried. “At that time, it appeared to me that there were differences of opinion and I thought all would be sorted out once we sit together,” says Bhushan.

In July 2014, a PAC meeting was called to discuss the party’s plans. Kejriwal and his team were of the view that they should focus on Delhi and the party should not contest the Assembly polls due in Haryana and Maharashtra. Bhushan and Yadav felt that the decision should be left to AAP’s state units. An email vote was conducted and 15 votes were polled in favour of the Yadav- Bhushan line and four votes against. No discussion took place on the subject for more than a month after that. The state units were under the impression that they would be contesting the elections. In September, when the Election Commission announced the polling schedule, senior AAP leader Pankaj Gupta told the state units that Kejriwal had decided not to participate in them. “He overturned the decision of the PAC, which had earlier voted in favour of what could have been a state-level decision whether to contest the polls or not,” notes Bhushan.

From the point of view of participatory politics, this was a blatant act of irresponsibility on the part of Kejriwal and his coterie. The communication gap between the two camps was destined to widen. Yadav, in particular, was upset with the fact that the party was not fighting the Haryana Assembly polls. “Volunteers are feeling discouraged by the decision as they had worked hard to put up a fight in the state,” Yadav had said then.

“The rest is history. Kejriwal and team continued to plot against Yadav and Bhushan to chuck them out of the party and even had hecklers in place to demoralise them at various meetings. Certain PAC meetings were neither postponed nor advanced, as is the practice, so that senior leaders like Yadav and Bhushan could attend,” says an AAP leader who refuses to be identified. It upsets him that “a cabal of failed journalists, low-brow politicians and intellectual pygmies has surrounded Kejriwal who seems to be happy with the state of affairs”. He is also pained that ‘elements’ close to Kejriwal are busy targeting one other and trying to please the ‘grand leader’ by deceit, denial and manipulation. “I have heard that some of these uncouth leaders go to the extent of not only recording private chats and personal references made in jest and then report them back to Kejriwal to score brownie points, but are also into honeytraps and similar high-handed behaviour,” he says.

The last time we heard of ‘grandees’ engaging in a mutually bitter battle of elimination while putting up a friendly pretence in public was at the court of the Red Czar, that of comrade Stalin, the Last Commissar. But here in the quasi-state of Delhi, with stakes as low as low can get, all this intrigue and concomitant chaos—what an AAP leader loves to call “youth Congress behaviour” of wrestling for power and privilege—mark a Chaplinesque medley where comedy, farce and tragedy are all rolled into one.

(With additional reporting by Kumar Anshuman)