From Anna Acolyte to Sheila’s Nemesis

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The transformation of Arvind Kejriwal

Arvind Kejriwal is not speaking today. It is the eleventh day of his fast, his ‘bijli-paani satyagraha’, to protest against inflated power and water bills that are said to be making the lives of the poor miserable. He is attentive, using an occasional nod of his head to participate in conversation. Manish Sisodia, his man Friday, is sitting on the floor by his bedside. On the far end of the room sits his wife, Sunita Kejriwal, a senior income tax officer who has been on leave from her job since November 2011. She is quiet and seems thoughtful. The air in the room is somber, a sense of resolve visible on faces all around.

Outside the room is a pandal that extends down a street full of people of a restless disposition. Many are filling forms requesting Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit to lower the electricity tariff. Some volunteers are asking the crowd to keep moving on after they catch a glimpse of Kejriwal, who is seen checking messages on his mobile phone. There are only three policemen deployed here. They stand near the entrance of the pandal, not assuring people security as much as keeping a vigil. Many of the volunteers can barely conceal their rage against the government of the day for what they consider its neglect of the aam aadmi, the common man, the silent sufferer at the hands of a corrupt government. That is why Kejriwal’s new political outfit, which seeks to change Indian politics, is called the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Three days later, after Kejriwal calls off his fast, an Open team visits him at his residence in Kaushambi located near Delhi’s border with Uttar Pradesh. He is in bed, recovering. Just an hour before this meeting, he had a meal of dal-chaawal for the first time in 18 days. He describes fasting as a “spiritual experience” that saw his body begin to transform itself after three days of auto-starvation. “My body turned non-vegetarian,” he says, convinced of the power of fasting as a moral force of persuasion. Today’s politicians are not used to such tactics. They don’t know how to deal with a man like Kejriwal, a politician who points fingers so frequently, draws popular attention and entertains no power brokers.

On 1 April, AAP activists representing 272 municipal wards of Delhi travelling in 272 autorickshaws were stopped en route by the police and kept from delivering bundles of 800,000 letters to Dikshit. It caused a traffic jam. Interestingly, this is the same CM who blames the Delhi Police for lawlessness in the city, and has attributed her inability to do something about it to the fact that the force is under the Union Home Ministry’s control. This explains this slogan raised by AAP workers: ‘Sheila Dikshit darrti hai, police ko aage karti hai’ (Dikshit is scared and uses the police as a shield). “What’s the problem in receiving letters from the aggrieved? She could have just sent a babu (clerk) to receive it,” says Kejriwal.

“This is a sign of nervousness. The government should never shy away from discussing and facing situations and [should not] protect itself by using the police.”

Kejriwal has good reason to hold the Delhi government accountable for its power sector failures. He has highlighted a discrepancy in the government’s own versions of whether power distribution companies—in private hands—are making profits or running losses. Lieutenant Governor Tejinder Khanna is on record as saying that these ‘discoms’ have made Rs 30,000 crore in profits, while Dikshit claims they have suffered losses amounting to Rs 20,000 crore. Kejriwal has called Dikshit ‘an agent’ of these discoms and admitted this in court, where the CM has filed a defamation case against him, saying that he is ready to back his charge with evidence. Dikshit has ignored Kejriwal’s open offer of a debate on the issue of bijli-paani in Delhi.

For a man accused of being an anarchist, Kejriwal appears rather calm. He sits up on his bed to talk as he puts aside a Hindi book he’s reading: Toh Angrez Kyaa Burrey Thhe (So, were the English so bad?) by Ravindra Badgaiya.

The genesis of AAP may be traced to the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare that began about a year ago. This was seen in general as an anti-UPA stir. That agitation was mounted in demand of an anti-corruption Lokpal, but when a bill that would institute one reached Parliament, every party opposed it. “Saari partiyon ka chehra nanga ho gaya” (All parties stood exposed), says Kejriwal. It was this experience that led him and his supporters to set up a party that would contest elections rather than just act as a pressure group.

Kejriwal is not oblivious to political realities, nor is he as delusional as some suspect. He understands his challenges and appears aware of weaknesses. The way he sees it, there is nothing to lose and much to gain. There have been hurdles in his path. Anna Hazare, who was not in favour of electoral politics, dissociated himself with Kejriwal before AAP was formed. This was seen by some as a fatal blow to the latter’s political aspirations. “We were written off,” says Kejriwal.

If his party was to gain sufficient electoral support to make a mark in Delhi’s Assembly polls, due later this year, he figured he had just three months to enroll party workers. He also needed to reach out to people at large and keep in touch with the popular mood. To pose as a credible alternative to the regime, the party had to present a set of policies as well. Does the AAP have an education, health or economic policy? Not yet. But Kejriwal tells his workers to focus on honesty, the nation’s welfare, and, most importantly, not to fear speaking their minds on issues even if they rouse the ire of such powerful families as the Gandhis or Ambanis.

Many AAP workers are those who were part of Anna’s protest last year. The party claims to have over 5,000 active workers (“at least 100 times more committed than of other parties,” says Kejriwal) and over 50,000 members.

While their leader fasted, workers went door-to-door in Delhi, visiting various unauthorised resettlement colonies, on a signature campaign to have Dikshit initiate moves to reduce water and power tariffs in Delhi. The AAP claims to have covered more than 4 million voters this way and won widespread support.

To shape this strategy, the party had got an extensive survey done. While people were found to be fed up with the Congress and BJP alike, they saw no alternative. More significantly, the survey suggested that the AAP had captured a significant part of the middle-class imagination, with more than 20 per cent of respondents expressing support for it. The bad news is that the survey reported only 5 per cent support among Delhi’s poor—who constitute 40 per cent of the city’s electorate. Their support was crucial if the party was to perform well, and the door-to-door effort was aimed at them.

Is Kejriwal now a politician? “Yes, I was always a politician,” he replies, “The nature of my participation has changed to direct electoral politics.”

The AAP leader is the toughest political opponent that Dikshit has had to face in the 14 plus years that she has been Chief Minister, admits a minister in her own cabinet. She is beset with a wave of anti-incumbency. “It’s for the first time, this election, that her personal integrity is in question,” says a senior Congress leader and an MP from Delhi. He lists the CWG scandal and her regime’s indictment by the CAG and Shunglu Committee, Delhi’s reputation as India’s rape capital, and inflation, apart from bijli-paani, as Congress vulnerabilities.

“If we come to power,” Kejriwal says, “within 15 days, a Jan Lokpal Bill will be passed in Delhi.” Half the city’s residents do not get water supply, he adds, and that will change too. His party will work to decentralise power to the people by forming some 3,000 mohalla committees that will take decisions and oversee the implementation of government projects. “In this era of privatisation, the role of the government needs to be clearly defined,” says Kejriwal.

Before he went on fast, Keriwal consulted a naturopath to chart out his regimen. Every alternate day, he would perform kunjal kriya: he would drink six glasses of lukewarm water and then vomit it all out by depressing the base of his tongue. He would also undergo an enema to flush out toxins and keep his body’s ketone levels under control. In addition, he would keep a mud-pack on his stomach and regularly have an oil message. Water consumption was also important.

Ridding politics of toxins, he may soon come to realise, is a lot harder.