Arvind Kejriwal | The prophet of probity

The Delhi Chief Minister, who rose to power riding anti-corruption sentiments in the country, faces the biggest challenge of his career after he was arrested by the ED in a money laundering case

March 24, 2024 01:03 am | Updated March 25, 2024 03:44 pm IST

Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

For the majority of the tenure of independent India, the phrase “common man” evoked only one image for most Indians — a bespectacled dhoti-and-plaid-coat-clad old man with a startled expression conveying shock at the state of the new republic. The image emerged from cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s pencil.

In the past decade or so, the common man has found a new icon in the form of Arvind Kejriwal, the raison d’etre of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or the Common Man’s Party.

Also read | Things fall apart; can AAP hold? 

The two — the image and the man — have several similarities. At a superficial level they look alike. Mr. Kejriwal, with his short stature, dressed in loose shirts and ill-fitting trousers, carrying around a battle-weary expression, is the average Indian man. And much like Laxman’s common man, he established himself in the nation’s conscience as an anti-corruption crusader. The similarities end here, however. Laxman’s image was that of a mute spectator, almost a fence-sitter who ruminates over the ills of the nation. In sharp contrast, Mr. Kejriwal emerged as an insurrectionist, who wanted to bring down the existing political system to build it anew.

The irony wasn’t lost on any one. Mr. Kejriwal, who painted the political class in broad strokes with his enunciation in 2011 & 2012 — ‘Sab mile hue hai’ (Everyone is in cahoots) and ‘Sab Chor Hai’ (Everyone is a thief) — finds himself under investigations by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a money laundering case. On Friday evening, he was sent to the ED’s remand till March 28 by the Rouse Avenue Court.

Mr. Kejriwal, born in 1968 to a middle class family in Hisar district of Haryana, holds a degree of electrical engineering from IIT-Khargpur. He went on to work for Tata Steel in Jamshedpur. But instead of pursuing the corporate ladder, he quit to prepare for the Civil Services Examination. A 2011 profile of Mr. Kejriwal in The Caravan magazine, quotes his father as saying Mr. Kejriwal always wanted to join the IPS. But he didn’t make the cut and had to settle for Indian Revenue Services.

Magsaysay Award winner

At the training course in Mussoorie, he met his future wife, Sunita, and after passing out, they both joined the Income-Tax Department in Delhi as assistant commissioners. He quit the service midway, disillusioned by all pervasive corruption around him, and became a full-time activist. In 2006, he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his painstaking work of exposing the leaks in the delivery of the basic government services such as the Public Distribution System.  “The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation recognises his activating India’s right to information movement at the grassroots, empowering New Delhi’s poorest citizens to fight corruption by holding the government answerable to the people,” reads the award citation.

Mr. Kejriwal, 55, hardly stuck to any one route for too long. Winning small battles working at a micro level was only the first piece of the larger puzzle he wanted to solve. In November 2010, he was one of the 10 persons who met in the basement of a church in Delhi’s Gole Market to begin the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement.

The Gist
Arvind Kejriwal was one of the 10 persons who met in the basement of a church in Delhi’s Gole Market to begin the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement that ran an anti-corruption campaign against the then-Congress government
On November 26, 2012, Kejriwal, drawing momentum from the movement, formed the Aam Aadmi Party and fight against corruption became its key slogan
He is not an adherent to leftist or right-wing politics in the strictest of definition, though critics point out that the IAC movement was ably supported by the right wing

Anna Hazare, a Pune-based Gandhian, was roped in as its mascot. The central piece of the IAC’s campaign was a demand for an all-powerful Lokpal with the right to haul up bureaucrats and any elected representative for any act of corruption. The movement worked on the basic cynical premise that the ruling class is corrupt unless and otherwise proved.

The then-Manmohan Singh government that was besieged by various corruption charges, courted Mr. Kejriwal and his band. First, the government’s advisory body, the National Advisory Council, drafted a Lokpal Bill, which the IAC rejected as ineffectual. They gave Mr. Kejriwal a place in a committee instituted to draft the Jan Lokpal Bill, but he quit, saying his voice was not heard.

As per many strategists in the Congress, this was a misstep. The campaign against the government only intensified reaching a crescendo with mass protests in Delhi with Mr. Hazare at the centre of it and Mr. Kejriwal being his lieutenant. Between the 2011 protests and the formation of the AAP on November 26, 2012, Mr. Hazare and many other erstwhile faces of the movement were left in the wayside.

Apart from the AAP, there are only two other examples — N.T. Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta’s Asom Gana Parishad in independent India — that rose to power at their very first attempt. Both were founded in parochial sentiments. But the AAP didn’t have any ideological moorings other than confrontation. Those who have closely worked with Mr. Kejriwal claim that he abhors the word “ideology”, which he believes only propagates dogmatism. After his arrest, however, Delhi Minister Gopal Rai said, “Arvind Kejriwal is not a person, he is an ideology.”

Rightward shift

He is not an adherent to leftist or right-wing politics in the strictest of definition. Though, critics point out that the India Against Corruption movement was ably supported by the right wing, which found an opening in breaking the Congress’ stranglehold over power in Delhi. If Mr. Kejriwal and the AAP’s economic outlook is towards a welfare state, he has been speaking the same lexicon as the BJP in the last few years. “The 20% secular space is already overcrowded; there is no point vying for it. And why should we concede the remaining 80% space, he asked us,” a former associate of the Delhi Chief Minister said. He not only switched his lexicon but also walked the whole nine yards with public trips to temples, promising free tours to places of pilgrimage and exhorting Delhiites to participate in Lakshmi Puja on Deepavali.

In 2019, the AAP voted in favour of the abrogation of Article 370 and the Bill stripping Jammu & Kashmir of statehood. Four years later, it would fight against the Delhi Services Bill that handed over the control of Delhi bureaucracy to the Lt. Governor.

Mr. Kejriwal is a man who has seen more successes than failures. The AAP’s foray in Punjab resulted in a spectacular victory in 2022. In 11 years since its formation, it was accorded national party status in September 2023 by the Election Commission on the back of the votes it polled in Delhi, Goa, Punjab and Gujarat. It currently is part of the INDIA bloc, along with the Congress, against whom Mr. Kejriwal ran a sustained and relentless campaign. On his arrest, the Congress too joined the other Opposition parties to speak up in Mr. Kejriwal’s support.

His arrest on Thursday is the biggest ever challenge thrown at the AAP as well as its leader. As he was led away by ED officers after his remand hearing at the Rouse Avenue Court, just few metres away from the AAP’s headquarters, he remained defiant. “My life is dedicated to the country, whether I am inside (jail) or outside,” he said. The question the political observers are asking is whether his party that revolves entirely on his persona would survive this attack in his absence or not.

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