Most of what is worth knowing about Arvind Kejriwal is already in the public domain. His education at IIT Kharagpur, his subsequent career as a bureaucrat, his role as an RTI (right to information) activist, all of it has been chronicled assiduously. Combined with his more recent alliances with Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi and his subsequent fallout with both, it has all been written about and analysed threadbare.
As a consequence, we know this man—relentless yet completely open to every scrutiny. We know of his small town heartbeat for justice; we know of his lust for going at the stony walls of crooked governance.
There is a lot about him that suggests he may be the new kind of politician we have long hoped for. He is ambitious and self confident, often to the point of being cocky, and he has the intellectual horse power to steer a brand new political party through the maelstrom of Indian politics.
Two ever-so-brief encounters, long before he became the phenomenon he is today, convince me that he could be the real thing. In 2004, a mutual friend suggested I come along for a meeting to discuss a website for Parivartan, the Delhi-based citizen’s movement for fostering accountable governance that Kejriwal had set up. The meeting was in a converted garage in Delhi’s middle class enclave of Munirka. Over tea and biscuits the group discussed its plans. Kejriwal dominated the conversation and seemed slightly autocratic. But what struck me most was his question “What will a website do for our work?” In 2004, when even dry-fruit traders wanted a web presence, it was a perceptive, if somewhat obvious, question to ask and one that suggested he wasn’t going to accept things just because that’s how they were being done.
The next time I got another glimpse of his personality was in 2006 when he came to the offices of the software firm MindTree in Bangalore to receive an award for social entrepreneurship from the Ashoka Foundation. It was a conclave of other social entrepreneurs like him and a few wealthy Indian American angel investors from Silicon Valley looking to put some of their dollars behind social initiatives.
In that context, Kejriwal spoke about his latest passion—the fledgling RTI movement. One of the investors, another IIT alumnus, asked him the standard question all angels do when they see a good thing: “How much do you want?” Kejriwal replied with little emotion, that he didn’t need any funds for his nine-man organization. RTI, he said is what needs to grow in India and that can’t happen with funds. Plainly money wasn’t going to be a key driver in this man’s life.
Kejriwal is no middle-class seeker. When he inveighed against the rampant corruption in all government dealings, it was the middle-class that sent out a collective cheer. But as he announces the formation of a party, what will give him the momentum needed to become a national player will be the backlash of the poorest of the land. Already his detractors fault him for breaking ranks with his co-conspirators in the great march against corruption. But that probably comes from a flawed understanding of who he is. For Kejriwal is no fence-sitter.
Should we fault him for getting off the sidelines to join battle? We didn’t question a Raj or an Uddhav Thackeray for their political ambitions. The constitution allows everyone the right to contest the polls without asking for any guarantees on what they will do post-elections. We cheered as Mamata took on the might of the Left in Bengal but are now too embarrassed to question ourselves when she appears to be going berserk—what did we expect.
Amid the crass and the corrupt who seek out a career in Indian politics for the goodies on offer, Kejriwal stands out for his transparency, his background and his doggedness. His refusal to be batted away by the woolly mammoths in Indian politics indicates a degree of cussedness that would have gladdened the heart of the obstinate old man on whose 143rd birth anniversary he has chosen to launch his political party. How he fares at the hustings remains to be seen. But India’s crowded political space needs more such people to muscle out the current lot of malfeasants and their scions. The civilizational cost of turning away Arvind Kejriwal could be high because at this point of moral turpitude, we could land bang into the 1970s if social unrest and social disaffections are any indicators.