Arvind Kejriwal’s three-storied office in Kaushambi, Ghaziabad, has a queer resemblance to the numerous engineering entrance exam coaching centres one finds in tier 2 cities of India. The rooms are bustling with activity. Groups of two or three young volunteers huddle together, discussing fervently. Each door has a computer printout stuck on it: ‘Toilet’, ‘Please take off your shoes before entering’ and so on. And there’s the doormat, which says ‘Let’s stamp out corruption’.
Kejriwal’s closest aide, Manish Sisodia, sits in one of the rooms, talking to a middle-aged man with a walking stick. At the next table, an old man is explaining his electricity woes to one of the young volunteers of India Against Corruption, Kejriwal’s NGO. It is three in the afternoon and Sisodia missed his lunch. He is hurriedly eating water chestnuts out of a polythene bag and ignores the calls he gets on his BlackBerry and iPhone. The man talking to him has come from Dibrugarh in Assam and Sisodia is assessing how many people are willing to work for the new party that Kejriwal announced on October 2.
The man tells him that he can get 10-12 people to work on weekends. “Just by working on weekends we cannot build this nation, sir!” says Sisodia. “Tell me how many people are willing to work every day making this [campaigning] their top priority?”
The man from Assam cannot think of anyone except himself and a retired professor. “But will he [the professor] be able to walk across villages to build cadres?” asks Sisodia.
That, in a nutshell, is the biggest hurdle IAC faces as it transitions from an NGO to a political party. As a social movement, it could sustain fasts and protests based in Delhi while the media, especially the 24-hour news channels, took its message to millions across the country. But the media is unlikely to extend that courtesy while IAC tries to build its cadres as a political party. For that, IAC requires hordes of committed people who have such belief in Kejriwal’s vision for India that they forego weeks and months of regular vocation.
And there’s the rub. Kejriwal’s vision for India, elaborately detailed in his book Swaraj, is a disastrous mix of idealism, naïveté and blindness bordering on the idiotic. It has received scant attention; the media has mostly followed Kejriwal’s valiant attempts to expose the rotten underbelly of India’s political establishment.
Kejriwal wants to change the way Indians govern themselves. He hopes to bring “truly participative” democracy where assemblies of voters called gram sabhas (rural) and mohalla sabhas (urban) will decide what is best for them instead of some Central planner sitting in Delhi. Sounds good until you get down to brass-tacks. For land acquisition, Kejriwal’s solution is to grant the final word to the gram sabha, which in his opinion “is best positioned to negotiate” with the big corporate houses. This will cut down corruption by bureaucrats and ministers. It doesn’t matter to him that most rural folks may not be sophisticated enough to know the “best deal”. Or that the company may bribe the influential leaders of the gram sabha, instead of the bureaucrats, to get a favourable verdict. “Let it be. If leaders fail them, then people will not trust them next time!” he says. But will there be a next time for poor farmers who have lost their land in a sub-optimal deal?
“We have met the enemy and he is us”
In 2009, a group of young professionals and students from India’s top institutions, decided they would fight for one seat in the Lok Sabha elections. Calling themselves Youth for Equality (YFE), they believed Indians needed and desired a different set of politicians—leaders who would not play politics based on caste, creed, etc.
They chose the New Delhi constituency. Instead of nominating candidates, they decided to let the people choose their own candidate. This involved an SMS campaign to invite a long list of credible names, followed by internal investigations and several rounds of interviews with the candidates. Finally, they held a public gathering at Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk where three former high court judges scrutinised the final three candidates in front of a crowd of 1,600. Judges gave points while the candidates debated with each other and answered queries from the public.
To fund the election, YFE members went around the constituency, collecting donations to fight the election. They collected Rs 1.2 crore and spent Rs 70,000 campaigning for the election.
Result: Their candidate, a woman with an Indian Army background, came fourth in the race.
President and founder of the YFE Dr Kaushal Kant Mishra, an orthopaedic surgeon in Delhi, says the whole team was shocked. “We realised that you simply can’t win an election in India because people themselves don’t want to change. They only vote on the basis of caste or the obscene amount of money that flows through from the bigger political parties,” says a demoralised Kaushal. He avoids using his surname, which points to an upper caste slab among Hindus.
This is more than just a cautionary tale for ‘Team Arvind’ for two reasons. One, Kejriwal’s method of fighting elections is eerily similar to the YFE’s. Two, it also points to the true nature of the Indian voter.
Congress’ inept and scam-ridden rule has meant that a change of guard is imminent in Delhi. More importantly, it is now abundantly clear that India needs a better set of politicians. The fear is do Indians want it?
“Ours is a very fractious society. Caste, region, religion… you know the irrational factors that ordinarily should not play part in nation building,” laments Jayaprakash Narayan who founded Lok Satta party in 2006 but holds just one seat in the Andhra Pradesh state Assembly.
“When you and I talk about India, we talk about an India which transcends all these. But the real India does not transcend all these. For any sensitive soul, it is a very painful thing to accept. You do not like to confront these things. But the moment you become a political force you have to confront these.”
Like Kaushal, Narayan too lauds Kejriwal’s effort but feels India is far from ready for the kind of politics Kejriwal hopes to initiate.
This is in stark contrast to Kejriwal’s expectation of a wave against corrupt politicians. He hopes to ride this wave and establish a new order where gram sabhas would take over the decision-making role of elected representatives like village headmen, and members of state (MLA) and national legislature (MP).
But how would that change anything? Would the people in each gram sabha not continue to split along caste and creed?
“It cannot happen,” he declares promptly. “It has been tried out at many places,” he says, referring to the experiences of villages like Ralegan Siddhi and Hivre Bazaar where decision making by gram sabhas led to a reversal of the area’s fortunes. But that is two out of the six lakh villages in India! It is hard to see such examples as anything more than exceptions in a country where almost half the people abstain from voting.
“We want better people to enter politics but by itself we consider politics as a dirty field,” says Anil Bairwal, the national co-ordinator for Association of Democratic Reforms. It is no surprise that over the years, an increasing number of candidates with criminal antecedents have won elections.
In any case, just possessing a high moral character is not enough for people to elect you. As voters, we want to know whether a particular person will be able to win and if he would provide us a favour when we need it. Often the ‘winnable’ candidates are also some of the most corrupt ones.
Compare this to Kejriwal’s utopian belief: “If untied funds [i.e. not allocated to specific schemes] are made available to villages, people will sit in gram sabha meetings and take decisions regarding the poor amongst them, serve their needs, provide them with ration and ensure that nobody remains hungry, provide shelter for all and ensure that all children attend school.”
Political observers believe that such a political behaviour is a far cry without first carrying out social reforms like compulsory and free education as well as compulsory voting.
As things stand, Kejriwal faces two big challenges if he wants to win elections. One, he needs to find the people who would not consider voting for him a ‘waste’. Second, he needs to have enough leaders who have the unique combination of ability, stature and willingness to go the whole hog.
THE KEJRIWAL CONUNDRUM
But problems for Kejriwal’s proposed party begin closer home. Does this new bunch of self-righteous social activists have the political sagacity and leadership to make Indians vote otherwise?
The long answer is more illuminating than the short one.
Kejriwal has to overcome his own ideological inconsistencies and the resulting internal dissensions before he can pose a serious threat to the established order.
The first area of concern is Kejriwal’s naïve understanding of corruption. He has maintained that all the ills that the country faces are due to corruption. That includes everything from inefficient and dubious sale of coal blocks and telecom spectrum to higher electricity bills. While corruption is an all-pervading phenomenon, yet, in most cases, it is more in the shape of a symptom than the cause.
“There is often a demand supply mismatch in the economy which leads to corruption. Tell me, why do we still bribe a train ticket collector and almost never bribe the bus conductor? There is much greater shortage in trains,” argues MR Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research. The answer is to get the country out of a shortage economy. Kejriwal’s solutions are not forward-looking and often simplistic. To avoid increasing LPG prices, for instance, he proposes Delhi should have forgone hosting the Commonwealth Games.
In fact, fellow activists like Anjali Bhardwaj of NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) wonder how Kejriwal believes that an almost draconian Jan Lokpal could alleviate corruption. Jan Lokpal is an ombudsman proposed by Kejriwal with sweeping powers to investigate and punish all the organs of the government, including the judiciary. “It betrays a lack of understanding of why corruption happens in the first place,” she says.
Similarly, Kejriwal’s idea of local people directly deciding on all issues may not be the best recipe for India. “Imagine what direct voting can do on an issue like the Babri Masjid,” says Madhavan. Democracy is not the rule by majority. It requires deliberations, which an indirect representation, like in India, provides for.
Shockingly, Kejriwal admits that it is entirely possible that many villages will not be able to resolve their disputes and fail to improve. “At least then people will not be blaming the politicians. They will have to accept that they are useless and are responsible for their bad situation,” he says with a sudden nonchalance.
The ideological inconsistencies have become even more glaring as Kejriwal has donned the politician’s hat. A case in point is the provision for caste-based reservation in Kejriwal’s vision document. “This is very unlike Arvind but he will have to do some of this now that he is running a party,” says a team member.
Kejriwal has also betrayed an autocratic, inflexible streak in the manner in which he led negotiations with the government in the past. A crucial moment was when he rejected the final draft of the Lokpal Bill before the last winter session of Parliament. Many believe his vehement opposition allowed the political class to put down a good enough bill while demoralising IAC volunteers and confusing the public at large.
“When the CBI was independent, he tore the draft calling it a Jokepal because it did not have some other elements,” says Bhardwaj. Later, the Lok Sabha passed another version and he decried that it does not have CBI’s independence, which was the “soul” of the Jan Lokpal. “If it was the soul then he could have accepted the previous draft and allowed some amendments to tighten the legislation over time,” she says.
The RTI, which is possibly the most bitter pill for the government to swallow, has had over 150 amendments to make it a tougher law.
The episode also shows Kejriwal’s inability to build consensus—perhaps the most important attribute required to lead in modern day coalition politics. His record with his own team members is telling. The list of fellow Magsaysay Award winners who parted ways with Kejriwal includes Rajendra Singh, Sandeep Pandey, Medha Patkar and most recently Kiran Bedi. The most damning was his falling out with Anna Hazare on September 19.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ARVIND
Despite these drawbacks, Kejriwal has been the organisational force driving the anti-corruption movement. Anna Hazare still believes politics is dirty and yet hopes to support good candidates. But where they would come from is not clear. Both Baba Ramdev and Kiran Bedi have shown a sympathetic attitude towards the BJP, making the public wonder about their motivations. The father-son duo of Shanti and Prashant Bhushan is still being heckled in the media over the plots of land they received from the UP government.
The recent exposés (see box on page 39) have struck a chord with the masses, especially the youth. Like Sarasan, the 27-year-old engineering graduate from Kerala who has come to meet “Arvind Sir”. Sarasan works as a teacher in Agra and urges his students to follow Kejriwal—“today’s Bhagat Singh”.
This is essentially why Kejriwal is important. He has rekindled the desire among many, including the old, to participate in the political process. His focus on engaging the youth as well as urging women could be a game changer—at least for the larger political scene in the country, if not for a Kejriwal-led party. And Kejriwal is well aware of this.
“We would consider it our success if some of your agenda items gradually find their way into the manifestos of the larger political parties,” said Kejriwal during his speech while announcing his party. “Perhaps when they [larger political parties] see our candidates they will at least replace the most corrupt candidate with a less corrupt one!” he joked.
Election results, which by most accounts are unlikely to be in his favour, are not the way to evaluate Kejriwal’s efforts. The real merit lies in the agenda-setting role his party plays in future elections. By stoking the public’s interest on the right issues and providing a contrast to the existing political establishment, Kejriwal could yet prove to be hugely influential in Indian politics.
However, the biggest challenge is still ahead of Kejriwal.
“Unquestionably, a large number of Indians, at least ephemerally, seem to want a change. The challenge is how to convert this ephemeral desire into durable action,” sums up Narayan.
(This story appears in the 09 November, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)