By M.R. Narayan Swamy and Gaurav Sharma
For one dubbed a maverick and written off politically less than a year ago, Arvind Kejriwal has proved to be more wily than his seasoned political rivals who underestimated this slightly built, doughty fighter who has made an incredible comeback by scripting his second sensational election victory in the space of just 15 months.
After being a lone ranger for years when he battled corruption by contractors and officials in a Delhi slum, the former government official-turned activist-turned-chief minister has become a household name across India with his direct style and unconventional dressing that earned him this time the sobriquet of “Muffler man” because of the way he campaigned through Delhi’s severe winter wrapped in colourful mufflers.
But those who have known him for long say Kejriwal is much more than an activist-turned-politician devoted to battling corruption. He knows his mission.
“AK is really focussed,” said Pankaj Gupta, a former IT professional who has known the 46-year-old leader for 15 years. “He has clear thinking. He is a very tough taskmaster.”
Gupta, who has been with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) since it was born in 2012, says the former Delhi chief minister, otherwise a diabetic, is very energetic — a trait he shares with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But what friends like about Kejriwal is that despite his stunning political success, he lives and dresses simply, has no airs about himself, has a spiritual bent of mind and respects elders. In fact he displayed a puckish sense of humour when he reportedly told the online chat show The Viral Fever: “Political parties criticise me for my political statement; you are criticising me for my fashion statement. At home my wife criticises me for my bank statement. Everyone just criticises me.”
After the AAP was routed across the country in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and Kejriwal personally lost a prestigious battle to Narendra Modi in Varanasi, there was gloom in the party. Kejriwal – who had earlier quit as Delhi’s chief minister after just 49 days – became a butt of jokes.
The I-care-a-damn Kejriwal was the first to come out of the shock. Showing uncommon resilience for a political rookie, he immediately began to rebuild the bruised AAP, now determined to claw back to power in the capital. His personality ensured that despite some desertions, the bulk of AAP’s volunteers remained with him, sharing his idealism and confidence that the the party could bounce back.
And when it did in Saturday’s Delhi election, the BJP and the Congress — who had mocked at him a “bagoda” (quitter) — had egg on their face. There was also a grudging respect for the born fighter.
Much before embracing politics, Kejriwal for years fought for the rights of the urban poor as he took up issues — from transparency to corruption. But few knew him, even after he got the Ramon Magsaysay award in the Philippines, an honour often described as Asia’s Nobel Prize.
It was Kejriwal who dramatically transformed the anti-corruption movement of social activist Anna Hazare into a successful political party in just two years and took to politics much against his mentor’s wishes as he knew that, if he had to change things in the country, there was no other way but the political route.
Kejriwal was born Aug 16, 1968 in a middle class family in Siwan village in Haryana where he had early education in English-medium missionary schools. The eldest of three children grew up with a Hindu religious mindset. But religion faded away in college.
Kejriwal wanted to be a doctor. But he went to the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur instead, studying mechanical engineering. He went on to join the Indian Revenue Service. He married a colleague, and they have two children, Harshita and Pulkit.
As an officer in the income tax department notorious for corruption, Kejriwal did what few would have dared — he tried to clean up the system within. A chastened income tax department was forced to implement his reforms to make itself more transparent and less capricious.
While on leave, Kejriwal unleashed a “Don’t Pay Bribes” campaign at the electricity department. He asked visitors not to pay bribes and offered to facilitate their dealings for free.
By then, he had founded an NGO, Parivartan (Change), which put to use the Delhi Right to Information Act of 2001 to expose mind-boggling swindling of money by corrupt officers and contractors at Sundernagari, a slum area.
His dedication fetched him the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2006 — for “emergent leadership”. But it was his decision to join forces with Hazare that made Kejriwal a household name in Delhi in 2011.
While Hazare returned to his village in Maharashtra after the government caved in to mass protests, Kejriwal kept up the tempo, branching off from the India Against Corruption group to form the AAP in November 2012.
The AAP steadily expanded its influence in Delhi as it took up one public issue after another, undermining the Congress and the BJP.
Kejriwal was not content with just fighting petty officials. He called Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra corrupt. And he also targeted then BJP president Nitin Gadkari.
In December 2013, the AAP stunned everyone by bagging 28 of Delhi’s 70 seats, reducing the then ruling Congress to a single digit and preventing the Bharatiya Janata Party from getting a majority.
Kejriwal himself created history by defeating three-time chief minister Sheila Dikshit by over 25,000 votes.
But the 49 days he was chief minister with Congress backing proved to be tumultuous. Kejriwal lost much of middle class support as he took to the streets against Delhi Police and did a two-night long ‘dharna’ (sit-in) close to Rajpath just before Republic Day 2014. Critics declared the man would always be a street fighter and an anti-establishment protester, never an administrator.
Kejriwal re-invented himself after the Lok Sabha debacle, rebuilding the AAP brick by brick, with the help of close associates and dedicated volunteers. By the time Delhi elections were announced for February 2015, the man had gained much of the goodwill he had lost.
For all his activism and politics, Kejriwal is a movie buff and loves to crack and hear jokes. Friends say he would often pull others’ legs. “He is honest to the core,” says Manish Sisodia, who was a minister in Kejriwal’s government. “And courageous. It is not often you find a man both honest and courageous.”