Arvind Kejriwal: the Agitator turned Electioneer

14 January, 2015

In the coming Delhi Assembly polls on 7 February, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won the most seats in the 2013 Assembly election, is up against the Aam Aadmi Party for the 70 Delhi constituencies. Both parties have discounted the Congress as rival. The BJP is going forward with Narendra Modi as the face of their campaign, while the AAP is projecting Arvind Kejriwal as a chief ministerial candidate for the second time—Kejriwal resigned from his post in February last year, after just forty-nine days in office. The current AAP campaign is significantly subdued when compared to the run-up to the 2013 polls. In 2011, Mehboob Jeelani caught up with Kejriwal while the Lokpal agitations were in full swing. In this extract from 'The Insurgent,' we see a more obstinate and fiery Kejriwal compared to the man standing for chief ministership today.

Over the course of the summer, like a tiny but committed guerrilla army looking to provoke a powerful adversary, Kejriwal and Team Anna continued their campaign against the government and its Lokpal proposal. Kejriwal did everything possible to keep the campaign alive and solicit further support from the public and opposition parties, hoping to keep up the pressure with a series of press briefings and increasingly combative television appearances.

Criticism that Team Anna’s methods and intentions were undemocratic had gathered considerable steam, and it became the semi-official line of the government, which insisted that unelected individuals had no right to force a  legislation on a democratic Parliament.

This is a critique that, unsurprisingly, Kejriwal finds entirely unpersuasive, either because he believes the end justify the means or, as he has sometimes implied, because democracy doesn’t work very well to begin with.

Under a barrage of prosecutorial questions from CNN-IBN’s Karan Thapar earlier this year, Kejriwal had presented a version of the latter argument: “We are a democratic country?” he said quizzically. “The democracy that we have has been so representative that the people have a right to vote once every five years and that’s it.” (“The situation in our country is so bad,” he added later, for good measure. “It is worse than it used to be in British times.”)

But when Thapar accused him of attempting to “blackmail” the government, Kejriwal returned to firmer ground, turning the tables back on his interrogator and providing a preview of the strategy for the coming months.

“How should a person in a democracy protest?” Kejriwal asked.

“By constitutional means,” Thapar responded.

“What are those constitutional means?”

“By seeking votes, by seeking a campaign, by going petitioning in Parliament with all,” Thapar replied, a hint of anger on his face.

Kejriwal’s answer—a long one—was particularly revealing. It outlined almost the entirety of his uncompromising political worldview, in which seeking to join what he regards as a corrupt system has no appeal, and in which the opinion of the public deserves tremendous respect—unless, that is, it’s being converted into votes for politicians.

“Suppose I don’t want to go and fight elections,” Kejriwal began, calmly. “I am a citizen of this country and I am feeling, I mean there is injustice and there is so much of corruption, and if I want to raise my voice, I go and petition the politicians. It doesn’t work. I go and petition the bureaucrats. It doesn’t work. I try to meet them. I meet all of them, and it doesn’t work. Then I think building public opinion is a very critical part of a democracy.”

The government wanted to fight Team Anna using the force of its own legitimacy, and the crux of Kejriwal’s strategy was to attack that legitimacy in the court of public opinion. He called for the public to burn copies of the government’s Lokpal Bill at demonstrations in Delhi and Mumbai, and ventured into the constituencies of senior Congressmen in an attempt to prove that their own voters preferred Team Anna’s proposal.

In late July, Kejriwal sent his teams to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi—the constituency of Union Minister for Human Resources Development Kapil Sibal, a prominent Congress spokesman and a member of the drafting committee—where they carried out a ‘referendum’ on the Lokpal. A week later, Kejriwal announced that 85 percent of voters preferred Team Anna’s bill; the result may not have been statistically rigorous, but it landed on the front page of almost every newspaper. In early August, the exercise was repeated in Rahul Gandhi’s Amethi constituency, in Uttar Pradesh, with similar results from the voters and media alike. With yet another contentious Parliament session under way—and with it a new barrage of protests and accusations from the elected opposition—the government began to vent its own frustrations. As the date of Hazare’s threatened fast drew closer, Congress spokesmen lashed out, accusing Hazare of personal corruption and describing the protest movement as the work of “armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists...lurking behind forces of right reaction and funded by invisible donors whose links may go back a long way abroad”.

The government, which had unwittingly—and irreversibly—conferred legitimacy on Team Anna by constituting the drafting committee to begin with, appeared to be nervously fumbling for a strategy to turn public opinion back in its favour. Negotiations over the ground rules for Hazare’s fast were going nowhere: the deputy commissioner of Delhi Police refused to sanction a gathering of more than 5,000 people or one that lasted more than three days—conditions that Kejriwal’s team rejected outright and the government denied having ordered. “Permission or not, we’ll sit,” Kejriwal said on 14 August, while Hazare volunteered that he would submit to arrest and encouraged supporters to do the same.

On the rainy morning of 16 August, Anna and Kejriwal prepared to leave the apartment in Mayur Vihar to begin the hunger strike in central Delhi’s JP Park. Journalists, who had staked out the entrance before dawn, reported that there was no sign of any uniformed police officers before 7 am, although three or four men in plainclothes were seen circling the perimeter of the building at 10-minute intervals, as if waiting for Hazare to emerge. The night before, Kejriwal had alerted about two dozen of his seniormost activists about the possibility he and Hazare would be arrested.

“He told us that if Anna is arrested in the morning, by the evening the number of court arrests should be in the thousands,” Kejriwal’s associate, Kumar Vishwas, told me the day after.

At around 7:15 am, a large contingent of police in riot gear circled the compound, and one of Hazare’s supporters waiting outside phoned Kejriwal with the news. Before leaving the apartment, Kejriwal quickly filmed a statement by Hazare about his impending arrest, calling on supporters to calmly assemble in JP Park, and to volunteer for arrest if confronted by police.

Kejriwal and Hazare walked out of the elevator and into the arms of half-a-dozen plainclothesmen, who arrested Hazare and whisked him off in a white SUV; Kejriwal was driven away in another vehicle.

By early afternoon, the video of Hazare filmed before his arrest was all over Indian television. Thousands of protestors had taken to the streets of Delhi and other major Indian cities. The arrests were condemned by almost every other political party, and the government faced a furious backlash that dominated the Indian airwaves and made headlines the next day in newspapers around the world.

After three days of further wrangling, during which Hazare obstinately refused to leave Delhi’s Tihar Jail—where a steady crowd gathered outside and chanted anti-government slogans day and night—the Congress, battered and bruised, essentially surrendered to Team Anna’s conditions for the fast, granting 15 days rather than the initial three, though Kejriwal and his colleagues had pushed for an entire month.

In the meantime, the protesting crowds continued to grow, and Kejriwal’s strategy—his relentless campaign to deligitimise the government among the public—had been given its most significant push by the Congress’s own hand.

An extract from ‘The Insurgent’ published in The Caravan’s September 2011 issue. Read the story in full here

Mehboob Jeelani  is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University.