“Sir, don’t call off the fast”


Arvind Kejriwal, photograph by Joe Athialy

From Caravan:

Shortly after Anna Hazare broke his fast-unto-death on 9 April, a group of young people encircled a small man with a black moustache at Jantar Mantar and began shouting the famous pre-independence slogan: Inquilab Zindabad! (Long Live Revolution!). He continued walking toward a group of cars when a young man wearing a red bandanna pushed through the crowd, blocking his way and screaming out, “Sir, don’t call off the fast. Repeat the revolution.” The man returned the smile, and slid into the car.

This man was Arvind Kejriwal, a 43-year-old social activist from East Delhi. Though Hazare is the recognised face of an anti-corruption campaign that began with his fast on 5 April, Kejriwal is the architect of the movement—the man journalists swarm to, seeking an interview. At press briefings, he often sits next to Hazare and helps the self-styled Gandhian handle tough questions: Kejriwal whispers into Hazare’s ear or scribbles key points on a piece of paper lying between them. When questions are posed to Kejriwal, he responds like an impassioned professor explaining a complicated problem—piling detail upon detail with the supreme confidence that his answer is the correct one. His essential message never changes: only a powerful independent anti-corruption agency, with wide-ranging authority and minimal government interference, can cure the plague of graft—and anything less will fail.

The ideas that would eventually lead to the Jan Lokpal Bill—and plans for a mass mobilisation to support it—had been on Kejriwal’s mind at least since September 2010, when public frustration with the inept preparations for the Commonwealth Games erupted into fury over evidence of widespread corruption. India’s middle classes, who already saw the event as a tremendous waste of money, were further enraged when the Games delivered nothing but international embarrassment and a multi-million rupee scam. Kejriwal, however, saw an opportunity to mobilise public opinion against corruption, and began to plot the course that would lead “Team Anna” into a high-profile showdown with the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition. He spent his days consulting with experts and prospective allies, from lawyers to bankers to former bureaucrats and religious leaders, as well as his colleagues in the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). He devoted his nights to drafting and revising a bill to create a new Lokpal: an independent body vested with the extraordinary powers—to investigate, prosecute and sometimes even judge—that Kejriwal thought necessary to prevent any politician or bureaucrat from obstructing the agency’s work.

Though Kejriwal is attentive to the cultural causes of corruption—he told me that “greed and the downfall of moral values” played a role—he believes a failing enforcement system is ultimately to blame. “If you talk of corruption in administration,” he explained, “the issue is a lack of adequate deterrence. There is zero risk in corruption here—it’s a high-profit business.” In short, while bad people may commit fraud, good systems can stop them. It’s a point Kejriwal—who owns a car but takes the Delhi Metro almost every day—likes to illustrate with a transit parable he’s often used at press conferences. “If you travel by Indian Railways, you’ll see chaos, confusion and corruption everywhere,” he told me. “But if you travel by Delhi Metro, you’ll see everything in order. It is not because good people travel by Metro, it is because Metro has a right system in place.” And the Lokpal, Kejriwal continued, “is that right system, which will set this country in the right direction.”

Anna Hazare on the 2nd day of his fast, 2011, photograph by Pankaj Jangid