A small nondescript man invariably attired in baggy shirtsleeves, plain trousers and oversized sandals, the easy-to-miss Kejriwal has emerged as AAP’s only public face.
Arvind Kejriwal’s aggressive campaign in the Delhi Assembly elections is turning conventional politics on its head
You are misguiding the people.” Sheila Dikshit’s mid-morning telephone call on October 12 took the Aam Aadmi Party’s ( AAP) constituency in-charge in New Delhi, Gopal Mohan, 28, by surprise. But it also conveyed to him the Delhi Chief Minister’s evident angst at the increasingly tangible prospect of losing her job after 15 eventful years in office.
The challenger to the throne, AAP’s chief ministerial face Arvind Kejriwal, 45, is taking a brief break from electioneering at the party’s bustling office on Hanuman Road. He listens in as Mohan puts his Blackberry on speakerphone: Dikshit objects vehemently to AAP’s poll promise of establishing a Lokpal in the Capital. “Delhi already has a good Lokayukta,” she insists. “Yeh tum theek nahi kar rahe ho (this is not right),” she complains, when the young AAP volunteer politely points out that the existing Lokayukta “lacks any real teeth”. Kejriwal quickly loses interest in the curious conversation and heads off to his next election meeting in Rithala (northwest Delhi). A day later, he tweets: “Sheilaji called Gopal, my campaign manager in ND const, yesterday. She wants him to come and explain Lokpal to her. Why now? Ab yaad ayee?”
Kejriwal, the eternal anarchist with a long history of defying political authority, is spearheading an incredible campaign intent on edging the Congress and BJP into political wilderness. He wants to change the very face of politics in India.
Shunning traditional means, his campaign relies on more than 7,000 dedicated volunteers—students, factory workers, young women and men on sabbatical from their jobs, cab drivers, retired civil servants—who go from house to house telling people why change is not only important but imminent. The effort is liberally funded, albeit far less than what mainstream political parties are known to spend on elections, by a swelling legion of nearly 50,000 contributors who pooled in almost Rs 11 crore between January and October 16.
“We have listed each and every contribution to the last rupee,” says Kejriwal, citing AAP’S web portal, which updates the list of donors in real time, to underscore his commitment to real transparency while snuffing allegations of “dubious foreign funding”. Described by his colleague and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan as “one tiny fellow speaking the truth”, Kejriwal predicts no less than 47 seats—four more than the Congress’s overwhelming majority in Delhi’s incumbent Assembly—for AAP in the December 4 polls. Ninety per cent of AAP’S candidates are relatively young, first time politicians—a mithaiwallah from Janakpuri, a pehalwaan from Chhatarpur, a highly respected sculptor of religious idols from Gokulpur, an architect in Shakurbasti—each one sent up by local people. Kejriwal also insists that all nominees sign written undertakings that they will remain transparent and accountable to their constituents.
He can smell success. “Something extraordinary is about to happen in Delhi on December 4,” the aam aadmi-turned-politician promises a swelling mix of lower-rung government employees, students and petty shopkeepers in Sarojini Nagar. Kejriwal is confident. The phoolwallah (flower seller) at Khan Market informed him how nearly eight out of every 10 of his customers are saying they will vote for AAP. “It’s true,” he says, “just go out onto the street and ask the first 10 people you encounter.”
The confidence he exudes may just be more than the usual rhetoric one hears from politicians even when the cards are impossibly stacked against them. Successively polling the rapidly changing mood of Delhi’s voters since February this year, with the assistance of former students at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies ( CSDS), Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and AAP’s most visible ideologue, says the findings are nothing less than astonishing. When
team Kejriwal parted ways with Anna Hazare to launch the Aam Aadmi Party on November 26, 2012, they expected to be in for the long haul. Yadav says AAP saw its future course along the lines of Bahujan Samaj Party ( BSP) patriarch and mentor Kanshi Ram’s often cited adage: “Pehla chunaav haarne ke liye. Doosra chunaav haraane ke liye. Aur teesra chunaav
AAP’s campaign is liberally funded by nearly 50,000 contributors who pooled in almost Rs 11 crore between January and October 16. It has 7,000 volunteers who canvass door-to-door.
jeetne ke liye (The first election is for losing. The second is for defeating. And the third is for winning).”
But an early October poll conducted for AAP by Delhi-based Cicero Associates places the party’s projected vote share at 32 per cent, at least three percentage points ahead of the
Congress. This, Yadav says, is a dramatic shift since February when AAP, at 14 per cent, trailed behind both Congress and BJP, which were tied at 35 per cent. “We are suddenly faced with the very real prospect of being called upon to form the next state government in Delhi,” he says. He, however, admits that the survey does not account for “immeasurables” like bogus votes or the influence of liquor and money. The party was notably at ‘number three’ behind Congress and BJP in the India Today-CVoter Mood of the Nation Poll, conducted just over a month ahead of AAP’S in-house survey. The findings however showed Kejriwal as Delhi’s second most popular chief ministerial choice reflecting significant voter interest in the AAP convener.
Perhaps the only senior member of the fledgling party who is not surprised by the numbers, Kejriwal predicts that “AAP’s advantage will swell to decisive proportions by the time Delhi’s voters line up outside polling booths on December 4”. He points to the zerotolerance stance adopted by the Election Commission in ordering the cancellation of nearly 1.4 million bogus voters. Also, people in the poorest quarters, who are perhaps the most vulnerable to allurements of alcohol and cash, are wiser this time, he says. “They are telling us, ‘ hum lenge toh dono se, lekin thhappa jhadoo pe lagayenge (We will take from both BJP and Congress but will vote for AAP)’.” Kejriwal is convinced his party’s sustained campaign in Delhi’s numerous jhuggi settlements “has made people wise up to the fact that bribes offered for votes is nothing but public money looted by big parties”.
“This election will be a contest between honesty and corruption. The BJP has been in power in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi ( MCD) for the past seven years and Congress in the state government for 15 years. Both have been unabashedly dishonest. People have been watching and this time they have an honest alternative,” Kejriwal says. His poll strategy is premised on his early experiences with Parivartan, a voluntary group he founded in 1999, and more recently, Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal movement. The campaign is crafted to engage with individual voters via nukkad sabhas (street corner meetings), constituency-wise manifesto meetings where voters are invited to submit suggestions on ways to improve governance in their local areas, and sustained door-to-door visits. “People want answers to their questions and
there is no way you can do this from a 12-ft-high stage with barricades separating them from you,” he says. It
had initially amused onlookers. His rivals collapsed with mirth. But the image of AAP’s best-known face actually listening while constituents tell him their local area needs is now rapidly endearing Kejriwal to men and women who will elect Delhi’s next government. Amidst a cluster of lower pay-scale government houses in Ansari Nagar on October 13, Kejriwal takes notes as enthused residents list their troubles: The houses are old, not maintained and falling apart, a serving New Delhi Municipal Corporation employee tells him. There ought to be active police patrolling after dark, says a worried mother. Another young woman wants CCTV cameras installed in the colony to deter unruly outsiders. The proposals will be included in AAP’s poll manifesto for the New Delhi Constituency—one of the 70 individual manifestos being prepared for each Assembly segment. Kejriwal says, “The manifestos will be an unprecedented expose of the rot across Delhi.”
Sensing the possibility of actually forming the state government, Kejriwal has backtracked from his controversial advocacy of referendums to formulate state policy: “You cannot run a state through referendums. What I am saying is that they must be peoples’ participation in governance, which is very different from a referendum.”
He is convinced that AAP’s highly personalised drive will result in a significantly higher conversion into actual votes than Sheila Dikshit’s Congress and the seriously divided BJP led by Vijay Goel can achieve through big rallies and star campaigners. “People go to big rallies only for the free food and entertainment—the celebrity value,” Kejriwal says.
If this is even partially true in Delhi this time, there could be big trouble ahead for Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. Bibhav Kumar, 32, who quit his job as a reporter at NDTV to join AAP as Kejriwal’s media manager, says party volunteers have already visited 24,000 of New Delhi constituency’s 30,000 households. More than 12,000
AAP’s vision statement prescribes Swaraj. Kejriwal is convinced that empowering people at the micro level with provoke unimaginable macro changes.
householders, he says, have contributed between one rupee and Rs 10,000 to AAP’s cause. The party’s doorto-door campaign is close to achieving similar numbers in other constituencies, Kumar claims.
Much of Kejriwal’s own confidence as well as the early sense of euphoria within AAP’s ranks springs from the presence of people such as Kumar. More than 7,000 men and women, he says, have taken leave, quit their jobs or come out of retirement to work for the party’s debut election. Twentyseven-year-old Abhishek Banthia quit his job as a process manager at Monster.com in Puducherry when his bosses denied him leave to join AAP’s election effort in Delhi. “I can get another job whenever I want. But this could be my only chance to become a meaningful part of India’s history,” he says. Banthia is working as campaign manager in Shakurbasti.
Forty-eight-year-old Ashok Yadav, a former Mother Dairy employee who was forced to quit following some family problems, is also ‘back at work’ in the AAP’s election office at 41, Hanuman Road. “I was the first to wear the aam aadmi topi on April 4, 2011,” he says with visible pride. Still sporting the signature side cap, Yadav now assists visitors, including the constant trickle of people wanting to sign up as members. The wall behind him bears a large banner depicting an angry, rain-soaked Kejriwal beckoning Delhi’s voters: “Yeh desh ke liye tan, man aur dhan nyuchhawar karne ka avsar hai… .” (“This is the time to give body, mind and money for the country.”)
Kejriwal says, “These people are not here because they idolise Arvind Kejriwal. They only come because they can sense a never-before opportunity to
Kejriwal says the party will sit in the Opposition if it isn’t elected. Being part of any coalition with Congress or BJP, he says, would mean cheating their voters.
clean up the country they all care for.” But there is little doubt that the young party is banking on the former Indian Revenue Service officer for success. A small nondescript man invariably attired in baggy shirtsleeves, plain trousers and oversized sandals, who would normally not even be noticed on the street, Kejriwal has emerged as AAP’s only public face. Responding to the criticism this has drawn, Kejriwal insists that the perception has essentially been created by the media. Yogendra Yadav, however, sees no contradiction in projecting a leader. Kejriwal’s “ordinariness”, he says, makes an in- stant connect with the aam aadmi. Visibility is the essential currency of AAP’S political strategy and is successfully defying the money and muscle power of mainstream parties.
Kejriwal insists that nothing short of a “revolution” can rescue India from the systemic corruption that has invaded every nook of government. He says, “Under our present political system, even a well-meaning set of people cannot provide good governance.” AAP’s vision statement prescribes swaraj or the radical decentralisation of political power to “give people the right to influence policies that affect their local area”, as the essential cure-all solution. Kejriwal is convinced that empowering people at the micro level will provoke “unimaginable” macro changes. “Sarkaron ka character hi badal jeyega,” he says promising “to accord swaraj the status of a legislation within three months of forming the government in Delhi”.
Intent on breaking the cycle of corruption that fuels elections in India, Kejriwal says, “The changes we bring in will make legislative power completely unattractive for corrupt politicians.” Among the first actions, if AAP comes to power, will be the enactment of a Jan Lokpal Bill for Delhi culled from the draft formulated under Anna Hazare’s leadership in 2011.
Yogendra Yadav is working hard to articulate the rest of AAP’s still ambiguous agenda. “Thirty-one policy commit-
tees are close to compiling their work on key areas like foreign policy, national security, and economic philosophy,” he says. “The draft policy document is ready and will soon be available for public debate.” Kejriwal
is more forthcoming: “We are not wedded to any ideology and would happily borrow solutions from both the left and the right.” He also talks of providing an honest environment to do business. “We need to encourage business for creating wealth and employment,” he says, advocating “lesser governmental interventions” barring in vital sectors like healthcare, education and the regulation of natural resources. On foreign policy he says AAP would work towards “peaceful relations with all countries while protecting India’s strategic and economic interests”.
While Kejriwal commands the campaign in Delhi, Yadav and his colleagues in AAP’s national executive are already planning future strategies. “Space for a viable alternative to the Congress and BJP is growing while choices for a third alternative have significantly shrunk,” Yadav says signalling AAP’s intent to usurp that space. The party is looking to make a significant entry into Parliament in 2014 via key states including Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. And besides its finely tuned organisa- tional structure in Delhi, the party has established nearly 400 district level units in place in the states.
Addressing AAP’s first mahila sammelan (women’s conference) at the Constitution Club on Rafi Marg on October 12, Kejriwal is visibly upbeat at seeing the crush of enthused women workers. “Mein logon se kehta hoon ke ye aapko sochna hai ke hum chunaav haar gaye to aap kya karoge (I tell people that it is for them to think what they will do if we lose the elections?),” he says. He is more circumspect when INDIA TODAY asks him what AAP will do if it loses. “We have no Plan B,” he admits. “Aam Aadmi Party will sit in the Opposition if the people don’t elect enough of us.” Being part of a coalition with either Congress or BJP, he says, “would be tantamount to cheating our voters”.
Three years ago, Arvind Kejriwal declared he would continue the fight till it finishes. Taking a breather from the frenetic campaign for Delhi in his two-bedroom flat in Kaushambi on October 13, he says, “This fight is far from over.”
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KEJRIWALTAKES A BREAK AFTER A MANIFESTO MEETING IN HIS CONSTITUENCY
(FROM RIGHT) KEJRIWALWITH AAP COLLEAGUES PRASHANT BHUSHAN AND YOGENDRAYADAV
KEJRIWAL ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL IN DELHI