Lunch with the FT

May 2, 2014 2:02 am

Lunch with the FT: Arvind Kejriwal

Over aubergine and potato curry, the leader of India’s ‘Common Man’ party talks about past lives and ‘extortionist corruption’
Illustration by James Ferguson of Arvind Kejriwal©James Ferguson

Half an hour before I am due to have lunch with Arvind Kejriwal, leader of India’s fledgling Aam Aadmi (literally “Common Man”) party, my appointment is cancelled. A day earlier, the tax collector turned social activist had been out campaigning in the parliamentary elections when the driver of an auto rickshaw slapped him across the face. It was just the latest physical blow landed on the 45-year-old Kejriwal, who refuses to have the heavily armed guards who shield many Indian politicians.

Instead of our rendezvous, Kejriwal, with media in tow, travelled to a distant corner of Delhi to visit his assailant, who offered a grovelling apology and was forgiven. It was the kind of headline-grabbing stunt at which Kejriwal excels, gaining him free TV airtime during India’s protracted general election, the world’s biggest, with more than 800m voters whose verdict will be revealed on May 16.

Such publicity coups are crucial for a campaign running on small donations. Kejriwal’s AAP is challenging deep-pocketed establishment rivals: Rahul Gandhi’s ruling Congress party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) of Narendra Modi, the expected beneficiary of strong public disillusionment with Congress.

A day later, I sip on a lemon water as I wait for Kejriwal in an elegant sitting room in Sunder Nagar, one of the capital’s most affluent neighbourhoods. Our host – a Kejriwal supporter – offered his home as the only place where the AAP leader and I could dine peacefully and without interruption. Still, it seems an incongruous place to meet a novice politician who projects himself as an Everyman, and who has ferociously attacked the culture of establishment privilege.

The decor is typical for India’s traditional power elite: sofas, antique wooden furniture, a faded Kashmiri carpet and objets d’art. Art books, newspapers and magazines are piled up. There is a table-top installation of stainless steel kitchen cutlery by contemporary artist Subodh Gupta.

I hear Kejriwal before I see him padding up the garden path behind our host. He is wearing an off-white work shirt with a cheap pen poking up from the pocket, brown trousers and well-worn sandals – typical attire for a bureaucrat or a middle-aged, mid-level office worker. He smiles and shakes my hand. “I’m sorry about yesterday,” he says.

A servant brings Kejriwal coconut water to drink. You must be really tired, I say. He is a charismatic public speaker, but now there is awkward silence. I persist: Do you find the campaigning exhausting? I ask.

He nods. “Physically,” he says, “and the challenges it poses sometimes; emotionally and psychologically.”

He goes on: “You come across so many people who are living in so much misery. They are illiterate, and grappling with their day-to-day issues. A large percentage of them don’t even know how to make their ends meet. Even for the middle class, it becomes increasingly difficult day by day to provide them good education and good medical facilities. On the other hand, you see that the politics of this country is controlled by a few corporate, political and bureaucratic interests. It’s not really a democracy.”

Kejriwal tells me about his visit to his attacker, who, he says, was paid (though by whom or for what reason, he cannot say) to hit him. “He is living in extreme poverty,” he says. “Anyone can give him a few thousand rupees and he’ll do anything for that. It’s not his fault. It’s our fault. It’s the fault of this country that we have such people who could be purchased for a few thousand rupees.” (World Bank figures estimate that 400m of the world’s 1.2bn extreme poor are in India.)

. . .

Critics, including middle-class former Kejriwal supporters, complain that the AAP leader has already thrown away his best chance to make a difference in ordinary lives. That came last December when his party, which promises to root out corruption and overhaul government, made a stunning debut in state-level elections in Delhi, a city of almost 17m.

With 28 of the local assembly’s 70 seats, AAP formed a minority government. Kejriwal became chief minister. His shock ascent electrified the capital, fuelling talk of AAP as a serious alternative for voters unhappy with both establishment national parties.

The excitement was shortlived. Kejriwal, unable to introduce legis­lation to create an agency to prosecute corruption in the state administration, resigned after just 49 days. It was a big setback to the party’s image and I ask whether he now regrets giving up so quickly.

“We were there to change the system,” he says, firmly. “We never said, ‘Those people are bad; we people are good; we will enter government and provide good governance.’ No one can do that. Anyone who enters the system ultimately will be sucked [in] by the system. To change the system, legislation is extremely important. If you don’t have the power to get any bill passed in the assembly, the government can’t survive.”

He goes on: “I could have continued and enjoyed the chair of chief minister, but I actually resigned. It’s a sacrifice. We assumed that people would celebrate the ethical politics involved. On the contrary, the opposition parties were able to create a huge amount of propaganda [saying] that we ran away from government.”

Despite being seen by many as a quitter, Kejriwal says he is confident about AAP’s parliamentary election prospects: “The number of people attending our rallies and roadshows has gone up many times.”

Our host reappears and shows us into the dining room, with its long table that could seat a dozen. Two places are set, each with a round metal platter bearing small portions of four Indian vegetarian dishes: green beans, cauliflower, aubergine and potato curry, and kadhi (a spicy chickpea flour and yoghurt gravy) along with a hot roti and rice.

Kejriwal, who is a vegetarian and diabetic, starts eating absently. I want to know how this almost diffident man from a small town in Haryana, a state adjacent to Delhi, ended up as a public figure. The son of an engineer and the eldest of three children, Kejriwal won a place at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, then worked at Tata Steel. Another competitive exam took him to the Indian Revenue Service in 1995. “I used to hate politics and politicians,” he admits.

So what happened to send him off the rails of his middle-class life?

Kejriwal tells me he became disillusioned while supervising tax collection in Delhi in his mid-twenties: “Once you are inside the system, you realise you are a very small peg, and there is very little you can do,” he says. Officials around him were taking bribes to release tax refunds. Accountants told him how much they had paid his peers for favours.

Many Indian officials succumb to bribe-taking, and even those who resist the temptation usually ignore the graft going on around them. Kejriwal was different: “I have no answer as to why it is that I hate corruption and why it is that someone else indulges in corruption,” he says. “It’s not easy to find out. You have to turn to philosophy and spirituality. The only thing you can say is that it’s not in my grain. So where does this grain come from?” He laughs.

He tells me that in the late 1990s, while still a tax official, he heard the then archbishop of Delhi, Alan Basil De Lastic, talking about graft. The Roman Catholic cleric mentioned “mutual corruption”, the awarding of lucrative contracts where both “bribe-giver and bribe-taker are happy and no one comes out and says that anything wrong took place”; and “extortionate corruption”, the practice of demanding bribes to issue documents such as birth certificates and passports.

“He was not very agitated about mutual corruption, but said extortionist corruption is making every single individual in this country corrupt. And when [the] entire population of a country – and the entire national psyche – becomes corrupt, that nation cannot progress.”

. . .

I have no answer as to why it is I hate corruption and someone else indulges in corruption. You have to turn to philosophy and spirituality

As he talks, I’m enjoying the food. The vegetables are cooked to perfection and subtly spiced, as only home-cooked Indian food can be. We are offered more rotis, rice and vegetables. Kejriwal takes another roti, but waves away the rest. Reluctant to appear greedy in the face of such abstemiousness, I take just a tiny second helping of the most austere of the dishes: sautéed green beans.

Kejriwal’s march towards politics began in 2000, when he helped establish a group to assist slum-dwellers resist harassment by the tax and electricity departments. He left his job to work on the initiative but soon realised that it was neither “scalable nor replicable”. He then joined a campaign to take advantage of a groundbreaking 2005 law that allowed citizens to access official documents previously shielded from public scrutiny.

By 2007, Kejriwal was active in the campaign to create a Jan Lokpal, literally “the people’s protector”, an independent anti-corruption ombudsman. The movement peaked in 2011, when tens of thousands of normally apolitical middle-class citizens – including business people and Bollywood stars – joined mass protests. Kejriwal, the angry urban Everyman, was one of the campaign’s stars. The protests were defused when Congress promised to create the agency, but activists were unhappy with the “toothless” legislation that finally emerged.

In late 2012, the Aam Aadmi party was born. “We were asking the same set of people who were corrupt to enact a law against themselves, which obviously they will never do,” Kejriwal says. “We started to realise that unless you change the politics of the country, things will never change. It was very clear you had to enter politics. It was not by choice; it was part of the journey, the next logical step.”

. . .

This movement grew so big it was beyond our imagining. There is something extraordinary happening, something supernatural

Servants enter with a plate of pieces of Alphonso mango. I ask my companion whether he can eat it, given his diabetes. “I’ll have a little,” he says. I still feel that I haven’t got to the heart of what drove Kejriwal, who has two school-age children and a wife who still works in the tax department, to embark on his impassioned quest.

Was it a childhood role model that inspired his sense of moral outrage? “In Hindu philosophy you say, ‘you inherit this all from your past life’, ” he says. He was a very religious boy, worshipping Hanuman, the monkey-faced Hindu deity.

In college, he became an agnostic. But as the anti-corruption movement gathered steam, Kejriwal rediscovered his faith. “This movement grew so big that it was beyond our imagination. I believe it’s not because of us. We are too small – too, too small – to be able to make any big difference. There is something extraordinary happening, something supernatural. I don’t believe in Hanuman-ji or something like that. But I do believe there is a supernatural power. If you walk on the path of truth, then all these powers somehow support you and things start happening. That is my belief.”

Then he mentions an earthly role model: “Gandhi-ji. He is the person who has shown how powerful the principles of truth and non-violence are. He lived his life on these principles. Second is his belief in the people – that the people are always right. He is a person who believed completely in the people.”

Mahatma Gandhi is rather out of fashion in today’s impatient, materialistic India. But Kejriwal’s manifesto, Swaraj, evokes the independence leader’s romantic vision of a nation of “self-sufficient village republics.”

Kejriwal believes in radically decentralising political power and financial resources. “If you try to control India from Delhi, there will always be fissiparous tendencies,” he says, sipping a cup of chamomile tea. If power is devolved to local communities, he says, “maybe people will shout and scream in one meeting or two meetings, but when they know they have to run their own area, they will start behaving themselves. They will become responsible citizens.”

Critics have denounced Kejriwal as an anti-business populist who threatens to drag India backwards. He scoffs, calling the charges “propaganda” by his rivals. “It is only private business which can create wealth and employment in this country. Indians are born entrepreneurs. Yet the government has been acting as an obstacle in everyone’s business. It is so difficult to start and run a business in India unless you pay up money. All these laws and policies need to be simplified, but then the government’s job should be to ensure the laws are followed.”

He could almost be reading a policy briefing from India’s business organisations. But Kejriwal deviates from corporate views on one major issue: he is adamant that rural dwellers under threat of being displaced for large-scale infrastructure and industrial projects should have a say over the developments – and be better-off if they are relocated. “These displacements are totally inhuman,” he says.

Kejriwal has finished his tea and has a train to catch. Rivals flit about in helicopters and private jets but he uses Indian railways, the transport favoured by his hero Gandhi. Time for one last awkward question: if, as opinion polls predict, Modi’s BJP wins and the AAP secures just a few seats, can the nascent party survive?

“Modi is not coming to power,” he says firmly. I ask again. Initially rejecting the question as “hypothetical”, he finally says, “We will sit in opposition.” I ask whether he will remain committed to electoral politics. “Of course.” And what role does he envision for himself? “I don’t think about myself. Whatever role comes my way I am willing to take that up.”

Suddenly, Kejriwal is on his feet. Our host has reappeared, and thanks and handshakes are exchanged. Following a few steps behind them, I emerge on to the street to see Kejriwal in our host’s car, surrounded by excited security guards from nearby homes. As I watch the car pull away, I wonder whether Kejriwal is destined to help shape India’s future, or be a bright, shining flash in the pan.

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s south Asia correspondent

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A supporter’s residence

Sunder Nagar, Delhi

Aubergine and potato curry

Sautéed green beans

Spicy cauliflower with tomatoes

Kadhi with onion bhajis

Basmati rice

Rotis

Dahi (plain yoghurt)

Lemon drink x 1

Coconut water x 1

Alphonso mangoes

Fresh chamomile tea

Total FREE

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