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Arvind Kejriwal (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Change from inside out

Priya Esselborn / rc
November 12, 2012

Corruption has long been a concern for many ordinary Indians, with top politicians implicated in a succession of scandals. A seemingly fearless but mild-mannered ex-tax official hopes to clean up the system.


Revered by his followers as "the Julian Assange of India," Arvind Kejriwal (44) has made the fight against corruption - a problem that reaches the highest levels of Indian society - his life's work.

Despite his distinctive moustache, Kejriwal can come across as shy. However, when on the stage he is transformed into a bundle of energy, whipping up the crowd and casting his spell.

While Kejriwal's mentor, civil rights campaigner Anna Hazare, hoped to force the government to introduce new anti-corruption laws through his hunger strike, Kejriwal has chosen another path.

He aims to found a party that will "cleanse" the whole system. He sees himself as an advocate of the people and has no fear of pillorying even the most influential people. It's this lack of fear that has led some to draw the comparison with Assange.

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare (R) speaks to Arvind Kejriwal (Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
While Hazare has been an inspiration for Kejriwal, the two differ somewhat in their outlookImage: Reuters

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of the Indian National Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, have both been publicly accused by Kejriwal of embezzlement and abuse of power.

For his part, Kejriwal was ridiculed by Khurshid of being an "ant" who could not challenge an "elephant" like Congress. This shot that backfired and ended up making Kejriwal more popular than ever.

Corruption remains widespread

Whether it's a question of railway tickets, electricity supply, or the issuing of marriage and death certificates, corruption seems to be everywhere, explained lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan. "That is what makes Kejriwal's fight so incredibly important."

Former Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja is currently under investigation over allegations of irregularities in the awarding of mobile phone bandwidth licenses.

The most recent scandal over the sale of coal mines, dubbed “Coalgate” by the media, has even led to demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"Enough is enough," said Bhushan, who has known Kejiwal for the past 12 years. "Our democracy is now being undermined. Authorities and municipalities are burdened by a huge bureaucracy that does not feel at all obliged to serve the people." Kejriwal wants nothing less than to save India, Bhushan claimed.

"There are few people who can muster the sort of courage that is needed to lead such a struggle," Bhushan said. "Kejriwal has incredible foresight. Only a few people are capable of doing something like that."

Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, offers a glass of juice to Arvind Kejriwal (Photo: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Both men have, in their own way, garnered support for a movement to do away with corruptionImage: AP

From civil servant to voice of the people

Born in 1968 to a middle-class family in the northern Indian state of Haryana, Kerjiwal studied engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. After graduating, he worked for the conglomerate Tata and then became a tax official. He left disillusioned, after more than 14 years.

In 2000, he founded an NGO called Parivartan ("Change). In 2006, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award, considered by many as a sort of Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for his contribution to a better society.

Political scientist Salma Bava, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, views Kejriwal's credibility as a great strength.

"When you look at him, he seems a simple man," he said. "Nothing about him suggests luxury, neither his clothes nor the glasses he wears. He also wears the same white headwear as Gandhi."

Moreover, Bava said people are fascinated when people say what they think so fearlessly and honestly.

But Kerjiwal also has his critics. When he announced his intention to found a party some weeks ago, there was some disagreement from Hazare, who had always been something of a role model and teacher for Kejriwal. Hazare really started the ball rolling with hunger strike against corruption that brought together the masses.

The question arose of whether, by founding a party, Kejriwal was not simply setting himself up alongside the very politicians he has campaigned against so bitterly.

At numerous rallies, Kejriwal denied this vehemently, saying: "Those in power have dirty hands. They have sold everything - coal mines, telecoms rights, mountains and even a river. My party will give power back to the people."

Indian social activist Arvind Kejriwal (Photo: dpa)
Kejriwal says his party will return power to the peopleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Unanswered questions

"So far, the philosophy on which the party would be founded remains unclear," said Bava, adding that true transformation is a slow process that takes many years.

"Kerjiwal will have to allow himself to be judged on exactly the same points of criticism and lack of transparency that he finds fault with at present."

Bhushan, meanwhile, was optimistic. "A real change in India's political system is something that can only be achieved from the inside," he stressed.

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