- Special Pages
NEW DELHI: Arvind Kejriwal chuckles as he considers how his all-out assault on corruption has united India’s political elite in outrage.
“All politicians are part of a ruling fraternity, there is no opposition in this country,” says Kejriwal. “They are all hand in glove, they share a nice, cosy relationship behind the curtains.”
Campaigns against graft are hardly new in India -- a country where corruption is a part of daily life for everything from getting a driving licence to a house.
But with his targets ranging from government ministers to senior opposition figures and even the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, Kejriwal has managed to alarm a cross-section of the ruling class as the media laps up his accusations.
And while Kejriwal argues it is up to the people to decide whether to join him in purging the establishment, criticism is growing at his tactics as observers worry about erosion of trust in politicians in the world’s biggest democracy.
Kejriwal first came to national prominence last year, serving as the chief lieutenant to veteran anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare during the latter’s 12-day hunger strike.
But while Hazare has since stepped away from the national headlines, his protege has soldiered on and now plans to lead his own political party in a general election due to be held in 2014.
Speaking at his headquarters on the outskirts of New Delhi, Kejriwal said corruption had eaten into the very core of the establishment and that he wanted to challenge the sense of helplessness among voters.
“We have started a process of cleansing the political system. Let the people decide whether they want to be a part of this new system,” said the 44-year-old who hails from the northern state of Haryana, the capital’s neighbour.
“There was a huge amount of cynicism. Earlier when I met people they said they had lost all hope, that nothing would ever change in this country. But now they say our movement has given them fresh hope.”
If Hazare’s campaign tapped into a generalised sense of anger and frustration against politics as a whole, Kejriwal has captured headlines with his choice of high-profile targets.
Salman Khurshid, India’s law minister and member of the main ruling Congress party, has been accused of misappropriating funds from an NGO that he runs.
Nitin Gadkari, president of the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), is facing an official inquiry over claims about the financing for his business.
And even more controversially, Kejriwal has accused Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of India’s most powerful politician Sonia Gandhi, of unfairly benefiting from business deals with a property developer.
Prime Minister Manmhohan Singh’s government has been embarrassed by a series of corruption scandals, including over the sale of second-generation (2G) telecoms licences and of coal mining tenders at far below their commercial value.
Kejriwal has been accused in some quarters of acting as a judge and jury and acting irresponsibly with his naming and shaming tactics. “If every second day you come up with new allegations, then the common man gets confused, he starts losing interest,” Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said.
“It would be better if he follows up one issue for some time before jumping on to another. He seems to be in a hurry.”
Khurshid has compared Kejriwal to an ant who is trying to destroy an elephant, referring to Gandhi’s Congress party.
“This is a pipe-dream that some people have, that if they destroy everything that exists, parties that exist with long years of history in a frenzy of unreasonable and senseless attack, those parties will disappear and the field will be clear for them,” he told the Press Trust of India.
But Kejriwal, a diminutive and bespectacled former civil servant, says the backlash vindicates his campaign. “These politicians are rattled and baffled, they are desperate,” he said.
“When we exposed Vadra, everyone rushed to his defence. Even the Congress rivals stood up to defend him. I thought he was the son-in-law of Mrs. Gandhi, I didn’t know he was the son-in-law of the whole country.”
His primary motive, he insists, is not to expose individuals but the entire political system in the country where an “unholy nexus exists between the ruling party and the opposition”.
“We have done our job, the media took it up, everyone is coming forward. We are happy we have started the process.”
As he speaks in his cramped offices, his in-tray steadily mounts as assistants bring in requests from farmers, small businessmen and even corporate firms to take up the anti-corruption cudgels on their behalf.
“People were earlier scared to come forward,” said Kejriwal. “At least our movement has given them the courage to speak up.”