A lunch with Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 15, 2013 00:59 hrs
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It's been just a few days since Arvind Kejriwal announced he would contest against Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit in the upcoming Assembly elections. He is, after all, the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP's) most bankable face. Kejriwal, however, just can't make time to go out for lunch; instead, he asks me to join him for lunch at home.

The Kejriwals' simple home in Kaushambhi, where he lives with his wife, two children and parents, is very much a symbol of the middle class he represents. I can spot the CNN-IBN Indian of the Year award tucked away in a corner of the shelf, but not the Ramon Magsaysay award that he received in 2006 for his efforts in the Right to Information (RTI) movement, writes Kavita Chowdhury.

When he walks in, he is noticeably slimmer and admits to losing nine kg during his fortnight-long fast in April. That intrigues me since I know he is diabetic. How does one manage to fast in that condition? Kejriwal says the aim is to avoid hypoglycemia and one needs to "prepare" for that. He says, "I was completely off diabetes medicines for two months prior to it and it was fine."

As we settle down to "ghar ka khana" - piping hot rotis, rajma, raita, arbi - I ask him how he rated his chances against Dikshit, considering that she is a three-time chief minister. "The New Delhi Assembly constituency primarily consists of government servants; government servants are no one's vote bank," says Kejriwal matter-of-factly. He reminds me that they turned out in large numbers during the anti-corruption protests in the capital.

Kejriwal is of the view that it's always been a "fixed match between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]". "The BJP deliberately puts up weak candidates against her." He challenged the BJP's Vijay Goel to contest against Dikshit as well but the latter refused.

Sensing my scepticism, Kejriwal chips in, "Dikshit symbolises corruption and price rise and people are fed up of these. There is a goodwill already out there." He, however, concedes that they yet do not know whether this popular support will translate into electoral votes.

As we talk, his wife Sunita, an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer, ensures that we are kept busy with an endless supply of rotis.

According to Kejriwal, questions about women's safety, corruption, denial of civic facilities - "Delhi is not glittering, just off Ring Road people are living in the most appalling conditions" - will be some of the major issues in these polls.

I tell him how the Delhi chief minister has dismissed him as an electoral opponent of "no consequence", ridiculing the rapidly changing issues that the AAP espouses. "Yes, but whether it was the Lok Pal Bill, the Robert Vadra issue, the charges against Salman Khurshid's NGO or the inflated power bills issue - it was all against corruption," he explains.

He has chosen not to take bail in a defamation case where he is alleged to have made defamatory remarks against the Delhi chief minister. "Why should I take bail. Every Tom, Dick and Harry who goes and files a case against me... should I go seeking bail everywhere? The law courts should understand this."

I quiz him about his party's prospects in the polls and Kejriwal replies, "In the past three years, there have been many firsts. No one knew that the movement would grow so big; no one knew that millions of people would come on the streets. Things are changing and people are angry - they are desperate for a change."

He adds, "We need to change the mentality that politics is a place for goondas and the corrupt." The AAP, Kejriwal says, works through voluntary contributions (all details of which have been mentioned on the AAP website) and has a bank balance of Rs 2 crore from individual donations in addition to the Rs 1 crore given by Shanti Bhushan (the party's "single-largest donor"). He says they are always open to donations, detailed procedures are on the website, as what they have at present is not much.

So what impelled him to make the move from being an IRS officer to an activist and then a politician?

"Just like any other middle class boy (he) aimed for the IITs", cracked it (in mechanical engineering) and then went on to join Tata Steel. He worked there for three years and it was after clearing IRS at the first attempt, he resigned and spent a few months in Kolkata. ("I had some time on my hands.") There he met Mother Teresa and briefly worked at the Missionaries of Charity home for the destitute in Kalighat. He says he also spent some time working in the Ramakrishna Mission.

Meanwhile, Sunita insists I take some rice but I'm contented with the hot rotis. It was after more than a decade in IRS that he and his friends in 2000 started an NGO, Parivartan, to "fight day-to-day corruption" and to help people from getting their jobs done without paying bribes. Then he launched into the campaign to enact the RTI Act.

With "Anna" having been mentioned in our conversation several times, I ask him about the much-talked about "split" with his mentor, Hazare. Kejriwal says, "I still keep talking to him. Our methods are different. He believed in working from outside the system. He said politics is dirty and you're bound to be tainted if you step into it; I said we have to enter into it, if we have to change it."

Is there any possibility of Hazare coming on board in the future? "No, he has made clear he will not canvass for us and will never join the party. See, we tried everything to cleanse the system. We went on fasts at Ramlila Maidan, dharnas at Jantar Mantar and that didn't work. Forming a political party was the next logical step; it is a stepping stone in our journey to rid the system of corruption."

"Just like any other middle class person, we used to hate politics. For two years, I maintained that we will never enter politics. But we have been forced into politics." He reiterates, "Our methods are different."

I put to him the popular theory that Hazare had been "brought into" the Jan Lok Pal movement because his was a "more acceptable face". Kejriwal dismisses it saying he "had known Anna for a decade before that", and had been drafting the Jan Lok Pal Bill along with the likes of Aruna Roy a year before Hazare joined the movement.

He confesses to being "quite inspired by Gandhi" and clearly sees something of the Mahatma in himself. For instance, the "crucial decisions" that he has taken in his life "like quitting the security of a government job"; he says, "When you read Gandhi, you know you can't plan these things - most of these are momentary decisions."

He says he's become "spiritual" of late, but not with the organised religion variety "because there's no way that the overwhelming response from the people we got could have happened like that." He adds, "I'm very convinced that there is a natural force helping us."

I interject, asking him how he intends to take on the clout of the Congress and the BJP. He says,"Our trajectory is not that of a normal party. For us, it's now or never. It's the hope of the thousands of people who believe in us and the 7,000 volunteers who have joined us - it's their hope that's at stake."

Kejriwal is a man in a hurry. He cites the example of the Janata Party and Jai Prakash (JP) Narayan's rise to power in 1977 and also "where they went wrong". JP, he says, spoke about "decentralisation" but once in power they did not know what laws to change.

The AAP has started deliberations on governance and administration. There are 35 committees headed by retired bureaucrats and law officers that are drafting laws on various issues.

He believes in the ideals of "Swaraj" political decentralisation and "direct democracy" at least up to the Assembly level. "All MLAs and councillors will have to get their actions ratified from the people," he says. While I doubt the practical aspects of this model, he points to me the example of Khichripur in east Delhi where the independent councillor has partnered with them in this experiment. All civil works and civic facilities, including contractor payments, are made only after the residents in mohalla sabhas are satisfied. "It's working in the most developed countries of the world, why can't it work here," questions Kejriwal.

The upcoming Delhi polls are in his words "very critical" for their movement. Depending on the results, they will be deciding the next course of action - whether they would be contesting the general elections of 2014, for instance.

As I bite into kaju barfis, an AAP volunteer walks in, it's time for me to leave. By 6 p m, Kejriwal and his team will be out on pada yatras; its Harinagar this evening. They walk six to seven km a day, starting from six a m everyday, going from house to house. "We need to spread public awareness about our party," says Kejriwal.

All that walking, he confesses, has helped control his sugar. "Politicians have to work really hard!" he laughs as he leaves.

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