At first glance, Arvind Kejriwal cuts an unlikely figure as a rabble-rouser. As the journalist Sheela Bhatt once noted, the middle-aged, bespectacled Kejriwal "comes across as a simple, but stubborn man, with no material taste. He wears trousers that seem a size too big, his shirts are what government clerks in small towns wear." The only thing remarkable about his appearance is the cap he is fond of sporting: a white hat inscribed with the words Main Aam Aadmi Hoon (I am a common man).
Before 2011, few in India had any clue who Arvind Kejriwal was. Like many other bright young men and women who enjoyed solid middle-class upbringings, Kejriwal studied engineering at one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. After graduating, he worked for a leading business house before gaining entry into the Indian Revenue Service, one of the many branches of the Indian civil service. Frustrated by the confines of the Indian bureaucracy and the sclerotic pace of government decision making, Kejriwal eventually quit the service and devoted his full attention to social activism, immediately making waves by stridently advocating for the enactment and full implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, a landmark government transparency initiative passed by Parliament in 2005.
Yet it was not for another six years that Kejriwal's likeness would be beamed into the living rooms of millions of Indian households around the country. The issue the former babu rode to stardom was a proposed piece of legislation to set up a federal anticorruption ombudsman known as a Lokpal. An entire book could be written about the tortuous history of the Lokpal bill, but in a word it can best be described as "fraught." Parliament first considered the bill in 1968, although it failed to win approval. Futile attempts at passage were mounted in 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, and 2008. Each time the bill failed to make it through both houses. Politicians typically enjoy espousing anticorruption rhetoric, but they prefer to leave the implementation to the next guy.
In 2010, in the wake of a crippling series of big-ticket corruption scandals, the UPA government was compelled to try once more. One high profile scam after another, from "Coal-gate" to the Commonwealth Games scandal, had sapped the energy of the government, forcing it to find ways of saving face. Kejriwal was convinced that establishing a Lokpal was a game changer as far as India's governance was concerned. He felt passionately that existing anticorruption agencies, such as the CBI, were all compromised, due to either incapacity or outright government sabotage. Kejriwal, unsurprisingly, reserved his greatest ire for the country's crooked politicians. "There are honest and efficient officers in the CBI," Kejriwal told a reporter, "but their political bosses do not allow them to work freely."
Parliament, he insisted, was full of "rapists, murderers and looters." According to him, given the endemic corruption generations of Indians have suffered, only an independent and autonomous Lokpal would "set this country in the right direction." "If the Lokpal bill was passed," he once remarked, "half of the MPs would go to jail."
There was one catch, however: Kejriwal greatly disliked the government's proposed bill, which he felt lacked the teeth necessary to make much of a dent in the country's corruption scourge. Furthermore, he was deeply anxious that the government would pass a feckless bill yet receive political credit for "doing something." Under the aegis of a new social movement called India Against Corruption (IAC), Kejriwal launched a campaign to replace the government's bill with what came to be known as the Jan Lokpal bill, literally the "citizen's ombudsman" bill. The bill proposed by IAC had much stronger provisions than the one the government proposed and would apply to politicians operating at the highest level of the government, including the prime minister.
But Kejriwal and his colleagues lacked a compelling face, someone who could raise the movement's profile in the mass media as well as with ordinary citizens. The answer to Kejriwal's dilemma came in the form of Anna Hazare, an octogenarian social reformer and noted devotee of Gandhian methods of civil disobedience. For decades, Hazare had toiled in relative obscurity in the state of Maharashtra working on issues of social reform, government transparency, and local governance, but he had a solid reputation as a selfless social crusader. The very sight of the slight Hazare taking on the mighty government of India made him an overnight celebrity.
Once united, Kejriwal and Hazare succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in getting the corruption issue on the national agenda. After joining forces with IAC, Hazare's opening salvo was to announce that he would fast until his group's demands for a Jan Lokpal bill were met. After almost 100 hours, during which sizeable crowds gathered at Delhi's Jantar Mantar to cheer Hazare, Kejriwal, and colleagues on, the government capitulated, announcing the creation of a joint drafting committee consisting of government and civil society representatives. Together, the government proclaimed, ministers and activists would work to forge a compromise solution.
The negotiations and the polarized debate were tumultuous, to say the least. A key government representative on the drafting committee called the Jan Lokpal bill a "Frankenstein Monster without accountability" and an "oppressive institution" operating outside the bounds of the state. Even respected independent voices, broadly sympathetic with IAC's larger objectives, did not withhold their fire. In a stinging op-ed piece, one scholar accused the IAC bill of "crossing the lines of reasonableness . . . premised on an institutional imagination that is at best naïve, at worst subversive of representative democracy." One of the critics' biggest issues had to do with the moral certitude of the bill's backers. Calling the Jan Lokpal neither the best nor the only solution to India's corruption malaise, political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta dismissed as a "dangerous illusion" the idea that any one institution could be a "magic wand" to tackle corruption.
Kejriwal, Hazare, and their colleagues were undeterred, calling their fight India's "second struggle for independence." In response to the claim that his agitational style was antidemocratic, Kejriwal turned the criticism around: "We want real democracy. Not going out and voting once in five years democracy. That is pretense democracy."
The negotiations, however, failed to reach a compromise, at which point Hazare once again announced his intention to go on a hunger strike. This time he endured nearly 300 hours without food and drew criticism from many of his IAC colleagues for blackmailing the government into submission. Aruna Roy, one of India's leading advocates for greater government transparency and a onetime IAC ally, blasted Hazare and Kejriwal's "my-way-or-the-highway" approach: "A Lokpal Bill is not a hereditary right of a group of people anywhere in this country."
The government introduced a revised version of its own bill in late 2011, but it was not until 2013 that both houses managed to provide their assent and the bill became a law. Kejriwal, far from celebrating this victory, was irate. The government, he boomed, had turned the Lokpal bill into a "Jokepal."
After the tamasha of hunger strikes, protests, and failed negotiations, Hazare chose to return to his village home in rural Maharashtra. Kejriwal, who had once proclaimed that "all the politicians are thieves-throw them to the vultures," opted for politics, announcing his decision to create a new anticorruption political party, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, or AAP. The party's first test was the upcoming Delhi state elections, and its number one objective was to pass a Jan Lokpal bill for the city-state. In the Delhi elections, AAP surprised political pundits by performing extremely well, capturing 28 of Delhi's 70 seats, enough to form a government with the outside support of the Congress Party and to make Arvind Kejriwal, once described as "the man the government loves to hate," the chief minister of Delhi.
Even after the AAP formed its inaugural government in Delhi, Kejriwal maintained his activist style, eschewing the comforts and, some argued, the responsibilities, of public office. In one of his first actions as chief minister, Kejriwal led a dharna at one of Delhi's main roundabouts, referring to himself as an "anarchist" and noting that "there are some things that cannot be done from air-conditioned offices."
As it turns out, Kejriwal's Jan Lokpal bill for Delhi faced enormous hurdles; when the opposition signaled its resistance, Kejriwal resigned and pulled the plug on his ill-fated 49-day government, claiming it was "more important to fight corruption than to run a government." Initially, Kejriwal appeared confident in the rightness of his resignation, saying, "We have come here to save the country. If we have to give up the chief minister's post for the sake of the country, we will do it not a hundred times but a thousand times." However, he would later come to regret his decision: "Bharat ki politics mein jo bhi ho jaye, kabhi isteefa nahin dena chahiye! (Whatever happens in Indian politics, one should never give their resignation!)," he admitted months later. Yet the damage was done. Soon after his resignation, AAP announced its intention to take its fight across the country. In the 2014 national elections, it contested 432 seats but won just 4 (all in the state of Punjab).
In Delhi, to add insult to injury, it was shut out entirely. Kejriwal had moved too far too fast, forsaking local power for a place on the national stage. In January 2015, having profusely apologized to the Delhi electorate and recommitted himself to local matters, Kejriwal pulled a rabbit out of a hat-again surprising political handicappers by leading the AAP to a sweep in fresh elections in Delhi.
The political upstart partially redeemed himself after badly misjudging the national political mood in 2014. But perhaps an even more grave miscalculation was focusing excessively on Lokpal to the detriment of broader institutional reform. Kejriwal and IAC had a unique moment, coming on the heels of revelations detailing spectacular corruption, to construct a broad governance reform agenda and rally support for it. Although they may not have intended it, IAC and Kejriwal portrayed Lokpal as a panacea for India's corruption woes, which it most certainly was not.