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.