Anti-Corruption Crusader Rattles India’s Powerful

Some of India's most powerful politicians probably aren't sleeping as peacefully as they used to. The responsibility for the panic in what were formerly some of the most secure bastions of power in India belongs to an ambitious anti-corruption campaigner, Arvind Kejriwal, and the many middle-class workers and activists of his organization, India Against Corruption.

The source of Kejriwal's power is the widespread perception in India that the country's political class -- particularly the main governing party, the Indian National Congress, and the main party in opposition, the BJP -- has profited enormously from its unscrupulous farming out of government assets (particularly land at cheap rates) to itself and its ability to approve big business projects in return for kickbacks. Inured from exposure by an unwritten code of fellowship extending across political parties and a compliant media that has lost its appetite for hard journalism, many politicians have erected huge empires.

This system could only be shaken up by an outsider with an organization, funds and manpower to deploy in a sustained way against the entrenched power of big party machines. In recent times, this opportunity fell to Kejriwal, and he has eagerly seized it. For the last two years, he seemed to be serving mainly as an aide to the septuagenarian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, who brought to the mass movement the somewhat outdated political vocabulary of hunger fasts and a Gandhian dream of village republics. After a rousing start, Hazare's movement gradually fell away and couldn't break down the resistance offered by India's major political parties to a proposed anti-corruption bill. This left the brain trust and organizational structure that had been built around Hazare at an impasse, one that was resolved in August of this year when some of its leading figures decided that they would form a new political party.

But it takes years to build a party in a country as vast and as diverse as India, and the short-term electoral prospects of any new force are modest. In the last two weeks, however, it has become clear that Kejriwal's immediate strategy is to use the large store of goodwill and support he enjoys among citizens and the media to put the heat on the established powers. Two weeks ago, he called a press conference to ask how it was that the assets of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of the president of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, had increased almost 600-fold in the last five years after a series of real-estate deals.

After many of the Congress Party's senior leaders appeared on television channels to defend Vadra -- a move they were not obliged to make if Vadra really was, as they claimed, "a private individual" -- Kejriwal took on Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid, one of Vadra's most vocal defenders. Kejriwal offered evidence that seemed to point to the embezzlement of funds granted to a non-governmental organization that assists physically challenged people and is run by Khurshid and his wife; many of the names of people to whom disbursements had been made, he claimed, were made up. (This story was first broken by a TV channel, Aaj Tak, and backed up last weekend by a long report in the Sunday Guardian, in a piece by Abhinandan Mishra called "Khurshid's list full of fictitious names.") This is enormously embarrassing for India's law minister.

A few days later, Kejriwal paraded evidence to support the charge that the president of the BJP, Nitin Gadkari, had grabbed more than 100 acres of land in rural Maharashtra for the pursuit of his private business interests. What gave special force to this charge was that the takeover of the land had been carried out with the help of an influential politician from another party, demonstrating that forces that opposed each other in the legislature were happy to help one another feather their nests in business. Gadkari's response was of a piece with the many lame denials in Indian politics in the last two weeks: "It's laughable to describe me as a businessman. I work for farmers. They are trying to defame me for their political gains."

Long loath to take on individual politicians, India's many private television news channels have proved exceptionally willing in the last two weeks, as the media critic Madhu Trehan observed, to exploit "the convenience of shooting from Kejriwal's shoulders." Sevanti Ninan offered a good overview in Livemint on the role of the media as an amplifier for Kejriwal's allegations, concluding, "It looks like he is going to be deciding the media’s agenda for a while." Elsewhere, in a thoughtful piece on the vulnerability of the great powers in Indian politics to Kejriwal guerrilla warfare, Shoma Chaudhury wrote in Tehelka:

At first glance, it would appear a crucial silence has been broken. Indian media and politicians have always had some inexplicable no-go areas, islands of immunity no one questioned out of a strange mix of tribal propriety, vested interests and fear. … Last week, with Arvind Kejriwal’s high-visibility fusillade against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, that moat was decisively breached. ...

With each exposé — differing as they may be in scale, vehemence and diligence — crucial concepts that had all but disappeared from India’s public lexicon are being forced back on the table; not just rank corruption, but ideas of conflict of interest; misuse of office; the political-corporate nexus; cross-party collusion; and the simple idea that those who wield great power must also live by the rules.

Clearly, the power elite in India don’t understand this shift in mood yet. Every exposé over the past few days has been met by the same set of brazen, unthinking war moves: silence, denial, dismissal or dull counter-accusation. ...

Yet, like most things Indian, even cleansing winds in this country are complicated. Kejriwal is undoubtedly that wind. Media-savvy, tactical, and driven by a great sense of outrage, he has crystallised more collective attention on corruption than anyone else in recent time and one can only be grateful for that.

And in a piece called "Democracy 24/7" in India Today, Dhiraj Nayyar observed:

From time to time, the people of India, whether through civil society or media must ask tough questions and demand accountability from their rulers. Whatever you might think of Arvind Kejriwal as a politician, he has done a great service to democracy by asking difficult questions of people in power. The questions have rattled the powerful. Robert Vadra indicted his own by calling India a Banana Republic, a term usually used to describe a country with undemocratic rulers and rampant crony capitalism. Salman Khurshid did worse when he said he would not take questions from ‘people on the street’, the very people who elected him to the powerful office he occupies. …

Public agitation over corruption and misgovernance cannot be just wished away. The power of communications technology, as the Arab Spring showed, is fatal for despotic regimes. The same technology can be lethal for democratic regimes which turn unresponsive to their citizens. India is finally demanding a 24/7 democracy.

Kejriwal has clear flaws and weaknesses when it comes to constructive proposals of his own. The "vision statement" of his new political party betrays a great naivete in its aspiration to be a decentralized "people's republic" and the absence of a coherent economic program. But sometimes the work of criticism can be more necessary than the work of creation. Politics can be invigorated by a kind of creative destruction as much as capitalism can.

As a political muckraker who has disturbed the complacency of both the government and the opposition, Kejriwal has opened a space of enormous influence -- one that he will now have to ensure doesn't lead him into some hubris of his own. If he plays his cards intelligently, there is much that he can do to make Indian politics more sensitive to matters of accountability and propriety. Currently, there is no one else in India who on his Twitter feed could invite Prime Minister or Sonia Gandhi to a debate about corruption, and expect the challenge to resound in the corridors of power and be reportedly widely in the press. The laying down of this new war path has meant that Indian politics will be animated by a sound and fury more substantive than that provided cumulatively by its major political parties.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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