India anti-corruption crusader aims to sweep away corrupt elite


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The Independent Online

Even at his own political rally, anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal might have been easy to miss.

Slightly built and bespectacled, his checkered shirt loose and untucked, a white Gandhi cap perched forward over his head, he sat on the stage listening to the other speakers, his bare feet crossed under his body. Kejriwal cultivates the image of the "common man."

But when he finally took the microphone, this former tax inspector-turned-activist-turned-politician made no bones about his grand ambitions — to sweep away an entire political system in which corruption and cronyism have become deeply embedded.

"We are not here for power, we here to change the political system," he told a crowd of thousands who had come from around the country to attend his political debut in a small town in northern India. "We haven't let the powerful enjoy a good night's sleep since we announced the formation of a political party. . . We will teach them a lesson in politics."

Kejriwal was the driving force behind the India Against Corruption movement that brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets last year, energizing the country's normally apathetic middle class to campaign for the creation of a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman.

But when that movement seemed to fizzle out, Kejriwal emerged from a backseat role to form his own political party and, in a series of electrifying news conferences, accuse some of the country's most high profile figures of corruption or cronyism.

His targets have ranged from Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of India's most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi, to India's richest man and head of the Reliance business empire, Mukesh Ambani. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not been spared, nor has the leader of the country's main opposition party, Nitin Gadkari.

In the process, this 44-year-old has gone where even India's raucous media normally fear to tread, taking on the revered Nehru-Gandhi family that has dominated this country's politics since independence and exposing the nexus between big business and politics.

"Our country is very resource rich, we have forests, mountains, rivers, oil and gas," he said. "But corporates in collusion with politicians and bureaucrats are looting this country. What is the real reason for rising prices?"

His campaign has won him millions of followers but also seen him threatened, jailed and sued. Ruling party politicians have called him a gutter snake and an opportunist, a self-serving megalomaniac with a Hitler streak, an anarchist and a danger to democracy.

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Each expose is eagerly anticipated by the media and the subject of frenzied speculation among the elite.

In the northern city of Farrukhabad, his target was Salman Khurshid, a former Law and Justice minister and local member of parliament whom he accused of stealing money meant for the disabled through a charity run by his wife.

One by one, disabled men were lifted onto the stage, many with the stick-thin limbs typical of polio victims. Pieces of paper were brandished that, Kejriwal said, proved that the men had been listed as receiving tricycle wheelchairs. One by one, the men said they had received nothing.

Khurshid has strenuously denied the charges and told a television news channel that Kejriwal was "worse than an insect, a snake that moves in gutters." As tempers rose, Khurshid was caught on camera last month apparently daring his accuser to visit Farrukhabad and come home safely, warning that he had been given a pen for his work as law minister but could also "work with blood."

Last week Prime Minister Singh showed he had no time for the accusations, promoting Khurshid to the post of foreign minister in a Cabinet reshuffle.

Vadra and Reliance have also dismissed the charges, and while there can be little doubt that corruption is deeply entrenched in India, analysts say not all of Kejriwal's accusations would stand up in court.

Critics accuse him of choosing too many targets at the same time, and of moving from issue to issue in a bid to remain at the top of the news agenda. The government has challenged him to take his evidence to court.

But Kejriwal insists it is the job of the authorities to investigate the charges, just as it would be if he had witnessed a murder outside his house. This, he says, is a "street fight," not a legal battle.

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These days Kejriwal still takes an early morning walk near his modest home in a New Delhi suburb, without police protection, shrugging off the idea that his life could be in danger.

"No one can take away my life as long as God wants me here," he said, speaking in his car on his way to the rally.

The move from activism into politics was particularly controversial, splitting the India Against Corruption movement and leaving the man who had been its figurehead, Anna Hazare, on the sidelines.

Kejriwal admits his new party is very weak organizationally, and that he faces a huge challenge mobilizing the rural poor, who often vote along caste or community lines. Nor does the party have much of an agenda yet beyond the anti-corruption message.

He insists he is in favor of "ethical" business, but has nothing good to say about the reforms that unleashed two decades of rapid economic growth here.

"We want to create conditions in our country where a businessman can actually lead an honest life, and they can do honest business," he said.

While Kejriwal has been mocked for trying to promote a rural idyll incompatible with modern India's aspirations, Pratab Bhanu Mehta of the Center for Policy Research said his limitations are beside the point.

The way politicians have blamed the messenger without going after the culprits shows they still have not recognized the way the world has changed, he argued.

"India is on an astonishing cusp: the tragedy is that politicians, for the most part, are not running with the winds of change," he wrote in the Indian Express. "When a country's power elite plays victim, it is a sign that they have truly lost it."

- Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.