Lunch with an obsessive Kejriwal and a sullen Hazare

By MEHBOOB JEELANI | 23 April 2014

Before Arvind Kejriwal was a politician, he was a civil activist who battled the UPA government for greater transparency and accountability in its functioning. The demand for the tabling of the Jan Lokpal bill powered the India Against Corruption movement and remains a central part of his party’s—the AAP—manifesto today. In this extract from our September 2011 profile, Mehboob Jeelani meets Kejriwal and his then partner in activism, now political rival, Anna Hazare, over lunch in a rented apartment in Mayur Vihar in east Delhi.

 

At the end of June 2011, I met Kejriwal as he was leaving a government guesthouse in South Delhi, accompanied by Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi. He had forgotten about the scheduled interview I had arrived to conduct, but when I introduced myself, he quickly motioned me into Manish Sisodia’s car, which followed Hazare and Kejriwal back to East Delhi.

The drafting committee exercise had already ended in failure, and Kejriwal and Team Anna were making the rounds to drum up support for the Jan Lokpal from other political parties. Sisodia excitedly explained that they had just emerged from a meeting with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had promised to introduce a strong Lokpal Bill in his state. “Inki to phateygi ab (The politicians will get screwed now),” Sisodia proclaimed as we slid into the car. “If Nitish does that, automatically others will feel pressure.” 

We came to a stop in Mayur Vihar in East Delhi, and entered a large concrete apartment block, where Kejriwal had rented a three-bedroom flat for Hazare. A tall, dark-skinned man opened the door and led us into the drawing room, where bowls of chopped salad had been set out on the table alongside plates of rice and dal. Brand new cutlery, cups, towels and dustbins sat unused in plastic bags on the floor in one corner of the room. Manish tapped on one of the doors, and Kejriwal briefly emerged before turning into a toilet to wash his hands and feet. He had agreed to an hour-long interview, but first he wanted to finalise the text for a pamphlet with Sisodia, who was sitting on the floor with a computer on his lap. Kejriwal sat down next to Sisodia and pointed at the screen. “Here I was thinking something should come,” he said. “No no, don’t erase ration card corruption. Keep it simple.”Kejriwal scratched at his head, absorbed in thought and looking for words. “Yes, driving licence corruption,” he said. “Good, this is punchy.”

“How much time do you want?” he asked me. And then, “Can I have some food first?”

As the food was served, Hazare emerged from his bedroom without his iconic Gandhi cap; he had a shaved head, and two faint furrows ran across his forehead. He, too, sat on the floor, and turned toward Kejriwal. “I shouldn’t have praised Nitish Kumar—I think Lalu will not support us now,” Hazare said, referring to the legendarily corrupt former Bihar chief minister.

“OK,” Kejriwal said, almost shouting Hazare down. “We’ll talk about it some other time.”

Hazare didn’t speak another word after that, eating his plate of rice and dal in silence. When Kejriwal finished eating, he lay back on the floor and fell asleep. I tried to start up a conversation with Hazare, but Sisodia insisted on answering on his behalf.

About 30 minutes later, Kejriwal jolted upright, as if waking from a startling nightmare, and turned immediately to Sisodia. “How about ‘Government Lokpal is a Betrayal’?” he said, like a man who dreams only of political slogans, before answering himself: “No, leave it for a while.”

Now Kejriwal looked at me. “I am sorry I am wasting your time. Let’s do it now.”

Kejriwal’s frustration with the drafting committee was still evident, eight days after the final meeting; the government had been insincere all along, he argued, and had no intention of debating or discussing the merits of Team Anna’s bill. “They would agree on whatever they had decided beforehand,” he said. “[Union Home Minister Palaniappan] Chidambaram was the most vocal—he would argue out each and every line. But there was no way to persuade them to change their stance on anything; we presented arguments, and they merely announced the decisions they had already reached.” He seemed generally dejected by the experience, and particularly disappointed that his preparatory research—regarding the lessons from other countries with ombudsmen, among other things—had all been a waste. “We didn’t know the outcome was pre-decided,” he said. “We went in with all our honesty.”

He argued that getting the law through Parliament was always going to be difficult, and returned, albeit calmly, to his familiar television firebrand tone. “They are passing a law against themselves, not a law to alleviate poverty or something,” he said. “If it becomes the law, many of the parliamentarians themselves will go to jail, so they will naturally be strongly against it.”

“Why are you doing all this?” I asked.

“Why am I doing this?” His eyes widened with a hint of indignation. “I am a citizen of this country and my tax money is being looted by corrupt politicians and you are saying, why am I doing this?”

A moment later, his cellphone rang. It was one of his activists, based in Mumbai, and Kejriwal gave him instructions for a new round of demonstrations. “If people are against the government’s Lokpal Bill,” he said into the phone, “tell them to tear it in public. Spread the word.”

I asked one final question: how long would this movement last? “We can’t say,” Kejriwal responded. “We are determined for a fight until it finishes.”

 

An extract from 'The Insurgent,' published in The Caravan's September 2011 issue. Read the story in full here.

Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University. He has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, and has contributed to the leading English dailies of Jammu and Kashmir.

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