India’s ‘Assange’ crusades against corruption

Arvind Kejriwal has shaken the political establishment with a string of accusations against top leaders and businesses.

Arvind Kejriwal Activist of India Against Corruption
Arvind Kejriwal and his supporters use protests to reinforce their anti-corruption message [EPA]

In a country where accountability and transparency are often thought of as the first causalities of holding public office, Arvind Kejriwal, a mechanical engineer and former bureaucrat from Haryana, has blown the whistle on India’s corrupt.

In the last fortnight, he has released details and levelled charges four times against top Indian politicians and the country’s biggest business conglomerate.

“We want to turn the power structure upside-down and make the powerful accountable,” Kejriwal, 44, a thin man with a moustache and piercing eyes, said.

India’s middle class population, which prefers to bemoan the state of chaos and corruption in the nation, have found in Kejriwal a person who is not afraid to bring forth allegations of fraud to the doorstep of India’s leaders.

It’s been a long and busy day for Kejriwal following his string of revelations and corruption charges in the past fortnight on many of India’s leading political and business figures. He disengages from throngs of his followers of the India Against Corruption (IAC), a people’s organisation he founded in 2006 encouraging public engagement.

“People of this country are fed up, and the conditions are right for a movement to set things right,” he said in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera.

Targeting the mighty

It’s not about sensational exposures… The intent is to bring a radical change in politics and accountability.”

– Arvind Kejriwal

Charging the country’s most powerful with corruption, Kejriwal has discomforted the government. “They have found the ground beneath their feet shaken”, he exclaimed. 

However, he is wary of the title India’s Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks now wanted by the US government for making top secret government documents available to the public, which some have bestowed upon him.

“It’s not about sensational exposures,” he said. “The intent is to bring a radical change in politics and accountability.”

Kejriwal’s accusations are based on government documents he says are proof of corruption, which he had obtained using the Right to Information Act, under which any citizen may compel the government to share information.

On October 5, Kejriwal made a public accusation against Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. He claimed that Vadra had purchased property worth millions of dollars with “interest free unsecured free loan” by DLF, India’s major construction company. DLF’s market value dropped in a single day to the tune of $580m following the accusation.

A week later Kejriwal pinpointed financial irregularities to the tune of Rs 71 lakh ($130,000) by the Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust, a non-governmental organisation for the disabled that is headed by federal minister Salman Khurshid and his wife Louise. He took to the streets with his followers saying the Khurshids had misappropriated funds allocated for the physically challenged to distribute tricycles and hearing aids for the needy across 17 districts of Uttar Pradesh. A Comptroller and Auditor General’s Report (CAG) had earlier reported the irregularities too.

Then, on October 17, Kejriwal targeted the opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He accused party president Nitin Gadkari of land grabbing by colluding with the ruling party in the western state of Maharashtra, and exploiting poor farmers to further his business interests in real estate.

And most recently, on October 31, Kejriwal accused India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the country’s largest business empire Reliance Industries Limited (RIL)’s chairman of malpractice. He alleged the government of going soft on RIL, allowing them to amass undue profits beyond its contract to develop the country’s key natural gas field in the Krishna Godavari (KG) basin. He also said the RIL was responsible for the unnatural rise in prices of gas at “three times higher than normal”.

Pursuing the truth

Despite strong denials from those who stand accused, Kejriwal’s revelations have undoubtedly stirred the establishment.

Anna Hazare, right,  was Kejriwal’s mentor, but the two
have parted ways now [AP]

Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, has denied the charges brought against him; DLF has also denied offering favourable discounts for purchase of property. Gandhi, for her part, has remained silent on the matter, refraining from making any public statements.

Kejriwal brushed aside the defences of Vadra and senior Congress leaders, saying their clarifications were “half-truths and lies”.

For their part, Salman and Louise Khurshid made a televised appearance denying the charges of misappropriating funds, and are seeking defamation damages to the tune of Rs 100 crore ($20m). In response, Kejriwal decided to take the matter further and staged a massive rally in Farrukhabad, Khurshid’s constituency, on November 1, urging voters not to re-elect him.

Opposition leader Gadkari and representatives of RIL have also issued statements denying Kejriwal’s charges.

Critics say that Kejriwal has been acting like a political novice by releasing a slew of allegations that may not come to much. Khurshid, for once, has said that Kejriwal was “an ant taking on the might of an elephant”.

Kejriwal accepts that survival in Indian politics against established political behemoths requires “strategic planning”, acknowledging that his “timing could have been planned better”.

While Kejriwal admits he is still learning, he believes that the truth will prevail. “Remember they may have survived for many decades in politics, but we too are formidable foes in pursuing truth,” he said.

Symbol of discontent

To his credit, Kejriwal’s accusations seem to have emboldened the people, created awareness, and incited the press to pursue and investigate the allegations.  

For many people, Kejriwal is a symbol of India’s growing discontent with corruption and inefficiency. The country saw a groundswell of support when he, along with veteran social activist Anna Hazare, sought to demand greater accountability from India’s government with 2011’s Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill.

Followers say Kejriwal pursues a simple lifestyle, living with his bureaucrat wife and two children in a housing colony in New Delhi. His office is crammed with people and sports basic facilities.

After differences broke out between Hazare and Kejriwal, the latter has chosen to go alone with the IAC.

“Anna and I are on different paths now, but our goal to fight corruption is the same”, he said.

“The powerful cannot face the truth I show them for long, and will need to offer clean politics.”

– Arvind Kejriwal

Kejriwal hails from a middle class family in Haryana, and gave up his government job to take on public life. “My journey has been one that has slowly and surely gained force to challenge corruption and bribery in public life to make India better.”

Kejriwal objects to the fact that “power is vested in a political establishment in Delhi and in state capitals. It needs to be people-centric”. His use of street protests has earned him the respect of the middle class.

However, his critics say that his brand of protest will probably not bring a massive overhaul of India’s corrupt systems. If his revelations have not led to any resignations or arrests, they wonder what his protests will be able to amount to.

“The powerful cannot face the truth I show them for long, and will need to offer clean politics”, Kejriwal explained.

“My movement will survive as long as the people of this country demand justice. I see that people have woken up and are ready for change. I am optimistic about the future.”

Source: Al Jazeera