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Arvind Kejriwal, A New Gandhi For The Forgotten Of India

Arvind Kejriwal addresses a public meeting in Delhi.
Arvind Kejriwal addresses a public meeting in Delhi.
Arne Perras

DELHI — The weather is cold and damp in Delhi, but the city’s chief minister has spent the night sleeping on the streets. Arvind Kejriwal’s head is wrapped in a grey scarf when he steps up to the microphone in the square behind the parliament building.

He is surrounded by ministers and leading members of his Aam Aadmi Party, the Common Man Party, who are staging a sit-in to protest the state police. Kejriwal is both the lead activist and head of local government, a celebrated personality sweeping through Indian politics. He is discussed on every street corner, and everything he says or does creates a new stir on social media.

Kejriwal is a political novice. He has only been chief minister of Delhi since December, but he is expected to play an important role leading up to the national elections in May. The citizens of India’s capital were given a small taste of what is to come when Kejriwal started his power struggle with the police.

It all began with a conflict over a suspected prostitution ring in which the police had reportedly failed to intervene. Amid the tense climate that has followed the recent rapes in Delhi, Kejriwal publicly denounced the lack of police action.

The authorities Kejriwal is fighting don’t fall under his jurisdiction. Instead, they are under the auspices of the national government, which is dominated by the Indian National Congress. Kejriwal wants to change that and make the Delhi government responsible for the local police force, but his efforts have resulted in uproar.

“If you call me an anarchist...”

Two weeks ago the protests escalated when demonstrators constructed barricades and dozens were injured. “If you call me an anarchist, then I’m an anarchist,” Kejriwal said at the time. His proclamation shocked some sympathizers from the upper middle class, but many more admire his courage and dynamism.

“We need a Kejriwal because women and children are not safe here,” says supporter Rina Tripathi. “The police do nothing, so Kejriwal has to act to make things change.” Some activists offer more ambitious comparisons. “You must remember all that Mahatma Gandhi achieved,” says computer engineer Asha Agarwal, enraged over the establishment’s inaction. “Together we are changing Indian politics.”

The crowd following Kejriwal has declared war on the VIP culture in which a person’s name and background often count for more than his or her achievements. The protesters have had enough of the daily struggle with the state. They complain that the police do not do their job and that they extort money from ordinary citizens. They complain about arbitrariness and inaction when crimes are committed. The Indian people have had to deal with this kind of abuse for decades, so it is not surprising that the frustrated citizens are searching for a savior who will turn everything on its head. For many, that man is Arvind Kejriwal.

Uncertainty over India’s future

He was once a high-ranking civil servant working in taxation, but Kejriwal gave up that career and made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner. When he was voted in as Delhi chief minister in December, it came as a surprise to some, but many others were thrilled by his success. But it remains to be seen whether voters will support him in the national elections in April and May. Kejriwal becoming prime minister would be sensational, but his chances remain slim.

The favorite is still the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, who has the support of the middle classes and is seen as a man capable of moving India forward. Modi has benefited from the crisis that struck the ruling Congress party, but now a third competing power has risen up in Kejriwal, and the protesting voices will grow more splintered, making it difficult to predict who will succeed in the upcoming elections.

Kejriwal’s dissidence indicates a certain ambition. But it’s not certain whether the sit-in will prove to be a clever tactical move. Standing at the microphone before protesters, the 45-year-old called the demonstration “a great victory” for India’s ordinary people. Two of the five policemen whose formal suspension they were demanding have been relieved of their duties. That was enough for Kejriwal to call an end to the protest.

India’s media are divided over Kejriwal’s achievements. One newspaper claims that the central government simply made small concessions to save face. Others argue that Kejriwal’s “unconventional methods” have set a movement in motion.

On Wednesday evening the policemen cleared away the barricades, and Kejriwal drove away in his blue Maruti Suzuki Wagon R, the car of the common people. His supporters gathered around to take photos of the car. They still can’t believe it belongs to an Indian minister.

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New Delhi Postcard: How A G20 Makeover Looks After The World Leaders Go Home

Before the G20 summit, which took place in New Delhi from Sept. 9-10, Indian authorities carried out a "beautification" of the city. Entire slums were bulldozed, forcing some of the city's most vulnerable residents into homelessness.

image of a slum with a girl

A slum in New Delhi, India.

Clément Perruche

NEW DELHI — Three cinder blocks with a plank, a gas bottle, a stove and a lamp are all that's left for Chetram, 32, who now lives with his wife and three children under a road bridge in Moolchand Basti, central Delhi.

"On March 28, the police came at 2 p.m. with their demolition notice. By 4 p.m., the bulldozers were already there," Chetram recalls.

All that remains of their house is a few stones, testimony to their former life.

Before hosting the G20 summit on Sept. 9 and 10, Indian authorities gave the capital a quick makeover. Murals were painted on the walls. The portrait of Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister, was plastered all over the city. And to camouflage the poverty that is still rampant in Delhi, entire neighborhoods have been demolished, leaving tens of thousands of vulnerable people homeless.

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) carried out the demolitions in the name of beautifying the city.

"Personally, I'd call it the Delhi Destruction Authority," says Sunil Kumar Aledia, founder of the Center for Holistic Development, an NGO that helps the poorest people in Delhi. "The G20 motto was: 'One earth, one family, one future.' The poor are clearly not part of the family."

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