Manu Joseph, editor of Open magazine, in conversation with Arvind Kejriwal at Smoke House Deli, a day before Kejriwal announced his plan to contest from the constituency which is Sheila Dikshit’s fief.
Open, in association with the restaurant chain Smoke House Deli, has begun a breakfast chat series. Through these monthly conversations between Open and various public figures, videos of which will be uploaded here on our website (Openthemagazine.com), we hope to illuminate our readers’ understanding of politics, people and culture. The inaugural chat on 1 June featured Arvind Kejriwal—the fiery activist and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, which will contest elections for the very first time this November to the Delhi Assembly—in conversation with Open’s editor Manu Joseph. Here are some excerpts from the conversation (with questions paraphrased for brevity):
Q Where are you going to contest from?
I really don’t know. (At a public gathering the day after this conversation, Mr Kejriwal announced that he will contest from New Delhi, which is also Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s constituency.)
Q Can you tell us about your campaign? How is it going to be different?
A The content [of the campaign], people already know. I mean, it’s not that we are telling them anything new. People are already fed up of corruption… and price rise in the country. Especially the common man, the middle-class and the poor—it [has] become almost impossible for them to survive now. [In] various places, people are telling us now, they are getting Rs 4,000 a month as [their] water bill, Rs 6,000 a month as [their] electricity bill. If a person is earning about Rs 10,000 [per month], it’s becoming difficult to survive. [In] a large number of cases, [this is] not because the prices have increased but because the bills are wrong and the electricity company [is] not rectifying them.
For instance, there is a woman who lives in a one-room jhuggi, and she has got a bill of Rs 36,000 for electricity and Rs 60,000 for water. When she goes to the office to get them rectified… most of the responses are, ‘You first pay off the bills and then we will rectify it.’
How are we reaching out to the people? We don’t have that kind of money. Right now, you see—all across Delhi—huge hoardings of Congress and BJP leaders are everywhere… We don’t have any money to put up large hoardings. The only strength we have is the people. The people, in large numbers, are with us. Today there are almost 7,000 volunteers—young boys and girls who have given up their careers, postponed their services exams; software engineers who have taken off from work for two years. There is this guy who is working in our office now; he was working as an engineer in Hong Kong and gave up his job.
We see a ray of hope. We see a ray of hope in this party. We are creating something called ‘sthaniya prabhari’. There will be one volunteer for every 25 homes. We are mapping the entire city. Every single street is being mapped. For every 25 homes, there has to be one sthaniya prabhari whose job [will] be to communicate the message of the party and to be in touch with people. Our target is 1.25 lakh volunteers as sthaniya prabharis, and we have already crossed 75,000. So that is our strength. That is our network. To directly communicate [with] people, one on one—that is how we reach out.
Q How much money would you need to contest these elections?
A We will certainly stay below the Election Commission’s [ceiling].
Q Do you feel that’s possible?
A I think it should be possible.
I met Meera Sanyal [the banker who had contested the 2009 Lok Sabha polls from the Mumbai South constituency as an independent candidate] day before yesterday. She was telling me that she had the money. She comes from a background where she had money, and she was willing to spend Rs 25 lakh… She said ‘I was amazed that I could not spend more than nine lakh’. And she said that the other contenders actually showed that they spent even less than that, though they must have spent crores of rupees—but that was all under the carpet. She…honestly declared all her expenses and said she [would] only spend Rs 9 lakh.
Major expenses, I think, in elections are on the last night—the money that is distributed [to] voters and the freebies that are distributed…[W]hat we are also realising is very interesting. The kind of volunteers that we have—none of the parties have any grassroot volunteers. They are completely shallow. Other [parties] have money power. And they hire people. So huge… chunks of money [are spent] on hiring [manpower].
Q But the campaign as such does not require too much money, does it?
A [A] campaign in the sense of hoardings, pamphlets—that, I think, can be managed.
Q Based on your experience of encounters with politicians and the political system, what is your understanding of the psychology of a seasoned Indian politician?
A See, there are good people and there are bad people. There are, always, in every area. You [have] good politicians and bad politicians, and unfortunately now, good politicians do not seem to have a voice. For instance, I give you [the] example of Mr Jaipal Reddy. He has [a] reputation for being an honest person and trying to do the right things in the [Petroleum and Natural Gas] Ministry, but he was shunted out.
Q I will ask you a very difficult question—can you name three Indian politicians you like?
A Some of them are coming to my mind… across party lines.
Q That’s why I said three.
Let me answer this question a little later.
Q Sure. Can you tell us what exactly happened between you and Anna Hazare? I know you had a difficult relationship, but can you take us through it? You have claimed that political processes should be transparent, but that was one aspect of the movement we don’t know much about.
A In these two years, we did everything that was possible for us. As far as the struggle is concerned, there was nothing that we didn’t do which we ought to have done, and it became very clear that these political parties will not do anything against corruption. So there was no option left but for the movement to take the next logical step of entering politics. [W]hen it was discussed… I cannot give any details… but Annaji was against entering politics and he said, ‘If we get in, we will become dirty. There is filth inside.’ I told him ‘We have no choice but to wade into the filth’. He said ‘We will become sullied’. I told him, if we get dirty that will be our sacrifice— that we pledged our reputation to get in’. There was this serious difference of opinion… nothing else. I meet him very often and we discuss a lot of things.
Q A self defeating thing about activism in India is the clash of egos between activists…
A That is true. [But] it’s not that the ego is only in the activist. I think there is much more [of it] in the journalist. It is also there in the politician—it’s there in every human being. Every human being has an ego, and that is why we exist. There is always a demand that all [activists] should come together, but I am not in support of [that], because the moment everyone comes together, it will become a problem. But people should come together on issues which are extremely important. At least, that was my experience with [The Right to Information Act]. Many, many people came together.
Q What were some of your major mistakes?
A I think the biggest mistake was at the time of the August movement, when Annaji sat on [his] fast. I believed that when the Government sent that letter to Annaji… we were 200 per cent certain that [the promises in the letter] would be honoured. At that time, there was huge energy all across the country. Many, many people came out. We did not build an organisation. We thought, ‘Why build an organisation?’… It’s a huge task and it has its own politics. We wanted the movement to remain a movement rather than becoming an organisation. We thought [that], by maybe December [or] January, the Government will pass the bill. We thought that the bill will be passed and there is no point in building an organisation. I think that was the major mistake— we believed in the Government.
Q Can you tell us about the key moments during the process when you were negotiating with senior Congress leaders and trying to finalise the Lokpal bill?
As soon as they said [a] joint drafting committee [would be] acceptable and Annaji called off his fast, a lot of things started coming out. There was a CD about Prashant Bhushan. When we used to sit in those meetings, every time Mr Kapil Sibal would say, ‘Look, don’t [go] out and say what has happened in the meeting,’ or he would try to sum it up and say that we must reveal only that much.
But what we realised [is] that the only things we had [were] our honesty and transparency—what we are inside, we are outside. They wanted to rob us of that, the greatest tool we had. So, what- ever…happen[ed] in those meetings, we came out and revealed the details.
Q They would ask you to tell the public that the meetings were going well?
A ‘Meetings are going on well’, ‘Issues are being considered,’ etcetera, etcetera.
Q What is your view of Baba Ramdev?
A He is also fighting against corruption…in his own way. You seem to be kinder to Baba Ramdev, considering all the accusations against him, than you are to seasoned professional politicians…
I think I shouldn’t comment on any individual, because if the [Government] has accusations [against a person], they also have all the machinery to investigate. Very interestingly, this government does not investigate—it alleges and accuses.
Q What is your impression of Narendra Modi?
Let people form their impressions.
I think people’s impressions are already clear. Mr Modi says the same thing with a smile. But I want to know your impression. I think forming views about people is not right. I think forming views about ideas is right. I would not like to comment on any individual.
Q I think you are developing a language of diplomacy…
I don’t think it’s diplomacy. I want your view on one more issue— reservations. You once stood for merit… I am not opposed to reservations. There are sections of society who have suffered immensely over the ages, and it’s still not over. There are places in Delhi where untouchability is practised even now.
Q What is the role of big corporations in the transformation of society?
Let me first clarify some of the allegations against us. Last year we made an exposé… against HSBC, Reliance and others… HSBC was involved in money laundering. We had evidence against them. We got the evidence from income tax files… That night I got an SMS from the editor-in-chief of a very prominent [television] channel in the country saying, ‘So you are a socialist?’ If a corporate indulges in wrongdoing and you demand an honest investigation against that, you are called a socialist. I want to make it very clear: we are not wedded to any ideology. Second thing: we are very clear that government has no business to be in business. As far as the corporate sector is concerned… trade needs to be encouraged. We want honest businesses. Certainly, the corporate sector has a big role to play in the country. Let me also tell you, barring a few people, most businessmen themselves are victims of corruption and not perpetrators.
Q Do you feel that the media is more enthusiastic about covering political corruption than corporate corruption?
That is the case. Frankly, many senior journalists and reporters have counselled me, [saying], ‘Ever since you started exposing corporates, your air time has gone down.’ And when I would call them for press conferences they would [say], ‘Hope it’s not about corporates.’
Q What makes you so angry?
I am not angry. Some of these photographs portray me as an angry person.
Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.