Arvind Kejriwal wanted people to govern themselves not long before he decided to give them a ‘political alternative’. He put his trust in collective wisdom of Gram Sabhas, but now puts his photo in every advertisement published by his government.
Last month he announced, in a video message, the discovery of a ‘galat harkat’ (wrongdoing) that his ministerial colleague Sandeep Kumar was accused of having committed, and promised that “no one (engaging in misconduct) will be spared, including Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia.”
This article outlines my own experience of having worked with Kejriwal and may shed some light on his tergiversations.
It also recounts an incident in Kejriwal’s liaison with a young woman who now chairs a statutory body of his government.
This article is the first part of my memoir. More will follow later.
I worked full time with Arvind Kejriwal and his team from November 2008 to December 2009 in an exploration of ‘local self-government.’
I was in his team when we held discussions over many weeks with a number of knowledgeable people to draft a set of legislative proposals to empower Gram Sabhas and ‘Mohalla Sabhas’ to take all locally important decisions.
I took part in starting ‘Swaraj Abhiyan’ in Delhi ahead of Lok Sabha elections-2009 to canvass public support for allowing people’s assemblies to have full control over funds and functionaries in their areas, and in organizing the first ‘Mohalla Sabha’ meetings in the city’s two municipal wards: Sonia Vihar and Trilokpuri.
I also worked with Kejriwal team during this period on ‘National RTI Awards’ whose first edition was held in December 2009.
The same month I parted ways with Kejriwal team, having realized that my learning was over, and went back to working for media organizations.
I came in contact with Kejriwal team again in April 2011 during the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption campaign which I actively supported.
This renewed link, with occasional meetings with them, lasted until August 2012 when the anti-corruption campaign was brought to an end.
Since then I have followed the fortunes of Kejriwal team and later Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) largely through the media.
Exploring ‘Democracy’I learnt a lot from and with Kejriwal during a phase of his life when he himself was, in my opinion, quite a sincere, honest and hands-on learner and experimenter.
He sought to know how so called ‘democracy’ functioned in India and what must be done to improve it along the lines of its quintessential principle, namely people managing their own affairs.
(‘Democracy’ is derived from Greek words ‘demos’ meaning people and ‘kratos’ meaning rule – i.e. ‘a rule of the people’ or ‘people ruling themselves’.)
He shared with us his understanding that MPs, MLAs and municipal councilors/panchayat members had been reduced to being slaves to the ‘high commands’ of their political parties and had no freedom to carry out the will of their own constituents or be guided by their own conscience.
He believed that citizen assemblies – Gram Sabhas in rural areas and ‘Mohalla Sabhas’ in urban areas – should be allowed to convene in open meetings and take decisions on their local affairs with the role of elected representatives in municipalities and panchayats being reduced to carrying out their will.
As Gram Sabhas and ‘Mohalla Sabhas’ begin to function the MLAs and MPs will also be under moral pressure to become subservient to the collective will of the people as expressed in those assemblies whose decisions will begin to influence, over a period of time, even the district, state and central level policy making.
Our motto during the heyday of Swaraj Abhiyan was: ‘We the people are the government in our village, not the governments in Mumbai and Delhi.’
It was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of ‘village republic’ as expressed in his book Hind Swaraj.
Kejriwal was also impressed by the concept of the citizens’ right to recall their elected representatives, propose legislation, and have a referendum on a public issue or policy.
Simply put, he advocated what Western knowledge calls ‘direct democracy’ (a system usually contrasted with ‘representative democracy,’ which prevails in India and other ‘democratic’ countries in some form or other and essentially means ‘people ruling through their elected representatives’).
I respect him for the sincerity that he displayed in what he was trying ostensibly to achieve during that phase of his life, and for his openness to allow others, myself included, to take part in and benefit from the learning and experience that his enterprise engendered.
Kejriwal’s ideas about democracy drew from thinking already present in society and his actions were clearly a collective effort, not his alone.
He was a mere human, like everyone else, with strengths and weaknesses, and ever reliant on his network of people.
That needs to be said to counter the self-glorification he has undertaken in his later avatar as a politician and Delhi’s chief minister, which is based, in my opinion, on expediency, hypocrisy, duplicity, or falsehood.
A Journalistic StartI first met Kejriwal in December 2007 as a journalist for an article about his work that I was working on for Business Today magazine.
I travelled with him – and two of his young colleagues – for 4-5 days in Madhya Pradesh while he acted as a member of a jury invited by Narmada Bachao Andolan’s Medha Patkar for a Jan Sunwai (public hearing) of cases of corruption in implementation of resettlement package for people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project.
Another member of the jury was Anna Hazare who would team up with Kejriwal in 2011 in waging the anti-corruption campaign.
This contact with Kejriwal turned out to be an insightful encounter with issues pertaining to society and governance; it was long and strenuous enough to allow me not only to see issues from Kejriwal’s perspective, but also share with him and his colleagues my own learning.
Much later, after I joined his team, I was to learn that he bought sets of NCERT textbooks to look into, having been moved by my view that school education being provided to children, particularly in the areas we visited in December 2008, had hardly any relevance for them.
Madhya Pradesh tour was the first time I plugged into his evolving understanding that solutions to corruption and all other problems of governance lay in giving Gram Sabha – i.e. a local community of people as defined in the Constitution and the Panchayati Raj laws – the power to decide matters that concern its members in open meetings.
This principle of ‘democracy’ was repeatedly and succinctly articulated by Anna Hazare in all public meetings organized during the Jan Sunwai.
It’s the Gram Sabha (which by extension means people anywhere as forming local communities) that sends its representatives to the Lok Sabha, Hazare would tell his audience.
“Thus it’s the Gram Sabha that’s sovereign and is above the Lok Sabha.”
I found this basic principle fascinating, especially in the light of Kejriwal’s view that the system of representation has become hostage to entrenched power, leaving people voiceless.
The fascination with the ultimate sovereignty of Gram Sabha, which Kejriwal helped kindle in me, would lead me later to leave my job with Business Today and join his team.
That decision was also motivated by my curiosity about the world of ‘NGOs’ and ‘social activists’ and the desire to have a first-hand experience of it.
My association with Kejriwal did help me take an ‘insider’s view’ of the world of ‘social activists’ and the causes they espoused, and connect the dots to have a fuller understanding of the ‘system’.
In Kejriwal TeamI met Kejriwal in late October 2008 to ascertain if I could have a useful role to play in his work.
He welcomed me into his team – which included Manish Sisodia, who ran NGO Kabir and would later become Delhi’s deputy chief minister, lawyer Divyajyoti Jaipuriar, a young woman called Santosh (since deceased) from Sunder Nagri in east Delhi where Kejriwal is supposed to have started his activism, and quite a few other members.
Kejriwal then seemed well into an exploration of the panchayats across states and was about to start on a project on ‘local self-government’ to be funded by India Friends Association (IFA), a network of US-based professionals of Indian origin supporting ‘community activism’ in India.
He and one of his young colleagues Shilpa (name changed) were already receiving some funding as fellows of Association for India’s Development (AID), another US-based charity run by Indian Americans.
The two had been doing some work that seemed to include collecting information on Gram Sabhas and panchayats through RTI from a district in Madhya Pradesh and studying devolution of funds to states and local governments and how their jurisdiction was being encroached upon by centrally-sponsored schemes.
Shilpa was already known to me: she and Abid Khan were the two young aides of Kejriwal who had accompanied him to the aforementioned Madhya Pradesh tour.
In her early 20s, she worked and travelled with Kejriwal and represented him in meetings that he could not attend.
I learnt upon joining Kejriwal’s team that she was a computer engineering graduate who had chosen to work with him not long after her graduation.
I found Shilpa to be somewhat collegiate in her ways. She had an informal relationship with Kejriwal, about 16 years older than her, often referring to him playfully by nickname ‘Aloo’ (potato).
Shilpa would continue to be Kejriwal’s confidant through subsequent years up to the present time and be appointed to important positions.
She was a member of the committee that coordinated the Hazare-led anti-corruption campaign.
After becoming Delhi’s Chief Minister in February 2015, Kejriwal would make Shilpa one of his advisors. She was later appointed the chair of a statutory body of his government.
Kerala TourThe day I joined Kejriwal’s team, on 05 November 2008, I was travelling by train with Shilpa and Somu Kumar, an AID volunteer, to Kerala to study the Panchayati Raj system in the state, particularly the functioning of the Gram Sabhas.
This tour had been in making before I joined his team, as part of Kejriwal’s effort to visit states that he heard had better functioning local self-governments. It seemed to have been a loosely scheduled tour with return journey not being fixed.
The three of us were to stay – with help from a local NGO called Maithri – in villages in Palakkad district to study Gram Sabhas, panchayats, and people’s planning programme initiated in 1996 by the then LDF government in Kerala under which it earmarked 33 per cent of its plan budget to the local governments.
Kejriwal was to join us in Kerala in the middle of November, having been invited to Kochi by some worthy to be felicitated for his contribution to the right to information (RTI) movement and to deliver a lecture.
We were to attend this function in Kochi and then accompany Kejriwal to more appointments in a fix-as-we-go programme, including a visit to capital city Thiruvananthapuram.
It was in Thiruvananthapuram city in a government guest house that I was to witness an incident, involving Kejriwal and Shilpa, that left me shaken and wanting midway to leave for home.
‘People’s Planning’In Palakkad, on 07 November, Somu, Shilpa and I had a long interaction with Vinod Kumar of Maithri on Kerala’s experiment with people’s planning after which he arranged for us to visit a Gram Panchayat office in a village called Kannadi.
Since Somu spoke Tamil, a language widely understood in Palakkad, he acted as an interpreter for Shilpa and me throughout our stay in the district.
I recall visiting the lovely, well-equipped Kannadi Gram Panchayat office and meeting the panchayat president and secretary. We also met a well educated agricultural officer who worked under the panchayat, which we deemed quite an achievement for a local government.
We learnt that Kerala’s Gram Panchayats are richest in the country thanks to state government’s commitment to devolve large portions of its Plan funds to them.
After Kannadi, we moved to another village called Eruthenpathy where we were put up with a farmer’s family whom we found to be a heartwarmingly decent and generous host.
We stayed in Eruthenpathy for more than a week, furthering our understanding of ‘people’s planning’ through visits to Gram Panchayat office, Kudumbashree self-help groups of women, NREGA works, and a Dalit neighbourhood.
In between, we also attended a meeting of the District Planning Committee (DPC) where development plans drawn up by panchayats and municipalities get approved and consolidated.
Kerala’s ‘people’s planning’ appeared to me to be quite a labyrinthine process, but it was clear that Gram Sabha – the mainstay of Kejriwal’s vision and object of our quest – neither initiated the process nor finalized the plan.
Gram Sabhas had convened only once or twice since the start of the year in April, according to government schedule and not on their own initiative.
The attendance was usually 100-110 people, i.e. about six per cent of the average population of a ‘ward’ of about 1700. (Each Gram Panchayat was divided into 8-10 or more ‘wards’ and as many people’s assemblies or Gram Sabhas.)
We learnt that it had been difficult to gather even 100 people in a Gram Sabha meeting. Several people said they went to Gram Sabha meeting only if they hoped to get the benefit of some government scheme.
This experience, in hind sight, must have tempered our enthusiasm for ‘direct democracy.’
I was to discover later that citizen assemblies elsewhere in the world also usually reported attendance of no more than 3-6 per cent.
That, to my mind, blurred the distinction between ‘direct democracy’ and ‘representative democracy’.
For instance, four per cent of a 1000-strong ‘directly democratic’ body attending a meeting can be construed as 40 people ‘representing’ the whole body.
It was also intuitive to realize that in direct democratic set-up, 40 people in attendance would seem more amenable to a natural or feasibly managed discussion and decision making than 1000 people.
Where will 1000 people be accommodated? How long each will speak and in what order?
As the number of people attending exceeds a certain threshold, holding an assembly itself becomes an issue.
His ArrivalShilpa, Somu and I travelled by bus from Palakkad to Kochi the day (in mid-November) Kejriwal was arriving in the port city for his felicitation and lecture.
I recall seeing one or two big hoardings welcoming Kejriwal to Kochi on roads leading to the hotel where the function was to be held.
The function was well attended. He was feted for his contribution to promoting transparency in governance and the audience listened respectfully to his address.
Kejriwal and we were then driven to a Gram Sabha meeting that was scheduled to take place that day in a panchayat in Ernakulam district. We interacted with people who came to the meeting with complaints like shortage of water and heard the ward member or panchayat president promising redress.
This meeting too had a low attendance and seemed like a company board addressing shareholders.
Our next stop was Thiruvananthapuram city where, I recall, we met District Collector Sanjay Kaul who, Kejriwal told us, was known to him and would help in our research.
The two had a chat after which Kaul told one of his officials to help us in our work. I remember this official, a bearded, sensible looking man, taking us to some panchayat areas in the outskirts, including a marketplace of small vendors with whom we had an interaction.
In Thiruvananthapuram we stayed in a government guest house that had old-style spacious rooms with double doors. Each of us – Kejriwal, Shilpa and I – was given a separate room; Somu by this time had left for his native Tamil Nadu.
Our Kerala tour had by then begun to look a bit of an aimless stretch, even going by Kejriwal’s mood.
I remember the bearded official visiting us at the guest house with an elected panchayat member, a tall young man in white shirt and dhoti.
The official was still introducing this young man when he caught Kejriwal, sitting on the double-bed in his room in his sleeping suit of kurta pyjama, yawning.
“Are you sleepy?” the official asked brusquely.
“No. Just thinking,” Kejriwal replied smilingly but unconvincingly.
A Black HoleWe had collected photocopies of hundreds of pages of files from Eruthenpathy Panchayat office – an exercise primarily led by Shilpa who supposedly knew what was ‘required’ to be picked up for the ‘research’ that she and Kejriwal had already been engaged in when I joined them.
We were supposed to get these documents, consisting of panchayat decisions and government orders, translated later from Malayalam into English for our ‘study’ of Kerala’s Panchayati Raj.
This exercise would shortly prove to be futile and a black hole in Kejriwal’s and Shilpa’s ongoing study of panchayats and Gram Sabhas.
I would later learn about thousands of such documents that Shilpa had earlier been collecting through RTI from Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere.
They were crammed in a few cupboards, gathering dust, at the office of Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF), Kejriwal’s NGO.
I never saw Shilpa, Kejriwal or anybody else ever taking even a cursory look at those documents, which I learnt had been obtained at a cost of tens of thousands of rupees.
They quietly disappeared one day.
Eruthenpathy Panchayat documents would similarly be never seen or heard of after our Kerala visit.
Thus the ‘research’ that Shilpa seemed to be in charge of prior to my joining did not make much sense to me. And yet it was clear that she was doing everything with Kejriwal’s approval.
An ‘Informal’ RelationshipBy the time we ensconced ourselves in the government guest house in Thiruvananthapuram, I had already witnessed a few hints of Shilpa’s ‘informal’ relationship with Kejriwal.
I remember Shilpa asking him for money and Kejriwal responding promptly to her request with currency notes of a large denomination.
Shilpa also seemed to me to act like Kejriwal’s ‘eyes’ during our stay in Palakkad where she remained in frequent telephonic contact with him.
(She had been trying – often to my irritation – to regulate our work in line with what she deemed the ‘focused’ way we were to proceed.)
I remember Kejriwal and Shilpa taking a long and confidential walk together in Thiruvananthapuram during which she appeared to brief him on things while he was all ears.
It became stranger on the night she appeared in her nightdress – a loose pyjama suit – as we gathered to go to an eatery near the government guest house for our meal.
As Shilpa walked animatedly in her pyjamas alongside Kejriwal, who was oddly silent, I felt baffled.
Despite days I had already spent with her and Somu, which did have moments of jest (including her ribbing of me on my telephonic chats with my pregnant wife), I found it rather outré that a young woman on an official tour in a far-away city would walk with her male colleagues on a public road in her nightdress.
“You will go to the restaurant in your sleeping clothes?” I couldn’t resist asking Shilpa, who was about 10 years my junior.
She made a sharp retort, something to the effect that that’s none of my business.
Behind Closed DoorIn Thiruvananthapuram, we were supposed to get our Eruthenpathy Panchayat documents translated from Malayalam to English.
So Kejriwal, Shilpa and I hunted for a translator and found one. I remember the three of us visiting this man in his office and striking a deal.
The next morning, on 18 November, Kejriwal wanted me to visit the translator for some reason, which I did.
It did not take me long to be back at the government guest house. I went straight up to Kejriwal’s room to inform him of what transpired in my meeting with the translator.
The double door was bolted from inside. There was no sign of Shilpa.
Things suddenly seemed the strangest so far.
I stood by the door and gave it a knock.
There was an awkward silence inside the room. No one responded for long moments.
I waited and couldn’t help seeing very clearly a part of the bed through the ample opening between the two leaves of the door.
My heart then skipped a beat as I saw both Shilpa and Kejriwal emerging from right side of the part of the bed that was visible to me and very quietly climbing off it; Kejriwal then hurriedly shoved her from behind towards the cupboard to the left of where I stood.
Both were clothed; Kejriwal was in his sleeping suit of kurta pyjama.
My heart was pounding.
The view through the opening in the double door was so clear that I feared Kejriwal’s gaze might have met mine if he hadn’t been in a hurry to hide Shilpa in the built-in cupboard.
It was an extraordinary sight.
The Ramon Magsaysay award winning ‘social activist,’ whom I had witnessed being feted in Kochi the other day for promoting transparency, was engaged in some kind of secret bedroom farce with his own young colleague.
I felt as if I had willy-nilly threatened to violate the privacy of two people and reduced them to that ludicrous state.
Shilpa having been stowed safely away, Kejriwal opened the door for me and acted as if he had been resting.
I tried to overcome my own stunned state to brief him on my visit to the translator while he acted as normally and seriously as he could.
It was still a very awkward moment – I knew he was acting, he probably feared that I might have suspected something, and we both knew Shilpa was hiding in the cupboard.
Kejriwal then tried valiantly to inject some verisimilitude into that pretense by casually asking me:
‘Where is Shilpa?’
I mumbled my ‘ignorance’ and left the room.
Leaving KeralaMy heart quailed at what I had just witnessed and I suddenly felt very lonely.
Something sneaky was going on between Kejriwal and Shilpa, which seemed to have shaken the moral certainty of our work and called into question my decision to leave my media job to join his team.
I also wondered if the latter part of the Kerala tour had been planned to facilitate what I had seen going on between the two.
I called my wife and told her everything I had seen. I remember telling her that each one of us is after all part of a corrupt system.
I told her I felt like running away from that place as soon as I could and so wanted her to book for me a seat in a flight back to Delhi. My pretext for leaving was to be the condition of my pregnant wife, requiring me to be with her.
As I talked to my wife on phone, I could see Kejriwal and Shilpa taking a walk and conferring. I could tell they had sensed my aloofness and feared that I had seen something that was supposed to be a secret or had begun to suspect something was going on between them.
That afternoon as I told Kejriwal of my decision to leave for Delhi because of my wife’s condition, he seemed specially considerate and solicitous. For the next few hours, I was the focus of his attentions as if he wanted to draw me out of my shell and read my mind.
He took three of us to a good restaurant where they served you fine South Indian fare on plates spread with banana leaves.
Throughout that outing Kejriwal tried to open me up and make me feel important with artificial questions like: What are your views on politics?
I actually felt sorry for this man for being humbled by an incident of his own making which I couldn’t help witnessing.
I took leave of Kejriwal and Shilpa the next day, on 19 November, at the government guest house after being booked a seat in a Kochi to Delhi flight.
The two were to remain in Thiruvananthapuram for some more days ostensibly for all the translation and other ‘research’ work that we had earlier been fussing over and that now seemed to me to be fake.
I was much relieved as I boarded a bus to Kochi to catch the flight back home.
That was the end of my Kerala tour – the first two weeks of my stint with Kejriwal which gave me a reality check of two things that had attracted me into his team: the idea of ‘democracy’ and the world of ‘social activists’.
(The writer is a Delhi-NCR-based journalist.)