Archive for January 2015

Discrimination against those from the North­east is a subject that’s close to minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju’s heart. The home ministry is recruiting around 160 police personnel from the Northeast for the Delhi police, the MP from Arunachal Pradesh tells Sonia Sarkar

This is my first visit to the office of the minister of state for home affairs but I am assured that I am in the right place when I enter the waiting room. All the seven people seated there are from the Northeast, and each of them is hoping to meet the young minister, Kiren Rijiju.

Rijiju, who is a member of Parliament from west Arunachal Pradesh, is the Northeast’s point man in Delhi. One of the visitors, a public sector employee in Guwahati, wants a transfer to Delhi. Two are contractors from Imphal, seeking the minister’s intervention on extortion calls from militants. There is also a social activist from Itanagar, who wants help to run his school project.

The 43-year-old minister doesn’t disappoint them either. But then, Rijiju stresses, he seeks to deal with issues that affect the region. To begin with, his ministry wants to check acts of discrimination that the people from the northeastern states face in many parts of India.

The ministry has proposed amendments to the Indian Penal Code by inserting two new sections for dealing with violence against people of the Northeast. It spells out punishment to those using derogatory words or gestures for racial features or racial behaviour, culture, customs, way of living or any other practice. Anybody who intends to use criminal force against a particular race or causes fear or alarm or insecurity amongst racial groups may face imprisonment.

Is the government planning a separate law on anti-racial discrimination? “This is enough to deal with the problem,” Rijiju replies.

Discrimination is a subject close to his heart. As a young student at Hansraj College in Delhi, and later at the law faculty, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rijiju had witnessed acts of discrimination against Northeasterners. And he regrets that nothing has changed since then.

“We have to change the mindset of the people. To change the mindset, we need a strong law,” he says. ” Sahi tareekein se kam nahin chalta hai to danda chalana parta hai (You have to wield a stick if people don’t listen to polite words),” he says in his heavily-accented Hindi.

But much of the harassment comes from a department that’s under his ministry – the Delhi police. To deal with this, the home ministry is recruiting around 160 police personnel from the Northeast for the Delhi police.

“Of Delhi’s 90,000 police personnel, only 39 are from the Northeast now. It is strange that we don’t have even 0.5 per cent representation from the Northeast. It is important to have them to deal with issues of the region,” he says.

But there is widespread resentment even against local police forces in the Northeast, I point out. The people of Assam and Manipur, for instance, complain that the police harass women and extort money from the locals. Will they be any different in Delhi?

“They will be forced to be nice. We know how to deal with them,” Rijiju says.

He speaks the language of a tough policeman but looks like a corporate head honcho in his grey suit and white shirt with a matching striped tie. But even that is deceptive – for beneath the suave exterior is a shrewd politician. And that becomes clear when I ask him a spate of uncomfortable questions.

He evades answers on most issues relating to his ministry – from the rise in the number of attacks by Maoists and recruitment in the ISIS to blasts in Burdwan and the recent killings of more than 80 tribals in Kokrajhar by militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

“We have achieved so many things,” he replies, skirting the core issues. “Whether it is disaster management or police modernisation or strengthening of internal security, we are going in the right direction. The security apparatus of the country is foolproof,” he asserts.

What does the ministry plan to do to counter militancy in Manipur and extortion and kidnapping by militants? “I will not talk about all this. These are big subjects,” he replies.

I remind him that in October last year, he had announced that India would construct a frontier highway in Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. How far has the project moved?

“We are planning to do something but if I talk now it will spoil the atmosphere,” he says. “Our good intention of developing (the region) for our own people in the border area could be taken as an aggressive posture. We are taking care of our borders. That’s all I have to say.”

I realise that he is on a different page when he places his smartphone in front of me. “Have a look at this video where (Atal Behari) Vajpayee is speaking about me,” he says.

The video clip is part of a media interview in 2005 in which former Prime Minister Vajpayee had praised Rijiju for his work as a young parliamentarian. I tell him that I’ve seen it, but he insists that I see it again.

After we finish watching the video, I grab the opportunity to ask him about the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. How does he see the transition in the BJP from Vajpayee’s era to the Modi regime?

“It’s a great transition,” he replies promptly. “Vajpayee was such a great leader. We are happy to have replaced him with a great Prime Minister like Narendra Modi. India needs discipline and to enforce discipline you need a strong leader like him.”

Rijiju has old links with Modi. When Modi was the national secretary of the BJP in the mid-Nineties, the minister was the party’s general secretary in Arunachal Pradesh. “I had the pleasure of working with him then. I am happy that I am back in his team.”

He stresses that he has old party links, too. “I am one of the few original BJP members,” the minister, who started his political career as an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activist, adds. “I come from BJP ideology. I am not imported.”

I refer to reports that suggest Modi has been relying heavily on Rijiju’s colleague in the ministry – minister of state Haribhai Chaudhary, a four-time MP from Gujarat. He is believed to be very close to Modi, I point out. “I don’t care about that,” he retorts.

And what about reports that Rijiju’s relationship with Union home minister Rajnath Singh is choppy? “We are working together,” he says tersely.

His heart may be with the BJP but Rijiju has had one breach with his party. The minister, who became an MP for the first time in 2004, lost the 2009 election by 1,319 votes, following which he resigned from the party. News reports had then suggested that he had joined the Congress.

Not true, he says. “Our local BJP leaders wanted me to have an understanding with the former Congress chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Dorjee Khandu, and support the Congress candidate (in the 2009 poll). Khandu offered me the post of the deputy chief minister but I refused. I only extended my support to it but never joined the Congress,” he says.

Months before the 2014 election, he returned to his party with a public announcement. “I am a BJP man. I had to be here,” he says.

Rijiju, who is from Nafra in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, belongs to a political family. His father, Rinchin Kharu, was a pro tem speaker in the state’s first Assembly. Rijiju says he was active in social work from his schooldays.

When he was 14, he was drawn to the teachings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), though he initially looked at it with suspicion. “As a young boy, I used to think that the RSS was communal. So I attended an RSS camp in Arunachal. But I realised that there was no organisation as patriotic and nationalistic as the RSS,” he says. “People who accuse the RSS of being communal should attend their camps.”

From the austere RSS, Rijiju may have picked up the habit of simple living. After becoming a minister, he stayed in a single room in a state bhawan in Delhi with his family (his wife, an alumna of Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, teaches history at the Dera Natung Government College in Itanagar). He moved from Arunachal Bhawan to Andaman and Nicobar Bhawan while waiting for the bungalow allotted to him to be vacated by former defence minister A.K. Antony.

He has now shifted to the sprawling bungalow on Krishna Menon Marg but complains that he barely gets time to be home. “I am not enjoying life in a bungalow. I just go there to sleep because there is no end to meetings,” he says.

I move on to another thorny issue – conversions. How does he react to moves within the Sangh Parivar to convert people to Hinduism? As a Buddhist, what does he feel about the recent conversion of 500 Hindus in Bihar’s Gaya district to Buddhism?

“There should be no forceful conversion by any religion,” he says sternly. “I don’t want to pass any judgement or opinion about any high funda thing. Hindu is not religion but a way of life. If you are living in Hindustan, you are Hindustani but that doesn’t make you Hindu.”

Rijiju has said what he wants to – at least for the time being. There are men waiting for him in the visitors’ room. And the Northeast is his constituency, after all.

You don’t often see Kiran Bedi pleading. But she is doing that right now, while urging the reporter of a Hindi news channel to ask her more questions. The reporter had stood up in a huff, terminating his interview with Delhi’s wannabe chief minister, when her aides had asked him to cut it short. “Please don’t go,” Bedi pleads. “Ask more questions.”

There’s a background to this. A few days before that, she had walked out of a television interview. Anchor Arnab Goswami was, as is his wont, hectoring her a bit when Bedi walked off, saying that she was late for another interview. The video clip went viral, leading to a deluge of jokes and critical remarks about Bedi.

Clearly, the no-nonsense former super cop is learning to be a politician. The walk-out was a mistake. Two weeks before Assembly elections in Delhi – where she is the chief ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bedi can’t afford to be seen as a political parvenu unable to handle the media.

So the first woman in the Indian Police Service (IPS), wearing a dark blue blazer over a pair of blue trousers, with a saffron scarf draped around her neck, is doing what she can to get people on her side. And that’s not a tall order, she believes.

“I have the trust of the people. That will help me to work as the chief minister,” Bedi, 65, says.

Last week, the BJP – which has no dearth of leaders in its state unit – sprung a surprise on the people, to say nothing of its Delhi party, when it said that Bedi had joined the BJP and was its candidate for the chief minister’s post. The move has led to furious debates in and outside the city. Is she chief minister material, as the phrase goes? Does a tough cop necessarily mean an able chief minister?

Many of her former colleagues believe that the very traits that made her a go-getting police officer may come in her way if she is chief minister. As a cop, she was dictatorial and broke protocol. In a chief minister, such traits will be frowned upon.

“She is an instructor, not a listener,” a former colleague rues. “Her word has to be the last word.”

Bedi denies that. “When I work, I listen to everyone. I urge people to speak,” she stresses.

Of course, Bedi is known to have a mind of her own. Old colleagues say she has been like this from the very beginning, even when she was a newbie at Mount Abu’s National Police Academy in 1972.

“Even at 21, she was outspoken and confident,” retired IPS officer Gautam Kaul says. “And she was never awkward as the only woman in the academy.”

A batchmate recalls that she would take a regular stroll with other probationers near Nakki Lake, a lone and slight woman in a group of strapping men. An Asian lawn tennis champion, she played tennis with equal elan with the then director of the academy. “We secretly envied her,” he says.

She was quick to impress her seniors with her “can-do” attitude when she was posted to Delhi after her training. “The first impression she gives is always positive,” a former cop says.

But those are the strengths – which should be an asset to any chief minister. The problems that her colleagues saw soon thereafter are traits that may trip her up.

As a cop, she would do things on her own, sometimes bypassing seniors, says a former Delhi police official. “She had this tendency to fix all problems alone, which is never possible in the government.”

She wasn’t a team player, but to be an effective chief minister she cannot work in isolation. “She has to take everyone else on board. She cannot wield her baton here,” a senior BJP leader says.

On the other hand, a trait that bureaucrats oppose may be just what the voter wants. Her colleagues were not happy with her “over-enthusiastic” approach. A senior recalls that while undergoing training as a station house officer in 1973, she decided to stay back overnight at the police station to get work done. “She went back only after a senior asked her not to ‘overdo’ things,” the retired Delhi police officer recalls.

But Delhi residents may not be unhappy at all if a chief minister decides to spend a night in the secretariat, clearing files.

Some old associates say that she is self-centered. Her detractors say that she imposes her opinion on others. But Bedi doesn’t believe this is true. “I cannot impose myself on others unless people trust me,” she says.

But if she carries so much baggage, why would the BJP have chosen her as the CM candidate? Sources say that the party had sought a delay in the elections because it was in search of a “brave” face to counter Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The party brass felt that it needed someone with mass appeal, which their Delhi leaders lacked. Senior BJP leader and Union finance minister Arun Jaitley is said to have approached Bedi, after getting the go-ahead from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

It worked out well – the BJP was looking for a face; Bedi was looking for a body. Sidelined by the AAP, she needed a platform.

The BJP high command believes it is on the right track – she is seen as honest, energetic and determined. She gets work done. People still remember her as Crane Bedi because she got cars parked illegally towed away. Delhi wallahas even believe that she had Indira Gandhi’s car towed away, though it later transpired that Gandhi, then Prime Minister, was out of town, and the car’s driver was “challaned” by a police constable for illegal parking.

In the late 1970s, she hit the headlines when she rescued 10 women and seven children from a burning house in Sadar Bazar. In 1978, with a stick in hand, she took on Akali agitators at India Gate. Her personal album has a series of pictures of Bedi – in heeled boots – warding off the men carrying sturdy sticks.

Bedi has already shown a talent that some successful politicians possess – the ability to change camps at will. When she was one of the leading lights of the Anna Hazare movement – seeking to weed out corruption from India – she lampooned politicians at a public rally. There was a time, too, not so long ago, when she was critical of Modi, frequently questioning him about the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Her tilt towards the BJP first became apparent to the AAP in 2014, when the latter was campaigning against Union minister and former BJP president Nitin Gadkari on corruption issues. “She was fine when such protests were carried out against Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. But she opposed the AAP when it targeted Gadkari,” an AAP member says.

Bedi now sees herself an out-and-out BJP person. “It’s a value-based solid organisation. I have seen it from inside,” she says.

She may have also seen the dissidents inside – for that’s going to be one of the biggest problems she’ll face in the party. Many have already started grumbling about her lack of political experience. “She should have been made an MLA first to help her understand how the administration runs. She has always been on the other side of the fence. She has no knowledge of politics and governance,” a BJP leader says.

Her critics point out that she is also not known to complete assignments. When she was posted to Goa, she left before finishing her tenure. She was removed from a post in Chandigarh after she got into a tussle with a senior bureaucrat. She left her job in Mizoram after widespread protests about her daughter getting a seat in a medical college in Delhi under the “Mizoram quota” – meant essentially for people of the state.

Yet, for every characteristic that is seen as a con, there are many in her favour. She is disciplined and looks after the interest of her subordinates, who used to fondly call her “Madam, Sir”.

She is also seen as a doer, a quality that people would like in their chief minister. “She doesn’t sit on anything. For example, if a pipe leaks, she will get a plumber to fix it right away. She won’t go through the sarkari way of filling up a requisition form, etc,” a former colleague says.

This, though, is not a job for quick fixes. Will she cope, or cop out? Time will tell, no doubt. But before that, the voter will.

‘I give, don’t take’

Q. What are the qualities you have that will make you a good chief minister?
A. I am trustworthy. As a cop, I have learnt only to give, never to take.
Q. How did you get the BJP ticket?
A. Nobody will ever get to know this.
Q. Why do you always abandon your posts?
A. Read my book. It has all the answers. It costs Rs 500, but I am gifting it to you.
Q. Why have you changed your views about the BJP and Modi?
A. I haven’t changed my views. I have understood that it’s a solid, value-based organisation. You haven’t got a chance to understand it, which I’ve got.
Q. You are a good mimicry artiste. You also used to imitate dancer Prabhudheva’s moves in the song Muqabla muqabla…
A. I used to do that. I mimicked tennis players too.

Pros and Cons


Quick to act
Clean image

Critics call her dictatorial
No experience
Not a team player

It was a birthday party with a difference. The bungalow at 97, Lodhi Estate, in Lutyens’s Delhi, was lit up, and the menu included some of the most delectable dishes of Kashmir. The capital’s Who’s Who was there – except for one. The birthday girl.

Five months after Sunanda Pushkar, 52, was found dead in a hotel room in Delhi, her husband, member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, had thrown a party in her memory. Many of the guests there that June evening couldn’t believe that the vivacious woman was no more.

They have trouble believing the rumours and reports now doing the rounds of the city. Earlier this week, the Delhi police termed the death on January 17, 2014 – so far widely seen as suspected suicide or accidental death – a possible murder by poisoning. A special investigation team has been formed to probe the death.

The stories about her unresolved death refuse to die down. Senior cops reveal that the autopsy report had shown that she had 15 injury marks on her body, caused in the 12 hours before she died. A puncture mark between the index and middle fingers of her right hand indicated the possible use of a syringe.

Was poison, as the police hint, injected into her body? And could the death have been related to a controversy that broke out during the Indian Premier League (IPL) of 2010? A section of the media had then alleged that Tharoor had used his influence as Union minister to get Pushkar sweat equity worth Rs 700 million in a cricket franchise, Rendezvous Sports World, which had bid for the Kochi team. Questions were raised as to whether Pushkar was acting as a proxy for him, speculation that Tharoor dismissed. But the controversy ultimately resulted in his resignation as a minister in the United Progressive Alliance government.

The city which thrives on salacious whispers came up with a host of theories. Some held that Pushkar, who thought her twice-divorced husband was in a relationship, had threatened to spill the beans about the IPL fracas.

“What she would have revealed about the IPL controversy or something else would have hurt a lot of politicians in India,” claims BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who has been taking considerable interest in getting the mystery of her death solved. “I suspect that was the major cause of her murder,” says Swamy, who met her for the first and last time three days before her death at a function in Thiruvananthapuram.

The police are checking whether there are any Dubai links to her death. Police sources say that four people – two from Pakistan and two from Dubai – were staying in the same hotel where Pushkar was found dead around the same time on fake passports. The sources say the police are probing the role, if any, of the Dubai underworld, which controls illegal betting and match-fixing in cricket.

But there are enough reasons to back the suicide theory, too. Three of Sunanda’s close aides confirm that she was depressed for the past few months before her death. “Anybody who spoke to her could sense that,” a cousin from Jammu says.

Pushkar, clearly, was troubled about her marriage. “Every marriage has some problem or another. That Sue was not keeping well aggravated her anxiety,” a male friend stresses.

Bollywood actor-producer, and a regular at Delhi parties, Nasser Abdulla, says that Sunanda had revealed to him that she suffered from lupus, an autoimmune disease. He had urged her to go for a 10-day vipassana (meditation) course. “I had told her that meditation helps someone who’s ailing and disturbed,” he says.

Part of her depression could have emanated from her worries about her marriage. There was speculation about Tharoor’s relationship with a Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar. Tharoor and Pushkar issued a joint statement saying that they were together and happy. It also said that Pushkar had been hospitalised after an illness and was seeking rest.

A day before she died, however, Pushkar posted a series of personal messages, supposedly sent by Tarar to Tharoor, on his Twitter account.

In an earlier TV interview, she had said that her husband wasted a lot of time on Twitter. “Twitter is my sautan (husband’s second wife),” she had joked.

To most spectators, it seemed that the marriage was unravelling. And that surprised their friends, for theirs was a whirlwind romance. The two had met in July 2009 in Dubai, where Pushkar, who ran a real estate company, was based. Tharoor, a former UN under secretary-general, had by then moved to the Gulf with his then wife.

“They were like teenagers in love. The two were inseparable,” a former Tharoor aide says.

Emotional and spirited, she was intelligent, complex and sensitive. “She had many grey areas to her life too,” a friends says.

Another friend recalls that Pushkar loved Hindi film songs. Her favourite was the old Lata Mangeshkar classic from Guide, Piya tose naina laage re. “She danced to this once at a private party,” the friend recollects.

The two were married in August 2010. In a media interview earlier, Tharoor had admitted that he was in a rush to get married to her because he didn’t want any more controversies regarding their relationship.

Friends of the couple say that Tharoor was completely besotted. Even though he was married at that point of time, he wanted Sunanda’s company, they say.

“She was vivacious and intelligent. One of the other reasons why Tharoor got attracted to her was that she was well connected in Dubai,” a male friend of Sunanda says.

“But She too enjoyed the power and luxury of being the wife of a senior politician and a former union minister,” he adds.

A close friend of Sunanda believes that they complemented each other – though there were differences. For Tharoor, always good with words, romance was all about reciting poetry for her. For Sunanda, romance meant togetherness, the friend says.

Tharoor is soft-spoken in public; Pushkar was known to be vocal and impulsive. She slapped a man who had groped her when she arrived with Tharoor at the Thiruvananthapuram airport to attend a literature festival in October 2012.

“She was not a dainty lily, she knew what to do at the right time and she always did it,” a friend says.

But one of Tharoor’s former aides says while suave and sophisticated, he was also hot-tempered. Media reports quoting their domestic help say that in the last few months the couple often fought – sometimes physically.

A cousin, who fondly called her Pinky, stresses that Pushkar was outgoing. The daughter of an army officer from Kashmir lived a life that seemed to belong to the pages of a fast-paced novel. After graduating from a Srinagar college, she worked as a restaurant hostess in a Srinagar hotel. She married a Kashmiri Pandit, Sanjay Raina, in 1986 but was divorced in 1988. She later married Sujith Menon, a financial consultant, and had a son, Shiv. Menon died in an accident.

“She was a Kashmiri at heart even after being in different parts of the world for so long. She often spoke of her Kashmir days,” a friend says.

She was also a good cook. “She loved feeding her guests. She knew how to connect to them,” says Sanjoy Roy, managing director of the production company, Teamwork Productions, who was one of the guests at her posthumous birthday party. “We badly missed her that day.”

Birthdays, for Tharoor and Pushkar, were special. Four years before he marked June 27 with lights and gushtaba at his Delhi residence, they had another memorable birthday.

“It was on her birthday that I proposed to her in Kasauli,” Tharoor had said in an earlier TV interview.

Arvind Kejriwal is readying for the Delhi Assembly elections. The man who was briefly chief minister of Delhi concedes that he erred in quitting government midway but tells Sonia Sarkar that if voters give his Aam Aadmi Party a majority it won’t make the same mistake again

Arvind Kejriwal is out on the streets of Delhi again. The man who would be chief minister of Delhi – and who was its seemingly reluctant chief minister for 49 days – is collecting money for elections to the Delhi Assembly.

“An honest party can only run with honest money,” he says as he donates Rs 10,000 from his own coffers to his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) at a public function on Friday. “I am here to create Swachh Rajneeti (clean politics),” he adds, responding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign.

Kejriwal and his team are playing the second innings of a game that they had left midway. In 2013, AAP won 28 seats and formed the government in Delhi with the support of the Congress, which had eight seats. But he stepped down in February 2014, stating that he couldn’t continue because he didn’t have the numbers to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill, an anti-corruption law that he had been spearheading.

Many former supporters of AAP believe that Kejriwal sparked hope in them, and then let them down when he resigned. The short stint, in any case, did not inspire confidence. He and his aides brought the city to a standstill with nightlong dharnas. Once the darling of the media, he earned considerable bad press when his law minister raided the houses of African women at midnight, seeking to unearth a suspected drug and prostitution racket.

Will the voter trust him again?

“There is no trust deficit. But, yes, people are asking, why did I leave the government?” Kejriwal says. “But we tell them that you didn’t give us a majority. If you give us a majority this time, we will never leave.”

AAP’s campaign has begun in right earnest. Since November, the party has received around Rs 4 crore (which, however, is just a fraction of the Rs 25 crore it says it needs for funding the polls). AAP has also released the names of the candidates for Delhi’s 70 constituencies, though the election dates are still to be announced.

“I think we will get around 50 seats,” AAP’s national convener predicts. “It is important to have a strong leadership in Delhi, which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doesn’t have,” he adds.

Kejriwal, 46, blames the Congress for not allowing the previous government to function. The Congress and the BJP together did not let any bills be passed in the Delhi Assembly, he alleges.

His only mistake, he holds, was to leave the government midway. ” Bas, wahi ek galti ki thi (that was the only mistake),” he says.

Kejriwal has been mocked as much he has been idolised ever since he camped at Jantar Mantar three years ago as part of a widespread anti-corruption campaign. When we meet on Friday evening, he is wearing a brown jacket and a pair of grey trousers. The politician who has often been derided as Mufflerman wears two scarves to cover his neck and head. He still has a cough – the subject of many an Internet barb. How does he react to all these social media jokes?

“When there are nice jokes, one laughs at them,” he replies.

We are travelling in a grey Innova along with other party members – Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh and Ashwathi Muralidharan – from his flat in Ghaziabad to the Constitution Club, where the function for donations is being held. Kejriwal sits in the front passenger seat, and I sit behind him. For the 30 minutes that the journey takes, he answers all questions but never once turns back his head or neck. He looks ahead and replies, pausing only once in a while to smile at a few passers-by who wave out to him.

Kejriwal, who floated AAP after running a nationwide campaign called India Against Corruption in 2011 to bring in legislation against corruption, is now strangely reticent about the Jan Lokpal Bill. He doesn’t mention the concept of Poorna Swaraj (self-governance) either, which was one of his main planks during the last elections.

“All this is on our agenda. But there are other important issues such as educational loans for the youth, CCTV camera in buses for security and creating citizen local area development funds,” he stresses.

But corruption, he points out, is very much on the agenda. “We will stop the culture of taking bribes in Delhi at every level,” he says.

But how relevant is the issue of corruption now when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development plank holds sway?

“It is not corruption versus development. The fight is on the basis of my 49 days of governance that the people saw and the six months of BJP rule that the people have been seeing now,” he says. “Even staunch BJP supporters are now disappointed because they see there is no real work happening on the ground. What is happening is just bayaanbaazi (making tall promises).”

Ironically, the BJP seems to have taken up many of the issues that AAP had promised to deal with – the BJP has launched a mobile app in association with the Delhi police for women’s safety; it seeks to regularise 895 illegal colonies in Delhi; and its government in Haryana has issued a notice to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra about his business deals. It was Kejriwal who had raised these issues.

“They are copying us. But they are doing it only for show. Their intent is not honest,” he says.

Kejriwal, who was once described as a front for the BJP in its fight against the Congress, has been a staunch critic of the BJP and Narendra Modi for a while now. When few were willing to take on Modi, he fought (and lost) against the BJP strongman in Varanasi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

But Parliament doesn’t interest him any more – he is eyeing the Delhi secretariat. There are murmurs of discontent in the party, with some members alleging that he gave tickets to those people who could bring money for the party. Five party legislators have also been denied tickets. And he has been accused of doing away with the previous process of screening applications and interviewing candidates before giving away tickets.

Kejriwal denies the charges. “We have followed the same process of selection of candidates. We have removed some legislators because they were not functioning properly or were not accessible to their constituents,” he says. “All those given tickets are good people,” he reasons.

The new Kejriwal seems more practical. Once against corporate funding, he has no qualms today about accepting “small” donations from companies. He says he is willing to take Rs 1 lakh as donation from any company because “nobody can buy the party with Rs 1 lakh”.

These flip-flops are being closely watched. The man who once said he’d never play caste politics referred to himself as a baniya (a trader caste) while addressing a gathering of traders in Delhi last week. “But I never said give me votes because I am a baniya,” he elaborates.

Within his loosely structured party, Kejriwal has his share of detractors too. One party member believes that he follows the “Modi style of dictatorship”. Senior AAP members including former minister Shanti Bhushan and academic Yogendra Yadav, too, have criticised him for taking decisions unilaterally. Yadav, in a letter written to his colleagues last year, had said that Kejriwal behaved like a “party supremo” and not a leader.

“It shows that people in our party have every right to express their dissent,” Kejriwal replies when reminded about the criticism within.

But the party is not riding the wave that it did a year ago. Prominent members such as Shazia Ilmi and Captain G.R. Gopinath have left the party, mostly because they were unhappy with its “undemocratic” functioning. Is it true, I ask him, that Kumar Vishwas, who fought from Amethi, and academic Anand Kumar, who were both a part of the party’s national executive, have been sidelined?

“No one has been sidelined. It is wrong to believe that only members of some committee are important for the party,” he says.

This is a new side of Kejriwal – the mild-mannered son of an engineer, who schooled in small towns such as Hissar, Ghaziabad and Sonepat. There was not a spark of activism in him even when he studied mechanical engineering at IIT, Kharagpur, his friends had told the media earlier.

The change came after he cleared the civil services examination, and joined the Indian Revenue Services. He worked as a joint commissioner of income tax in Delhi and later started the Public Cause Research Foundation where he spoke out against corruption. He was one of the crusaders of the right to information campaign and went on to win the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for his work on the issue.

Kejriwal, who resigned from the services, has no time today for his passions – playing chess and reading. Of course, it’s another matter that he is playing a game of chess on a very large field. Checkmate, anyone?

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