Published October 26, 2012
NEW DELHI – Since launching his own political party this month, a fiery former tax officer has become the bane of some of India's most powerful politicians, publicly accusing them — by name — of corruption.
He has accused Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law of making millions off shady real estate deals. He has left India's law minister sputtering to explain what happened to thousands of dollars meant for charity. He has accused the top opposition leader of grabbing land from poor farmers, and challenged the prime minister to a public debate.
He has blamed the ruling Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party of colluding with each other and big businesses to pillage the country.
"We want to prove that both main parties are drowning in corruption. They are all in this together," Arvind Kejriwal said at a recent public rally.
A driving force behind previous anti-corruption movements, longtime bureaucrat-turned-activist Kejriwal taps into the disgust of ordinary Indians amid a seemingly unending stream of corruption scandals that have tainted politicians of all stripes over the last few years.
His recent finger-pointing at India's usually opaque political class has also made for great television — some news stations cover his allegations almost constantly, thrilled by his willingness to name politicians and spell out his accusations against them in detail.
It remains unclear what solutions, if any, he or his new party has to offer.
The politicians he mocks deride his tactics and called him everything from a muckracker to political opportunist. But they also seem unable to ignore him.
Earlier this week, the chief minister of New Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, threatened to sue Kejriwal for defamation if he didn't apologize for using "foul language" — he had used a word that can be translated as "pimp" when he accused her of colluding with big corporations.
Kejriwal brushed that aside with his seemingly endless self-confidence.
"We have defamed you and we will keep defaming you as long as you work against the common people," he declared.
His first target was Sonia Gandhi's flashy son-in-law, Robert Vadra, a man best known for his bulging biceps and tight T-shirts. Kejriwal accused Vadra of building a 2 billion rupee ($36 million) real estate portfolio from one extremely lucrative transaction, buying a 3.5 acre (1.4 hectare) piece of land for 154 million rupees ($2.8 million) and selling it within a year to India's leading real estate company for four times as much.
In drawing attention to Vadra's mysterious business dealings, he also violated an unspoken rule in Indian politics: Lay off the relatives of politicians.
The Congress party insists Vadra is a private citizen but also rushed to his defense, prompting Kejriwal to ask why government ministers were defending him. Vadra didn't help matters by calling India a "banana republic" on his Facebook page.
Next Kejriwal accused Law Minister Salman Khurshid of embezzling more than 7 million rupees ($129,000) meant for a charity he runs for the disabled.
Khurshid called a news conference to answer Kejriwal's allegations but did little more than fume. His colleague, Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma pitched in to help by announcing that 7 million rupees was "too small" an amount for a minister to embezzle. In a recent interview, Khurshid described Kejriwal as "pathetically small to be in confrontation with our party."
Then it was the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's turn. Kejriwal accused party president Nitin Gadkari of grabbing land from poor farmers in western India.
The BJP dismissed Kejriwal as a "boy who cried wolf too many times" and accused him of "overstatement, exaggeration, misstatements."
Kejriwal insists he has evidence backing all his accusations, and often distributes photocopies of government documents that he says prove him right. But none of the allegations have led to charges in India's painfully slow court system, or been independently verified.
With every revelation, though, Kejriwal has promised many more.
Kejriwal first appeared on Indian television screens last year when he created a nationwide anti-corruption movement and hand-picked elderly activist Anna Hazare to lead a crusade for anti-graft legislation. A series of very public hunger-strikes brought immense media attention to the cause, but the movement quickly crumbled, in part because of accusations Kejriwal was riding roughshod over his colleagues and had dreams of entering politics.
On Oct. 2, the birth anniversary of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, he launched his own party. The anti-corruption vigilante was quickly being followed by dozens of reporters, eager to hear his next allegation.
But beyond accusations, he has yet to offer much else.
"He knows what the problem is," said Vinod Sharma, a well-known political journalist, "but doesn't know how to fix it."