Nov 01, 2012 at 04:09pm IST

Arvind Kejriwal: Is he the emerging fourth front?

New Delhi: Arvind Kejriwal's three-storied office in Kaushambi, Ghaziabad, has a queer resemblance to the numerous engineering entrance exam coaching centres one finds in tier 2 cities of India. The rooms are bustling with activity. Groups of two or three young volunteers huddle together, discussing fervently. Each door has a computer printout stuck on it: 'Toilet', 'Please take off your shoes before entering' and so on. And there's the doormat, which says 'Let's stamp out corruption'.

Kejriwal's closest aide, Manish Sisodia, sits in one of the rooms, talking to a middle-aged man with a walking stick. At the next table, an old man is explaining his electricity woes to one of the young volunteers of India Against Corruption, Kejriwal's NGO. It is three in the afternoon and Sisodia missed his lunch. He is hurriedly eating water chestnuts out of a polythene bag and ignores the calls he gets on his BlackBerry and iPhone. The man talking to him has come from Dibrugarh in Assam and Sisodia is assessing how many people are willing to work for the new party that Kejriwal announced on October 2.

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The man tells him that he can get 10-12 people to work on weekends. "Just by working on weekends we cannot build this nation, sir!" says Sisodia. "Tell me how many people are willing to work every day making this (campaigning) their top priority?" The man from Assam cannot think of anyone except himself and a retired professor. "But will he (the professor) be able to walk across villages to build cadres?" asks Sisodia.

Arvind Kejriwal: Is he the emerging fourth front?

The activist-turned-politician has announced a new political party, which promises to change the way politics happens in India.

That, in a nutshell, is the biggest hurdle IAC faces as it transitions from an NGO to a political party. As a social movement, it could sustain fasts and protests based in Delhi while the media, especially the 24-hour news channels, took its message to millions across the country. But the media is unlikely to extend that courtesy while IAC tries to build its cadres as a political party. For that, IAC requires hordes of committed people who have such belief in Kejriwal's vision for India that they forego weeks and months of regular vocation.

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And there's the rub. Kejriwal's vision for India, elaborately detailed in his book Swaraj, is a disastrous mix of idealism, naïveté and blindness bordering on the idiotic. It has received scant attention; the media has mostly followed Kejriwal's valiant attempts to expose the rotten underbelly of India's political establishment.

Kejriwal wants to change the way Indians govern themselves. He hopes to bring "truly participative" democracy where assemblies of voters called gram sabhas (rural) and mohalla sabhas (urban) will decide what is best for them instead of some Central planner sitting in Delhi. Sounds good until you get down to brass-tacks. For land acquisition, Kejriwal's solution is to grant the final word to the gram sabha, which in his opinion "is best positioned to negotiate" with the big corporate houses. This will cut down corruption by bureaucrats and ministers. It doesn't matter to him that most rural folks may not be sophisticated enough to know the "best deal". Or that the company may bribe the influential leaders of the gram sabha, instead of the bureaucrats, to get a favourable verdict. "Let it be. If leaders fail them, then people will not trust them next time!" he says. But will there be a next time for poor farmers who have lost their land in a sub-optimal deal?

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"We have met the enemy and he is us"

In 2009, a group of young professionals and students from India's top institutions, decided they would fight for one seat in the Lok Sabha elections. Calling themselves Youth for Equality (YFE), they believed Indians needed and desired a different set of politicians—leaders who would not play politics based on caste, creed, etc.

They chose the New Delhi constituency. Instead of nominating candidates, they decided to let the people choose their own candidate. This involved an SMS campaign to invite a long list of credible names, followed by internal investigations and several rounds of interviews with the candidates. Finally, they held a public gathering at Delhi's Rajiv Chowk where three former high court judges scrutinised the final three candidates in front of a crowd of 1,600. Judges gave points while the candidates debated with each other and answered queries from the public.

To fund the election, YFE members went around the constituency, collecting donations to fight the election. They collected Rs 1.2 crore and spent Rs 70,000 campaigning for the election.

Result: Their candidate, a woman with an Indian Army background, came fourth in the race.

President and founder of the YFE Dr Kaushal Kant Mishra, an orthopaedic surgeon in Delhi, says the whole team was shocked. "We realised that you simply can't win an election in India because people themselves don't want to change. They only vote on the basis of caste or the obscene amount of money that flows through from the bigger political parties," says a demoralised Kaushal. He avoids using his surname, which points to an upper caste slab among Hindus.