NEW DELHI (Reuters) - From a shabby house in one of New Delhi’s grimmest suburbs, a mild-mannered former tax official has launched a salvo of accusations of corruption involving some of India’s most powerful people, rocking the political establishment.
In quick succession, Arvind Kejriwal has publicly leveled charges of shady dealings against the son-in-law of ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, the outgoing law minister and the leader of the main opposition party.
His claims, carried live and endlessly raked over by breathless 24/7 television news networks, tap into popular outrage over the deep-rooted corruption in Indian politics, government and business that is often endured but rarely confronted in so public a manner, even by the media.
“Our purpose is to tell the people that every single political party is corrupt. They are in collusion with each other, they protect each other,” Kejriwal told Reuters as he sat in a sparsely furnished office receiving a stream of visitors.
While none of Kejriwal’s claims have yet led to any formal investigations, his targeting of high-profile individuals is unprecedented.
Anti-corruption activists have in the past pressed for stricter rules to tackle corruption but have refrained from naming and shaming. Even rival political parties have tended to shy away from personal attacks.
It is, though, the parties that Indians perceive as the most corrupt institutions, according to Transparency International. A recent survey of upper house lawmakers by National Election Watch found their average net worth stood at about $2.3 million. Lawmakers earn about $900 a month.
Kejriwal has fought a decade-long campaign to bring more transparency to government, but it was in 2010 that he began to pursue corruption more vigorously.
He was one of the architects of the India Against Corruption movement led by veteran social activist Anna Hazare, 75, whose public hunger strike against graft last year led to an outpouring of support from millions of middle-class Indians disgusted by the venality of the ruling class.
Corruption is part of daily life in India - from bribes paid for something as simple as getting a gas connection, passport or avoiding a traffic violation, to multi-billion-dollar scandals.
Hazare’s campaign has fizzled, but Kejriwal’s targeting of high-profile individuals has thrust him into the spotlight.
In the space of a few weeks the diminutive former bureaucrat, who often wears a short-sleeve check shirt that seems one size too big for him, has become a media sensation. His news conferences attract hundreds of reporters, and he has announced he is launching his own political party.
His critics dismiss him as a political opportunist, but acknowledge his shrewd use of the media, especially television, to amplify his anti-corruption crusade.
“He has shaken up the system. Whether that will result in the cleansing of the system, I don’t know,” said political commentator Swapan Dasgupta.
None of Kejriwal’s corruption claims - which are based on government documents obtained through India’s Right to Information Act or whistleblowers - amount to a “smoking gun”. But his outspokenness has emboldened Indian media to launch their own investigations into those named.
TARGETS INDIA‘S POWERFUL
A Congress party leader called Kejriwal a “self-serving ambitious megalomaniac” after he produced documents alleging irregularities in land deals involving Sonia Gandhi’s businessman son-in-law, Robert Vadra, and India’s biggest property developer, DLF Ltd.
Vadra has denied the allegations, saying they were “utterly false, entirely baseless and defamatory”. DLF, which has also strongly denied any impropriety, saw nearly $580 million wiped off its market value in a single day after Kejriwal’s claims.
In making the allegations, Kejriwal trod on dangerous ground. The charges punctured the almost bullet-proof wall of silence that surrounds the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, which is viewed as the closest thing India has to a royal family.
Kejriwal, 44, smiles beneath his neatly trimmed moustache when asked about the bitter verbal attacks on him. “We expected all this to happen, which only means that we have been effective. They are all rattled,” he said.
Outgoing Law Minister Salman Khurshid called Kejriwal an ant trying to take on an elephant after he alleged a non-governmental group led by Khurshid and his wife misused funds.
The Khurshids have denied any wrongdoing, and the prime minister publicly demonstrated his support by making him foreign minister on Sunday.
One of Khurshid’s cabinet colleagues said he did not believe Kejriwal’s allegations that Khurshid had embezzled a sum equivalent to $134,000. “It is a very small amount for a central minister,” he said, adding that he would have taken the charge seriously if the amount had been 100 times larger.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called Kejriwal a “hitman” after he raised questions about a land deal involving BJP president Nitin Gadkari. Gadkari also denied any wrongdoing.
On any given day, the three-storey office of Kejriwal’s India Against Corruption in the east Delhi suburb of Ghaziabad is a hive of activity.
Activists on plastic chairs tap away at laptops recording citizens’ complaints. Piles of pamphlets titled “Power to the People” are stacked in a corner, while pictures of independence hero Mahatma Gandhi dot the walls.
A small rag-tag group of paid staff and volunteers help direct a sophisticated media campaign that includes Twitter, Facebook, and mass text messages and emails.
In the lull that has followed Kejriwal’s series of corruption claims, questions have arisen about his “judge, jury, prosecutor” approach, how he can sustain media interest in his campaign without more sensational claims, and whether he is being manipulated by political parties to smear opponents.
“Mr Kejriwal has done a signal service by raising the issue of endemic corruption. But he does not seem to have the patience to wait for one set of charges to be proved or disproved before coming up with another,” the Hindustan Times newspaper said.
Prashant Bhushan, a veteran Supreme Court lawyer and legal advisor to Kejriwal, insists that the allegations of wrongdoing are all carefully screened before they are made public. He acknowledged, however, that it was possible some of them may have ultimately emanated from certain political parties.
Kejriwal dismisses media efforts to cast him as an Indian Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks.
“Our idea is not to keep exposing people. Our purpose is to change the political establishment,” Kejriwal said.
Kejriwal has yet to name his party, which will contest upcoming state and national elections, but his decision to enter politics has raised eyebrows. Some political commentators, and even former comrades, call him a naive idealist who will become just another voice in a noisy parliament.
Kejriwal, who is shy and soft-spoken away from the television cameras, straightens up in his plastic chair and speaks with passion when asked to respond to such criticism.
“Without jumping into the system, it will be impossible to clean up the system. We are going to challenge this political system on a daily basis,” he said.
Additional reporting by Annie Banerji; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel