From a shabby house in one of New Delhi's grimmest suburbs, Arvind Kejriwal, 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. (MANSI THAPLIYAL/REUTERS)

Even at his own political rally, anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal might have been easy to miss.

Slightly built and bespectacled, his checkered shirt loose and untucked, a white Gandhi cap perched forward on his head, he sat on the stage listening to the other speakers, his bare feet crossed under his body. Kejriwal cultivates the image of the “common man.”

But when he finally took the microphone, this tax inspector-turned-activist-turned-politician made no bones about his grand ambitions: to sweep away an entire political system in which corruption and cronyism have become deeply embedded.

“We are not here for power, we are here to change the political system,” he told a crowd of thousands who had come from around the country to attend his political debut in a small town in northern India. “We haven’t let the powerful enjoy a good night’s sleep since we announced the formation of a political party. . . . We will teach them a lesson in politics.”

Kejriwal was the driving force behind the India Against Corruption movement that brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets last year, energizing the country’s normally apathetic middle class to campaign for the creation of a powerful anti-corruption ombudsman.

When that movement seemed to fizzle out, Kejriwal emerged from a back-seat role to form his own political party and, in a series of electrifying news conferences, accused some of his country’s most high-profile figures of corruption or cronyism.

His targets have ranged from Robert Vadra, son-in-law of India’s most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi, to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, head of the Reliance business empire. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not been spared, nor has the leader of the country’s main opposition party, Nitin Gadkari.

In the process, this 44-year-old has gone where even India’s raucous media normally fear to tread, taking on the revered
Nehru-Gandhi family
that has dominated this country’s politics since independence and exposing the nexus between big business and politics.

“Our country is very resource-rich. We have forests, mountains, rivers, oil and gas,” Kejriwal said. “But corporates in collusion with politicians and bureaucrats are looting this country. What is the real reason for rising prices?”

His campaign has won him millions of followers but also seen him threatened, jailed and sued. Ruling party politicians have called him a gutter snake and an opportunist, a self-serving megalomaniac with a Hitler streak, an anarchist and a danger to democracy.

Each of Kejriwal’s exposés is eagerly anticipated by the media and the subject of frenzied speculation among the elite.

‘Worse than an insect’

In Farrukhabad, his target was Salman Khurshid, a former minister of law and justice and a local member of Parliament whom Kejriwal accused of stealing money meant for the disabled through a charity run by his wife.

One by one, disabled men were lifted onto the stage. Many had the stick-thin limbs typical of polio victims. Pieces of paper were brandished that, Kejriwal said, proved that the men had been listed as receiving tricycle wheelchairs. One by one, the men said they had received nothing.

Khurshid has strenuously denied the allegations and told a television news channel that Kejri­wal was “worse than an insect, a snake that moves in gutters.” As tempers rose, Khurshid was caught on camera last month apparently daring his accuser to visit Farrukhabad and return home safely, warning that he had been given a pen for his work as law minister but could also “work with blood.”

Last week, Prime Minister Singh showed he had no time for the accusations, promoting Khurshid to the post of foreign minister in a cabinet reshuffle.

Vadra and Reliance also have dismissed the allegations, and while there can be little doubt that corruption is deeply entrenched in India, analysts say not all of Kejriwal’s accusations would stand up in court.

Critics accuse him of choosing too many targets at the same time and of moving from issue to issue in a bid to remain at the top of the news agenda. The government has challenged him to take his evidence to court.

But Kejriwal insists it is the job of the authorities to investigate the allegations, just as it would be if he had witnessed a murder outside his house. This, he says, is a “street fight,” not a legal battle.

Attacking business ethics

Kejriwal still takes an early morning walk near his modest home in a New Delhi suburb, without police protection, shrugging off the idea that his life could be in danger.

“No one can take away my life as long as God wants me here,” he said, speaking in his car on his way to the rally.

The move from activism into politics was particularly controversial, splitting the India Against Corruption movement and leaving the man who had been its figurehead, Anna Ha­zare, on the sidelines.

Kejriwal admits that his new party is very weak organizationally and that he faces a huge challenge mobilizing the rural poor, who often vote along caste or community lines. Nor does the party have much of an agenda beyond the anti-corruption message.

He insists he is in favor of “ethical” business, but he has nothing good to say about the reforms that unleashed two decades of rapid economic growth here.

“We want to create conditions in our country where a businessman can actually lead an honest life, and they can do honest business,” Kejriwal said.

While Kejriwal has been mocked for trying to promote a rural idyll incompatible with modern India’s aspirations, Pratab Bhanu Mehta of the Center for Policy Research said his limitations are beside the point.

The way politicians have blamed the messenger without going after the culprits shows they still have not recognized the way the world has changed, Mehta said.

“India is on an astonishing cusp: the tragedy is that politicians, for the most part, are not running with the winds of change,” he wrote in the Indian Express. “When a country’s power elite plays victim, it is a sign that they have truly lost it.”

Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.