In November, they will have the opportunity to bring to power the kind of person they have claimed for years they want to see in politics: an incorruptible man who is good at math, who has not been marinated in politics. An indignant man with genuinely black hair who does not wear the starched white clothes that Indians recognize as the costume of corruption, but instead appears in public in a modest cotton shirt that he never tucks into his modest trousers and with a cap that has a reprimand to politicians written on it. An engineer who once cleared the toughest engineering entrance exam in the country. A man who could have grown rich had he pursued a management degree or written terrible books, which elite Indian engineers do successfully, but who instead chose to enter public life vowing to disrupt political corruption and who became one of the key activists who persuaded the Indian government to pass an extraordinary act granting citizens the right of access to public documents.
Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party will debut in electoral politics this November and contest all 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections. On trial will be the people of Delhi themselves, and a beloved Indian hypothesis that they deserve better than rotten politicians. If virtue alone were to decide elections in India, the two major parties in Delhi, the governing Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, would not stand a chance against Mr. Kejriwal.
“We will form the government,” Mr. Kejriwal told me on Saturday when I interviewed him before a small audience that had come to listen to him in a lakeside restaurant. He said this without any facial twitches or the high passion of delusion, but as a matter of fact. He said that in most of Delhi where the poor and the lower-middle class live there is no water supply for days and no electricity for hours every day. Politicians from both the Congress party and the B.J.P. control “cartels,” he said, that own water tankers, and it is in their interest to ensure that people face water shortages. According to Mr. Kejriwal, there is “an undercurrent” in Delhi against established political parties that was perceptible only to the poor, and to him. “People are fed up,” he said.
On Sunday, he announced at a public gathering that he would run from the high-profile constituency of New Delhi, the fief of the current chief minister of Delhi and a powerful leader of the Congress party, Sheila Dikshit, who is often described by political observers as “maternal” by way of a compliment. There is more to her, of course. She has been diminished in recent times by corruption charges, but she still has a reputation for being very efficient. She pushed through Delhi’s excellent Metro system, where her image is featured on the walls of the trains, indeed looking somewhat maternal, while warning young people against sexually transmitted diseases. Mr. Kejriwal used to ride on the Metro until fame ensured that he had to deny himself the best feature of Delhi.
Mrs. Dikshit is popular in Delhi, but Mr. Kejriwal wants to take her on. He announced that if she flees the New Delhi constituency to another district out of fear of him, which is unlikely, he will shadow her, which is certain.
Mr. Kejriwal, naturally, is careful about obeying the law and will ensure that none of the candidates his party will field in the assembly election will spend more than 1.4 million rupees, or $25,000, on his or her campaign. That is sufficient, he said, as long as the candidate is not interested in distributing cash and liquor to potential voters, which is common practice, almost a tradition. “Major expenses, I think, in elections are on the last night” of the campaign, he said, “the money that is distributed to the voters and the freebies that are distributed.”
What he truly requires to make an impact in the polls is hundreds of millions of rupees’ worth of free news media attention, which he has enjoyed over the past two years. But journalistic interest in him has declined.
About two years ago, when the elderly social reformer Anna Hazare went on a death fast in Delhi to protest political corruption, Mr. Kejriwal rose to fame as one of Mr. Hazare’s able deputies on the dais, who often had something important to whisper into the old man’s ear. Soon, Mr. Kejriwal eclipsed Mr. Hazare as the hero of these times. He held news conferences accusing some of the richest and most powerful people in the country, and reporters saw in him a medium for telling stories their editors would not normally permit. But, slowly, people tired of him even though they continued to find him endearing and important. Also, according to Mr. Kejriwal, the editors and managers of several media organizations who had cheered him when he attacked the government were uncomfortable with his revelations about corporations and businessmen, who are major advertisers.
He said that last November, after he accused HSBC in India of assisting some of its clients to launder money, he received a taunting text message, “from the editor in chief of a television channel, saying, ‘So you are a leftist?”’
Mr. Kejriwal, who is acquainted with modern India’s most severe expletives, assured the gathering that he was “not wedded to any ideology.”
Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian newsweekly Open and author of the novel “The Illicit Happiness of Other People.”