NEW DELHI (AP) — For a decade, Arvind Kejriwal has tilted at India’s many windmills. He has led protests and hunger strikes against government corruption. There have been sit-ins demanding public access to government documents and lower electricity rates.
But now he is the top official of the Indian capital, an activist suddenly elevated to power. And just a little over a month after his surprise win in city elections, he launched yet another protest. Even if it was not always clear what he was demanding.
The two-day demonstration snarled traffic, pushed police to seal subway stations and infuriated commuters. But Kejriwal, whose party saw its fortune lifted in New Delhi’s elections on a wave of populist promises and anti-government rhetoric, is trying to parlay his party’s humble beginnings into national prominence as India heads toward elections later this year.
In a country that has been controlled for decades by immensely powerful political machines, but which also deeply distrusts politicians, Kejriwal is selling himself as something different.
“I am an anarchist,” he told reporters at a police roadblock a few blocks from the Home Ministry, where he and about 100 followers had been camped since Monday. That ministry controls New Delhi’s police force, which Kejriwal insists should be run by the city government.
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On Tuesday night, Kejriwal called off the protest, saying some of his demands had been met.
“This is the first step toward our goal of full statehood for Delhi,” he told reporters, few of whom had known until then that he had been demanding statehood. New Delhi is legally a “union territory,” with only some of the powers of an Indian state.
Kejriwal, a one-time tax bureaucrat who at age 45 is the youngest chief minister in the city’s history, created and leads the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man’s, Party. He began his tenure by renouncing many of the job’s perks, insisting he was determined to rid the capital of a culture of privilege.
He refused to move into one of Delhi’s sprawling British-era bungalows in the tree-shaded central heart of the city. He disdained the police escorts that help the political elite and top bureaucrats speed through the gridlocked streets.
He banned his officials from using red police lights on their cars, long a sign of power and prestige, and shunned the use of official vehicles, many of them SUVs. Kejriwal himself often drives his own tiny blue Indian-made Maruti WagonR.
“In these 20 days we have put a stop to the VIP culture that prevailed in Delhi,” he told reporters over the weekend. While that’s a clear exaggeration — the city still has plenty of official cars awash in police lights — his core supporters do go without them.
He also turned down the usual phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards, saying grandly: “God is my security.”
Meanwhile, he has opened the taps for populist perks, cutting the prices for electricity and water. He has not explained how he would make up for the financial shortfall in a city where the infrastructure is in desperate need of repairs.
But why would the leader of New Delhi mount an ill-defined protest that shut down part of his own city for two days?
His critics increasingly suspect Kejriwal and the party are more focused on upcoming national elections than on governing the capital.
“After the initial euphoria of winning the election and coming to power, they realized that it has hurt their image of being the outsider, the agitator,” said Ashok Malik, a prominent political analyst. “But you can’t be an angry young man and be in government at the same time. It has to be one of the two.”
He suspects Kejriwal wants to be forced from power, whether by the president taking control of the city through what is called “president’s rule,” or by his political allies abandoning the city’s coalition government.
That would enable him to again take the role of angry young man, running in the national elections as an outsider forced from power.
“They are trying to get out,” said Malik. “Trying to get out with some moral high ground.”
Kejriwal’s protest, meanwhile, strained Delhi’s woefully inadequate police forces. More than 4,000 police personnel had been deployed at the protest site, officials said.
Junior Home Minister R.P.N. Singh canceled the leave of all Delhi police personnel, ordering them back to work.
If Kejriwal “is serious about the safety of Delhi, let these cops go back to policing,” Singh said on Twitter early Tuesday.
The roots of the protest go back to last week, when Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti, a key Kejriwal aide, marched with supporters into a neighborhood with many African residents and ordered the police to arrest two Ugandan and two Nigerian women, accusing them of selling drugs. But the police refused to make the arrests, saying they had no warrants.
While Bharti has produced no evidence that the women were involved in any crimes, Kejriwal quickly backed him, accusing the police of protecting the city’s drug and prostitution rackets.
He then called for the protests, demanding the suspension of the five policemen who refused to make the arrests.
By Tuesday, though it wasn’t always clear what was being protested — police corruption? The Home Ministry? The party’s critics? But Kejriwal insisted the demonstration would last for 10 days.
A few hours later, though, he called off the protest after being told that two of the five policemen would be placed on leave while the incident with the African women was investigated.
By then, even his allies had started to warn him that he was running out of time.
“The Aam Aadmi Party needs to make the transition from agitators to administrators,” said broadcasting minister Manish Tewari, whose Congress party is allied with Kejriwal. “If they do not, the very people who have supported them, will then judge them for their escapism and the fact that because they are not able to govern, they are resorting to gimmicks.”