Friday, July 27, 2012

Drop in Wind Forces Team Anna to Change Tack

About a week ago, I reported on what people within Team Anna were thinking about the direction of their movement. Short version: They couldn't seem to agree.

Among the things I did not write was the division within IAC on entering politics. In April, Arvind Kejriwal travelled to Himachal Pradesh. There, he met volunteers to discuss the possibility of propping up candidates in the upcoming assembly elections.

This trip was not sanctioned by the core committee. Indeed, when some heard of it, they were furious. Here is what one core committee member told me about the fallout of Kejriwal's trip. The comment appears in full, without edits. 
"Anna's movement was a spontaneous, unique movement in India's political movement. Elections though is a different ball game. If you're doing so, no harm in doing it. But you must do this carefully and provide a serious, well-thought out alternative to the current political parties. Whether the HP tryst was right, I'm glad they've forgotten about it. I don't think the group was happy about this at all. This was a bad thought and I'm glad that finally the group was sensible enough to abandon this thought. We simply don't have the logistics in place to do it. 
Perhaps we can join Baba Ramdev who has some ground-level support and make 1+1 into 11. (Me: this line is important) I don't guarantee we'll win but we stand a better chance if stand together." 

Folks within the movement say Kejriwal, who is currently fasting with his associates Gopal Rai and Manish Sisodia, is against joining hands with Baba Ramdev. (They also claim he began the fast on 25 July to distract from Baba Ramdev's own fast planned on 9 August. But that's another matter).

Earlier Today, Anna Hazare announced that IAC would in fact fight the 2014 general elections by propping up honest candidates. His announcement came on the same day that Baba Ramdev is expected to arrive at Jantar Mantar to lend IAC support.

Last April, I vividly recall the moment Baba Ramdev joined Anna during his first fast at Jantar Mantar. There was a sudden rush of excitement through the crowd. Then there were loud chants. And cheers. I remember thinking: "It's like a medieval knight has galloped in to save the city from a siege".

I can see only one reason for Kejriwal suddenly coming around to having Baba Ramdev back on stage. He's seen the signs. And the signs aren't good. If Team Anna is serious about propping candidates in 2014, they need someone who can put boots on the ground to campaign. Baba Ramdev has the mass support they need quite desperately.

I took this photo of just the MEDIA presence at Jantar Mantar on Day 1 of Kejriwal and his associates' fast. (This photo doesn't account for the innumerable print journalists and jib cam operators who were also around).

Compare that to what the CROWD looks like on the morning of Day 3. 

The same Core Committee member I mentioned earlier had this to say about the frequent protests and fasts IAC was organising. Again, I'm quoting the person in full without edits.
"Where we are going wrong, I think is we are in a hurry. And whenever you're in a hurry, you end up making mistakes. Some people in this core within the core don't have ideas of a people's movement. They want frequent dharnas and this sometimes tries people's patience. This is what we saw in Bombay."

The writing is on the wall. The people are tired. Team Anna needs a booster shot. For better or worse - voters will decide this in 2014 - they've now got Baba Ramdev on board.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Kejriwal's Coterie: The Backstory

This Friday, I wrote this piece for India Today's online edition. In short, it says Arvind Kejriwal and a small band of associates are working to promote themselves through the India Against Corruption movement. And that they are taking decisions – including holding a fast of their own this 25th July – without consulting other IAC core committee members.

Since then, I've got several comments from Mr Kejriwal's fans accusing me of running a 'hit job'. So let me explain the genesis of this story and how I went about reporting it. Then you can decide whether this was a hit job or an unbiased report.

Last April, I reported on Anna Hazare's first fast for the Jan Lokpal Bill at Jantar Mantar. There, I met a former colleague who had quit the news business to volunteer with IAC. She appeared very content; happy to be "making a difference". We met again in August when I reported on Anna's longer 12-day fast. Then too, she seemed completely in love with her volunteer work for IAC.

We didn't speak again until May this year. I had since switched jobs. My friend called again but I was about to leave for an outstation assignment so I promised to call when I got back. I forgot to do so when I returned 10 days later. 

About two weeks ago, she called again. This time we met. During the course of the conversation we drifted towards her work at IAC. She told me several IAC volunteers - including her - had grown disillusioned with the way the movement was being led by Arvind Kejriwal. She detailed the personality clashes, cancelled core committee meetings and even alleged financial impropriety. I asked if there were others who felt like her. Within two days I had about 10 phone numbers and email addresses of other unhappy volunteers. 

Each one I spoke to provided letters and even audio recordings of conversations they'd had with Arvind Kejriwal. They had complained about the direction IAC was taking. In all but one case, he didn’t respond. When he did to one, he said all the information being sought could be found on IAC’s website. This is the same man who once led the RTI movement.

When I completed my interviews with the dissident IAC volunteers, I got the feeling that some problems stemmed from ego clashes with members of Arvind Kejriwal's "coterie" (a word used by many volunteers). I have deliberately ignored allegations that seemed to stem from such purely personal matters. The ones I have incorporated into the story were corroborated by other volunteers and thus, I felt, were fit to use.

No story of this kind would be fair without a response from the "accused". I contacted three IAC core committee members and another person who was closely associated with them. 

The latter was former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh. He had helped Kejriwal draft the Jan Lokpal Bill. He declined to speak, saying that airing his differences would weaken the movement, which he felt was on its last legs anyway.  

The first core committee member I spoke with was Kiran Bedi. She requested my questions via email. She responded within 1 hour. I want to personally thank her here. She had just lost her sister to cancer - something she only told me about in her reply - and still took the time to respond.  This was incredibly gracious of her. The main thrust of her reply was nothing was seriously wrong with the IAC.

The second CC member I spoke with requested anonymity in exchange for talking about IAC. This person had been among the first few to be invited by Kejriwal to join the IAC's CC. Like Kiran Bedi, this member also rubbished allegations of financial impropriety. When I asked this person why the last financial audit was already 3 months late, the response I got was “Just because it’s late, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong”.

However this CC member admitted that Arvind Kejriwal's "yes men" were proving to be “detrimental” to IAC. The person admitted that several voting decisions on the CC were being influenced by the sheer number of Kejriwal’s people. I was even told of detailed steps discussed by the CC to reduce the associates’ influence. The person said the associates did not know how to run a public campaign and laid blame for the “Mumbai debacle” on their insistence to host more rallies even at the risk of public fatigue.    

The last person I contacted was Arvind Kejriwal himself. When we spoke, he said “I am in the villages and reception is bad. Could you email the questions to me?” I did; detailing every allegation that had been corroborated with other volunteers and the core committee member.

I then sent Kejriwal a text saying the questions had been mailed and that I had got a delivery receipt for them (this was Saturday afternoon). I got this reply one minute later: “I won’t be able to do it before tomo as I will reach home late nite”. I replied: “No problem sir. My deadline is Monday at 12 noon. Thank you”.

On Monday, I had not yet got a response. I sent him a reminder at 9:30 in the morning. No response. At 2:45 pm, well past my deadline, I sent another reminder. I even asked him to at least reply by evening so I could incorporate his side into the story post-facto. Still no response. That was the last I communicated with him.

The story went live on Friday. There is no doubt Mr Kejriwal received the questions and my reminders. I got delivery confirmations for all of them. He has chosen silence. The volunteers and the core committee member have said what I have to say.