“Allow us to make mistakes, allow us to learn” — The Arvind Kejriwal interview, part 1
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Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s new chief minister, stormed to power in the national capital in December on an anti-corruption platform.
His Aam Aadmi Party, or “Common Man’s Party”, uses a broom as its symbol to suggest it is sweeping the dirt out of politics. Kejriwal, a bespectacled former tax collector, spoke to Reuters in a wide-ranging interview a month after getting the top job, from the same modest apartment he’s lived in for the past 15 years. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the first part of the interview. Reuters will publish parts two and three over the next few days.
On Monday night — surrounded by idols of the deity Ganesh (known in Hinduism as the remover of obstacles), books on Mahatma Gandhi and the translated Quran, activism awards, plastic flowers, and of course a broom — Kejriwal sipped a glass of warm water for his bronchitis as he spoke.
The interview comes as the party faces growing criticism on how it is governing Delhi. In one of the latest incidents involving the party, Kejriwal’s law minister Somnath Bharti led a raid earlier in January on what he described as the homes of African prostitute gangs and drug dealers. The raid led to accusations of vigilantism even as Bharti said he had to conduct the raids because the police failed to act on people’s complaints. Bharti was accused of leading a mob that illegally detained and harassed a group of African women.
Kejriwal started a sit-in demonstration, which erupted in violence, to protest against alleged inaction by the city’s police force. At the protest, Kejriwal held up a letter that he said a Ugandan official sent him, thanking them for the raid. Local media later reported that the letter was an old one. Kejriwal called off the protest after two days when the police agreed to send two officers on leave.
What mistakes have you made and what lessons have you learned in these first days of running the Delhi government?
You see the most important is that you need to have right intentions. And this present government, people have the right and honest intentions, which has been lacking so far in the previous governments and in the other parties. All the other parties, their only agenda is how to make money, how to indulge in corruption and how to loot the country. Aam Aadmi Party government has been trying to do whatever they can with all sincerity. We can make mistakes, we are making mistakes. I’m not saying that we know everything. But all that I’m saying is that we’ve not made any earth-shaking mistakes. And judgments are being passed against us I think too soon. Please allow us to make mistakes, please allow us to learn. And we will change because at the end of the day, the intentions are honest. And secondly, what is more important, in the last one month — it’s exactly one month now — the amount of work that this government has done, I can challenge that no other government since independence did so much of work in just one month.
Do you think that message has been diluted by what some people see as old-school politics to protect a minister who is being questioned for some of his actions?
Of course not. Why should we protect him? He’s not my uncle or my cousin. He doesn’t have any relationship with me. He doesn’t have a relationship with anyone in the party. This is the same party which just four days before elections rejected the nomination to one of our candidates in Rajouri Garden where we came across criminal charges against that person. There was substantive evidence against that person. We immediately rejected his candidature and we left that seat vacant. This has not happened anytime in the history. Now as far as Somnath Bharti is concerned, our entire team, the top leadership of the party, we sat for three to four hours, we looked at all the evidence and we what we found was that he has not done anything wrong. He made two statements which could be held to be objectionable, but that’s it. One he said that ‘I would spit on such leaders’ – he said something for the opposition leaders. He should not say that. And two-three days back he said that, when some journalists asked him a question … Actually the journalists at that point of time were haranguing him. They were not allowing his car to move. They surrounded his car. They thrust the mikes inside his window. He was politely saying that ‘I don’t want to speak to media. Please allow me to go.’ He was not allowed to go. Then he said ‘how much money do you get from the opposition parties to ask these questions?’ Otherwise what other wrong he has done? But on the basis of these two questions you can’t dismiss a … you can reprimand him. We’ve told him many times to control himself but there’s nothing else.
But the more serious charges relate to stirring up anti-immigration sentiment. The African community in Delhi is now feeling a little bit under siege.
It is wrong to say and I would encourage you, we have the video footage of the entire night and we saw that entire footage. That is the reason I’m speaking with so much confidence, and I would encourage you to see that entire footage. He is not encouraging any mob. He is politely and pleading before the police that, look, this wrongdoing is taking place, take some action. And any responsible citizen is supposed to do that. Under the law also, if any citizen comes across any crime, he’s immediately supposed to report to the police and ask them to take action. He’s not done anything wrong. He’s not against any community. He’s not against any country. That is all. It has been by some sections of the media and by the opposition parties, this entire thing has been turned into a racist or that kind of a controversy.
So are you saying that the African women are lying?
I think I should not comment on that. Let the enquiries be over. But there is no evidence of … Because if you see the entire footage of that night, he’s not done any such thing. In every society, in every country, there are good people and there are bad people. We need to respect the good people and we need to act against the bad people. He actually hit upon a huge drug racket and a sex racket. We ought to take action against that. I personally called up the ambassador of one of those countries that day when this controversy broke out just to tell them that he was — it was a holiday for him and they did not pick up the phone — and I wanted to tell them that, look, as a chief minister, I am very concerned about their safety. And I will go to any extent just like I go to any extent to protect the dignity of Indian women and to protect the rights of Indian people, I will go to any extent to protect the rights of people from other countries. In fact, I will put more of my energy at stake because all those people are our guests, they are our respected guests, and we would not like any harm to take place to those people. So it is unfortunate that some vested interests have tried to turn it into a racist kind of controversy.
The policeman who had to go on leave, he has been backed by many women’s rights activists, including Kavita Krishnan, who support him and say that he was actually doing a lot to fight crime against women.
Where does Kavita Krishnan stay?
That’s not the point. She is a very well known activist and belongs to a very reputable body…
I’m just asking you, does she stay in that area?
I’m sure she has been working with communities that are trying to bridge the gap between Africans and local residents…
I would really encourage, you should personally go to this area and talk to both the communities, Indians as well as people from other countries, and try to find out the truth for yourself. Don’t believe in others.
Isn’t the letter you said you got recently from the Ugandan official actually an older letter?
Someone came from Ugandan embassy to Somnath Bharti and handed over that letter and said that ‘we are very grateful to you because there’s a huge racket going on and many of our women are being pushed into prostitution.’ They are brought here, they are told that they will get a job here, but they are pushed into prostitution. So it came to us and we only verified by calling back the embassy that whether that person actually works at the embassy or not, and we were told that that person actually works in the embassy so then we released that letter.
If there are victims of trafficking, is that the way to deal with these women, the way that the mob came and tried to raid their homes and stopped their car?
They didn’t mob anyone’s home.
The dharna (sit-in protest) for some supporters felt like a shift from what they’re expecting. Do you think the dharna was a good move for your government? Do you think it’s something you’ll continue doing in the future if you run up against issues?
If there’s a need, I’ll again sit on dharna. Delhi police is not directly controlled by Delhi government. Till now what happens is, after becoming chief minister, if I had taken a big bungalow, if I had taken a big car, or if I had taken a huge posse of security men and then if I had called a senior police officer and I said that, look, now I want 10 lakh rupees (about $16,130) every month from every police station, there wouldn’t have been any controversy. Everyone (would say) ‘very good chief minister, very good chief minister’. And then if a rape had taken place I would have gone out and said, ‘The police is doing its job. The law is taking its own course. We will soon catch the culprit.’ And the story would have gone on like that. When that Danish woman was raped, that time I had asked the police commissioner, someone has to be held accountable. You can’t have a situation that women are getting raped again and again everywhere and no one is accountable. So I said ‘What was your SHO (Station House Officer) doing at that time? What was your beat constable doing at that time? Where were those people? You have to fix accountabilities on someone. They refused to fix accountabilities. Another woman was burned in an area. SHO is refusing to catch the culprit. They are roaming around freely threatening everyone. This Malviya Nagar case. So what should a chief minister do? Why are they not fixing responsibility? Because if they start fixing responsibility then the SHO will turn around and say, ‘Sir, I can either give you money or you can hold me accountable. You can’t have both the things.’ Either there can be accountability or there can be money every month. So that is the reason, it’s a very well-oiled machinery. There’s a huge amount of money. The police is one of the most corrupt institutions that we have. And this is what I targeted and that’s why there’s been so much of reaction.
Would you accept that some of those actions, combined with the quick way you have reduced power tariffs and disallowed foreign direct investment in retail in Delhi, have concerned some of your supporters? We’ve seen Captain Gopinath talking about this issue that he fears there’s a risk that the middle-class supporters who have helped fund the party are turning away?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think people are turning away.
Getting Delhi police under your control has to go through parliament. Given that all three parties have this demand, why didn’t you have an all-party meet and push this through Parliament?
Those two parties have been sitting in Parliament for so many years. They say something else in public. Putting it in manifesto is just a PR exercise. It’s just to make a fool of the public. If those two parties had done something in this country, Aam Aadmi Party would not have come in existence. The fact that those two parties failed to provide basic things in this country (is why) Aam Aadmi Party had to be formed. We are not here for ourselves. I don’t want to become chief minister. Who am I? I’m a very common man. I am no one. Aam Aadmi Party is basically the rise of the common man in this country against this system. Therefore I cannot sit in my office, and say that ‘what can I do? Delhi police is not in my control.’ We will not do that. We will go and agitate. Whatever work can be done from the office I will do it from the office and if I feel helpless, I will go and agitate with my people. But the people of Delhi, they voted for me, and I can’t see the people of Delhi being treated like this.
So you don’t think they can be a legislative recourse for the …
Both the things are there. Legislation is also important and the agitations are also important. The agitations on the streets and mohallas (neighbourhoods), they strengthen democracy, they don’t weaken democracy. And suddenly I find there’s so much of this thing as if I have done some kind of crime sitting on the dharna. They said it’s unconstitutional. I read the Constitution again and again and I didn’t find any Article which said that it’s unconstitutional for a chief minister to sit on a dharna. It’s not written. But what is written in the Constitution is — we have a beautiful Constitution — the fundamental rights written in the Constitution is basically the soul of our Constitution. What do the fundamental rights say? It says the right to life with dignity. Sixteen hundred rapes have taken place last year. What happened to the right to life with dignity of those 1,600 women? You ask any woman in Delhi, she feels so terrified and she feels she’s always living in perpetual fear. Do they have a right to life with dignity? They don’t have. And now to protect that soul of Indian Constitution, which is the fundamental rights, we created this elaborate machinery. There’s a president, there’s a vice-president, they have such big bungalows. They have such big bungalows. There’s a prime minister, there’s a council of ministers, there’s a bureaucracy, why all this? To provide fundamental rights to the people of this country. When the fundamental rights are violated, no one says that Constitution has been violated. But if something happens to any minister, they would say the Constitution is in danger, Constitution is in danger. Minister is not the Constitution, the people of this country are important. That is the point that has to be made, that if any woman is raped, the Constitution is threatened.
How you will solve problems in the future? Do you see yourself as a legislator and serious politician trying to pass bills through Parliament to bring change or do you see yourself as a protester?
Everything rolled into one. Wherever there’s a need for being a legislator, a legislator. Wherever there’s a need for being an administrator, an administrator. Wherever there’s a need for politics, politics. Wherever there’s a need for agitation, agitation. It would depend on circumstance to circumstance.
(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan | Disclaimer: This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)