From Activating Civic-minded Changemakers to leading as Chief Minister — Ashoka Fellow Arvind Kejriwal’s Path

The Beginning: A Passion for Curbing Corruption

Few people know Arvind Kejriwal’s illustrious past. A passionate anti-corruption crusader and former engineer, Kejriwal first burst into the Indian public arena after he openly questioned rampant corruption in India’s Income Tax Department. Instead of merely calling out to the government through routine grassroots activism, he found a way to use a law, the Right to Information Act (RTIA), to empower people to hold government officials and state machinery accountable for malpractice.

The RTIA was first passed in Delhi in 2001 before spreading to eight other states in India. It also marked an important departure from the precedent set by the colonial government in India, which permitted government departments to operate with high levels of secrecy.

In 1999 Kejriwal founded Parivartan to help Indians become more active citizens. Through Parivartan, Kejriwal began to train uninformed Indian voters and citizen groups to use the RTIA to access information often withheld by public institutions and powerful leaders and to use that information to petition for accountability. 

The Turning Point: Building a Movement with Civic-minded Changemakers

In 2004, Kejriwal was inducted into the Ashoka Fellowship because of his extraordinarily powerful ideas to deal with corruption. This happened at a crucial time for his activism efforts. The turning point was when he joined veteran anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare in his 2011 protest against corruption. Together with prominent leaders Kiran Bedi, Shanti Bhusan and Manish Sissodia, Kejriwal and Hazare pushed for the Janlokpal anti-corruption bill that proved a key turning point in Indian history.

That year, Kejriwal was chosen to don the front cover of Caravan Magazine, a widely read news magazine in India. The title of the magazine — The Insurgent — captured his potential for mainstream politics. The article, highlighted that Kejriwal was “a firebrand before a crowd or a camera” and mentioned that he was a “mild-mannered and introverted…a combination that inspires passion in audiences and confidence and respect from his close colleagues and allies.”

In that same year, Parivartan was at the cusp of reaping the rewards of five years of Kejriwal’s work. The anti-corruption movement in India was gathering momentum. Through Parivartan, Kejriwal brought corruption by high-profile institutions to the forefront including at private schools, multilateral bodies and government offices. India Together, a media watchdog reported that there was “a steady progress in transparency in Delhi’s public distribution system”. The report highlighted the outcomes of ground efforts by Parivartan workers who spread awareness about the RITA. One effort alone led 150 residents in East Delhi to file petitions to inquire why they didn’t receive the food ration that they were meant to be receiving from the Public Distribution System; this was only the beginning. Parivartan’s interventions have had far reaching impact by enabling petitioners to use information to expose the government’s false claims and failure to deliver.

Reaching for Bigger Impact

Ashoka’s support for Kejrwal through the Fellowship opened doors for him to scale his efforts. Through the Ashoka network, he was able to spread his approach to Nepal, which was redoing its constitution in 2007. At this time, Ashoka Fellows in Nepal invited Arvind to host a workshop in 2007 about the Right to Information Act.  The workshop received a lot of media attention in Nepal and Ashoka Fellow Rajendra Dahal followed up with others in the citizen sector to sensitize parliamentarians. He also rganised a separate workshop for parilamenterians. The Result was that Nepal's interim Parliament passed the Nepalese Right to Information Bill which included key clauses from India's RTI act. 

Several years ago, he shifted his focus and became more political, feeling that was necessary for the impact he envisioned for India. Since then the people who Kejriwal had aimed to empower to demand transparency and accountability have voted for his leadership in a second term as Chief Minister of Delhi. The party he founded, Aam Aadmi “Common Man” Party (AAP), has also been able to secure the nearly unambiguous support of the working class. The AAP’s landslide victory— the party won 67 out of 70 seats or 96% — was heralded by the Indian press as a new chapter in national politics. Indeed, never before has a small party taken on the two ruling parties in India, the BJP and the Congress, and successfully won.

A Story of Change

Kejriwal’s political involvement has not meant that he has wavered when it comes to his mission to counter corruption. During his first term serving as Chief Minister, Kejriwal resigned from his post after only a few months in office in response to the Parliament’s failure to pass anti-corruption legislation. This signals that his 2015 election as Chief Minister might herald a boost for anti-corruption efforts.

Kejriwal’s political involvement means that he had to step down from his Ashoka relationship this year. Ashoka’s conditions of association for Fellows includes a provision that Fellows cannot become or be used by a partisan political force. Nonetheless, we take some pride in him and his party (symbolized by a broom) having this extraordinary impact. The support Kejriwal and his party have garnered is not only a reflection of his efforts, but it symbolizes the degree to which large parts of the Indian public have become frustrated with corruption. 

At Ashoka, we will always see the current spectacled charismatic, Chief Minister of Delhi as the social entrepreneur whose passion stayed urgent and an activist who was thirsty for reform. His leadership gives the word “change” a whole new meaning; if anything, it stands testimony to Ashoka’s vision that change begins with a person who believes that the power to change rests wholly within him or her. It also illustrates that momentum for change grows once that person inspires the urgency for change in others. 

Anti-corruption activist and Ashoka Fellow Arvind Kejriwal has been elected to serve as Chief Minister of Delhi. We congratulate him and applaud his decades-long work that began with helping Indians demand transparency and accountability as civic-minded changemakers.

Photo courtesy: