IMPROMPTU speeches on street corners; crowds of chanting men; flags lit by fluorescent lamps. Spirits were roused in Gokulpuri, a crowded suburb in north-east Delhi, one evening this week. Upon the appearance of a slight man in a white Gandhi cap, phones glowed like fireflies in the dark as men craned to snap his picture. “Now I have lived, I’ve seen him!” trilled one.
Arvind Kejriwal is an unlikely celebrity. With all the charisma of a former bureaucrat, he marched around, urging on supporters in his high-pitched voice: “We are with you, be strong.” They need the strength: several showed bandaged and broken limbs. Police beat them last week for insisting that reluctant officers open a docket recording the gang-rape of a young woman on June 18th.
Mr Kejriwal is famous for his part in a protest movement against corruption that erupted two years ago. It was led by an ascetic Gandhi lookalike, Anna Hazare, who fasted to demand the creation of a l okpal (powerful ombudsman) to combat graft. Mr Kejriwal was one of the movement’s main strategists.
It failed. Despite politicians’ promises, parliament never passed a lokpal bill. The aged Mr Hazare drifted away, saying he wanted no part in filthy politics. Yet Mr Kejriwal pushed on. Last year he gripped public attention with a series of revelations of corruption in politics and business. Then, in November, he launched a party.
He calls Arab spring protesters in Egypt an inspiration for their use of social media, and has become adept at campaigning, using technology in the absence of Mr Hazare to draw crowds. His Aam Aadmi (Common Man) party has registered 1.5m phone users in Delhi alone. This enables him to muster thousands of protesters at a few hours’ notice by text message. He raises funds online, attracting 25m rupees ($412,000) in three months. He says 20m people have subscribed for party updates.
After so many scandals, India is perhaps ready for a pro-honesty party. He blames high electricity prices in Delhi on crooked deals between politicians and distribution firms. In an election in Delhi in November, he is challenging Sheila Dikshit of the ruling Congress party, who has been the capital’s chief minister since 1998. A win is unlikely. Yet he claims, as Imran Khan used to do in Pakistan, that he can sweep to office with an outright majority.
He will also contest national elections in 2014. Young, better-educated and urban voters may be drawn to his party. They have vented their frustration in other protests, notably in Delhi after the gang rape and murder of a woman lured aboard a bus with a friend in December.
A political campaign is far harder to sustain than “our one-issue movement”, admits Mr Kejriwal, but he says protesters remain as angry as in Brazil and Turkey. “Unless you change the power equation with politicians and bureaucrats, the people are helpless. You have to change the politics of this country.”
The trouble is that dirty politics are often more successful. Delhi’s police make rickshaw drivers remove Aam Aadmi posters from their vehicles. Press interest, once intense, has evaporated. (He blames politically connected media moguls.) Voters may oppose venality, but at elections they accept politicians’ handouts. And life for Aam Aadmi is made harder by new government limits on sending bulk messages, which he again sees as political.
All of which suggests Mr Kejriwal and Aam Aadmi face a long haul. In Pakistan Mr Khan took nearly 17 years to make a big electoral impact—and he was a world-cup-winning cricket captain. Will Aam Aadmi take as long? Mr Kejriwal bristles. “It’s now or never; we can’t afford to wait.”