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Anti-Corruption Activist Takes Charge in New Delhi

by AFP
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Raveendran—AFP

Raveendran—AFP

Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal has pledged to clean up the Indian capital and his nation’s corruption-ridden politics.

The leader of an upstart anti-graft party was sworn in Saturday as chief minister of India’s capital in what supporters hoped would start the clean up of the nation’s corruption-ridden politics.

Tens of thousands of supporters cheered as 45-year-old Arvind Kejriwal took oath of office in a public park after living up to his “common man” reputation by riding the subway to the ceremony. “I will do my duties as a minister honestly,” said Kejriwal, 45, a political outsider who led his Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party to a stunning showing in state polls this month.

The engineer, wearing his trademark Gandhi white cap, said he had no “magic wand” to solve the megacity’s massive housing, infrastructure and sanitation problems. “But the people, not the police or bureaucrats will run government,” he said, adding, “If we all come together, then we can change the country.”

Supporters held banners reading “Today Delhi, Tomorrow the Country” and waved brooms—the party’s symbol for sweeping away India’s endemic corruption and bribery.

Kejriwal told the crowd, estimated by police at up to 100,000, to repeat after him: “I promise I will never give bribes or take bribes.”

The party, formed just a year ago, won 28 state seats, reducing the Congress party to just eight seats after it had famously dismissed Kejriwal as “not even on our radar.” Congress’s rout in Delhi and three other state polls has been seen as one more sign the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has given India three premiers since independence, may lose office in looming general elections.

The rookie party’s performance will be closely watched to see what it could deliver for the rest of India. Kejriwal has a radical plan to slash electricity costs, supply free water and decentralize power. The ex-tax inspector called his party’s journey to power a “revolution” and “nothing short of a miracle” but he took no time to celebrate, chairing his first cabinet meeting within hours.

“He’s a simple man, a workaholic. He rises at 4:30 and goes on until 11:30 at night,” Mayank Gandhi, a new minister, told NDTV news channel.

Kejriwal’s unprecedented move to use the subway to travel to the oath-taking ceremony echoed a pre-poll pledge to end the privileged culture surrounding Delhi’s politicians and make his administration down-to-earth. Kejriwal has said he and his ministers will not occupy the sprawling white bungalows built by India’s former British colonial rulers. Their cars will also not have the red beacons and sirens allowing them to zip through traffic enjoyed by their predecessors. “I appeal to my party, let us never become arrogant,” said Kejriwal, whose supporters span many classes from domestic servants to teachers to business entrepreneurs.

Business leaders congratulated Kejriwal, who will govern with outside support from Congress. “A strong message has gone to the established political system that there is no going away from basic issues of governance,” said commerce chamber president Rana Kapoor.

Kejriwal, named newsweekly India Today’s Newsmaker Of The Year, plans to keep living in his modest suburban flat. “He has emerged as a new moral force in Indian politics,” wrote India Today editor-in-chief Aroon Purie.

The Ramlila Maidan where Kejriwal was sworn in is considered ground zero of India’s anti-corruption movement, where huge rallies were staged two years ago. Some observers believe Kejriwal’s success could mark the start of a bigger campaign to break the grip of the two main parties, Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, on national politics. Both parties have been tainted by scandals, but the test would be to swell the Aam Aadmi Party’s strength in time for the May elections.

Kejriwal came to prominence as an adviser to elderly social activist Anna Hazare whose 2011 anti-graft drive galvanized India. Kejriwal went on to found his own party after the men fell out over strategy.

Hazare, now 76, wanted the struggle to remain non-partisan while Kejriwal wanted to enter the electoral fray. Hazare “used to say politics is dirty, but to clear the muck, one has to enter the muck,” Kejriwal said in his speech.

Hazare gave his blessing Saturday to his erstwhile protégé, saying, “He (Kejriwal) will do good work.”

Kejriwal faces no easy task in governing Delhi, one of the world’s most congested, slum-ridden and polluted cities, lacking proper sanitation and power and whose roads are full of bone-jolting potholes. “I want to see him make a difference,” said Munshi, a security guard in New Delhi.

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