Arvind Kejriwals first and only tryst with elections, before stunning the political establishment in Delhi at the helm of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was for his hostels mess secretary post. This was in 1986, his second year at IIT Kharagpur.
In his one-year stint as the Nehru Hall Council mess secretary, Kejriwal would get a crash course in people management satisfying 400 perpetually disgruntled students, keeping the strong unionised mess employees happy and ensuring a supply of fresh food. His batchmates remember few complaints during his tenure.
From 400 students to the 1.7 crore people of Delhi is a big transition. Kejriwal has made that leap even bigger with the heights he has set for himself. But as his fellow students, ex-associates and friends attest, many an opponent has been taken by surprise by the 45-year-old with the deceptively lean build. A debate champion, particularly in Hindi, a mechanical engineer who loved video games, especially Pacman and Tetris, and a former Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer, Kejriwal has donned many a hat, but there were always signs that it may build up to the cap he wears now as the aam aadmi.
Contrary to the fiery orator and giant killer of today, Kejriwals batchmates from IIT Kharagpur remember him as an introvert and studious. Saikat Sarkar, who was a year senior, says Kejriwal would figure any day in his list of top five nice guys. He was a good guy. Never aggressive, sensible and always somebody one could rely on. Out of a class of 35 students, Arvind was always in the top 10 or 12. He was well-rounded. It was only in sports that he showed little interest, says Sarkar.
The two grew closer as part of the Technology Dramatics Society. In his third year, Kejriwal was also a secretary managing the societys affairs. One of their first collaborations was Bhoma, written by Badal Sircar, a pioneer of street theatre.
I remember we got our hands on an English script, which had to be translated. This duty went straight to Arvind because his grasp of the language was better than anyone elses, says Sarkar, who works with Ericsson now. He was our trump card for Hindi debate competitions and dramatics, we won many competitions. There was nobody in college who could match his grasp of Hindi.
While Kejriwals oratory is now well known, his fellow students say that at the time he showed no interest in politics. IIT is a very protected environment. Students from all backgrounds are treated alike and, basically, the playing field is level. Arvind was never interested in student politics per say, and the only election he ever contested was for the mess secretary, says a senior.
However, he adds, it was a difficult job that no one wanted, and Kejriwal showed the first signs of his organisational and management skills in that. The duty entailed drawing up a roster of students for mess duty not taken lightly in IIT Kharagpur, where students get a day off from classes for the same ensuring food quality through surprise checks and haggling with suppliers to get good prices.
Batchmate Rajeev Saraf, who runs IT company Lepton Software in Gurgaon and has been working with Kejriwal for the past five years, remembers how Kejriwal kept the highly unionised mess employees in check during his tenure. The year before Arvind took over, I remember the mess had closed down after a flash strike, says Saraf, smiling. It was a rather thankless job, similar to what he faces now.
While Kejriwals ambitions were restricted to the job at hand at the time, friends recall he was particular about honesty then too. Acknowledging that he was never interested in the big picture, Sarkar adds, He could never stand nonsense or dishonesty in anyone and was very vocal and straightforward. He was never scared of saying that someone was wrong.
Friends also remember a growing desire in him to serve the people. Saraf claims Kejriwal worked with Mother Teresa while he was employed with Tata Steel.
One batchmate says, Many went abroad for studies and jobs, others went into management. But Kejriwal was clear about staying in India. He worked with Tata Steel for a while and later joined the IRS. While many now do this, an IIT engineers move to the civil services at the time was uncommon.
His friends, colleagues and IIT mates believe this was when the metamorphosis began. Perhaps an honest man and an IRS officer cannot mix. Here, he saw first hand the way the government works, and I believe it sickened him. He was not very popular with other IRS officers and kept to himself, says an IRS official on grounds of anonymity.
Unable to cope with the rot in the system, Kejriwal founded an NGO called Parivartan (meaning change) in 1999. While still a public servant, he started the movement to help the common man (aam aadmi) of Delhi navigate through the labyrinth of services the government offered. Electricity, income tax and ration cards these were the three issues Parivartan focused on. It was during this time that the foundations of Kejriwals understanding of people, particularly those of the economically weaker sections, was laid, says an AAP leader.
Kejriwal later took up the Right to Information (RTI) Act campaign, leading to Parliament making it a law. His efforts won him the Ramon Magsaysay award.
It was a few years after this that Kejriwal shot to national limelight, with Anna Hazare and the Jan Lokpal agitation of 2010 and 2011. Incidentally, Kejriwal joined the agitation after a meeting with Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi, but for a completely different purpose.
He told me he had gone to meet Anna Hazare about swaraj. After leaving the IRS, Arvind was fascinated with the concept of swaraj and devoted most of his time to understanding and learning more about it. He went to seek Annas ideas on swaraj at a time when Anna was planning to start the Jan Lokpal agitation. The rest, as they say, is history, says Saraf.
But his friends and colleagues believe the Anna movement was limited in its scope. The movement shook the nation, but Kejriwal was by then convinced that the system had to be changed from within. Many did not agree and, after an agonising debate, he decided to enter active politics, says a member of the Anna agitation and now a part of AAP.
While Kejriwal may have come a long way from his IIT days, Saraf believes it is Kejriwals mechanical engineering training that could come in handy as he tries to balance a rigid bureaucracy, a powerful opponent like the BJP, and a recalcitrant ally like the Congress, in power.
Mechanical engineering, if nothing else, teaches you how to solve complex problems. One learns very well in engineering how to break an issue into smaller parts and deal with them individually. If you notice the way AAP functions, its rather similar. A complex problem is broken up into parts, studied, researched, and a solution is found to each subsystem, which is then incorporated into the whole. One just has to apply the same logic, Saraf says.
Its not just Saraf who is won over. In his avowed aim to change the system, Kejriwal has the backing of the vast IIT network. At least five batchmates attended his swearing-in ceremony on Saturday. There are many of us across the world who contribute to AAP. I mostly work behind the scenes and help in fundraising. There are many more who have quit and joined AAP full time, says Saraf.
What has them convinced about Kejriwal, Sarkar says, is the strength of his convictions. I have never seen anybody whose conviction levels
were higher than Kejriwals. If you notice his public speeches, he is not talking to people, he is convincing them, he claims.
When he is convinced of something, it is very hard for him to budge, Saraf adds.
There is a flip side to it: whether Kejriwal can handle the dissent or make the essential compromises which come with running a government and balancing several conflicting claims. Kejriwal is yet to handle dissent from within the party, for example.
AAP is relatively inexperienced in governing a state and, whats more, they have to do it within the boundaries of a fragile alliance with the Congress. It remains to be seen whether Kejriwal can reach out to the Congress and BJP in setting out to realise his dreams, admits a senior AAP leader.
Those who have worked with Kejriwal through the RTI activism years and earlier admit he does have an autocratic streak. For example, Kejriwal and long-time associate Manish Sisodia took the key members of the Anna movement completely by surprise when they announced their decision to form AAP, in July 2012. A member who was present at the announcement said, We were on a fast for the Jan Lokpal Bill and sitting together when Arvind and Manish said they were forming a political outfit. We asked why this was not discussed with us, and he said he did not need to.
A social activist involved with Kejriwal during the RTI movement says he showed a similar trait even then. When he had made a decision, it was final and no amount of argument from any quarter would change his mind. Having worked with him, I can only hope he takes the collective along with him, he says.