The candidate who won't save India
With his destructive economic worldview, Arvind Kejriwal threatens to drag the country backward.

Reuters

Arvind Kejriwal (R), leader of Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, speaks during a meeting with his party leaders and media personnel after taking the oath as the new chief minister of Delhi, in New Delhi December 28, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • With his destructive economic worldview, Arvind Kejriwal threatens to drag the country backward.

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  • If Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has a natural talent for one thing, it's keeping himself in the spotlight.

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  • Kejriwal made Delhi the first Indian state to scrap FDI in multibrand retail, rolling back a 13-month-old reform.

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If Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has a natural talent for one thing, it's keeping himself in the spotlight. Since the 45-year-old anticorruption activist-turned-politician's fledgling Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party stunned India by placing second in Delhi state elections last month, barely a day has passed without Mr. Kejriwal in the headlines. (Although it won fewer seats than the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, AAP formed the government with the defeated Congress Party's support.)

In his first few weeks in office, Mr. Kejriwal has already halved power tariffs and dropped cases against anyone who hasn't paid an electricity bill in the past 10 months. He has granted Delhi residents 20,000 liters of free water per month and encouraged the public to use their cell phones to conduct undercover "sting operations" against officials who solicit bribes.

This week, in keeping with another one of his party's campaign promises, Mr. Kejriwal made Delhi the first Indian state to scrap foreign direct investment in multibrand retail, rolling back a 13-month-old reform by the central government intended to attract big-box stores such as Walmart and Tesco.

A combination of gushing media coverage, volunteer enthusiasm and swelling contributions from wellwishers has put the upstart party on the national map, and now AAP says it wants to recruit 10 million new members before India's Republic Day on Jan. 26. More than 50,000 people signed up on day one of the membership drive. Donations are pouring in from residents and overseas Indians alike, many of whom are drawn to AAP's pledge to raise funds transparently.

Barely a month ago, AAP's promise to contest 300 of India's 543 directly elected seats in Parliament would have sounded preposterous. Now few pundits would be shocked if AAP picks up 20 to 30 seats and emerges as India's third-largest party in national elections due by May. AAP enthusiasts, of course, expect to do even better.

For now, the extent of Mr. Kejriwal's electoral heft remains debatable. He has been tested only in geographically compact and relatively cosmopolitan Delhi, where he has deep roots as an activist. Even there, AAP captured less than a third of the vote last month.

Indisputable, though, is Mr. Kejriwal's negative impact on political discourse. A common theme runs through his writing and speeches: Foreign investment is evil, and businessmen who make profits should be regarded as crooks unless proven otherwise. The chief minister also shows scant regard for responsibly stewarding government resources. Rather, as the recent rash of handouts shows, he sees the treasury as a piggy bank with which to fulfill populist promises.

To be sure, it's easy to see why Mr. Kejriwal strikes a chord with many people. Against the backdrop of staggering corruption scandals on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's watch, Mr. Kejriwal's everyman demeanor and anticorruption rhetoric can appear heroic.

Who else has the courage to publicly accuse Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law of dodgy land deals? How many politicians flatly reject the status symbols of a cossetted political class—bodyguards toting machine guns, sprawling bungalows in the best part of town, cars with sirens to slice through traffic? Who else but Mr. Kejriwal has used the power of example to restore a modicum of trust to India's murky electoral fundraising?

Lots of middle-class Indians also find Mr. Kejriwal's biography appealing. Unlike many politicians whose chief job qualifications appear to be either lineage or a talent for sycophancy or rabble-rousing, Mr. Kejriwal cleared grueling exams for the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Revenue Service. He's fluent in both Hindi and English. Despite occasional pandering to Muslim clerics, for the most part he stands aloof from the usual politics of family, caste and religion.

But neither personal virtue nor impressive communication skills can make up for a deeply flawed worldview. For all his graft-busting zeal, Mr. Kejriwal appears not to have paid any attention to a simple fact: Governance in richer countries tends to be cleaner than governance in poorer ones. Average per capita income in the five least-corrupt countries last year ranked by Transparency International was about $40,000. In the five most-corrupt countries it was $1,500. India's is about $4,000.

In the long term, anyone serious about ending graft in India must fight it while growing the economy. For that India needs private firms to be treated as job creators, not crooks, and it needs plenty of foreign investment, including in big-box stores.

By yoking society's quest for clean politics to a backward economic vision, Mr. Kejriwal risks dragging the country back toward a pre-liberalization worldview. Simply put, AAP stands for a false choice between clean government and prosperity, between the dream of a life without graft and a life without want. Should Mr. Kejriwal's following continue to swell, the biggest loser will be the very "common man" he claims to represent.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. He is on Twitter @dhume.

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