Former anti-corruption allies face off in Delhi elections

Indian activist Kiran Bedi, who once vowed never to join politics, has joined the ranks of the ruling BJP and will run for Delhi's top job in the upcoming assembly election.

Former Indian police officer and social activist, Kiran Bedi, was nominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to run for Delhi’s top job in the February 7, 2014 city assembly election. Narinder Nanu/AFP Photo
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NEW DELHI // Delhi’s next chief minister could be Kiran Bedi, India’s first female police officer and an anti-corruption activist who once called herself a “non-political person”.

“I will never join politics,” she declared two years ago.

Yet, on Monday, less than week after Ms Bedi joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), she was nominated to run for Delhi’s top job in the February 7 city assembly election.

In a short speech last Thursday, when she was inducted into the party, Ms Bedi, 65, said that prime minister Narendra Modi’s “inspirational leadership and outstanding revival of hope” drew her to the BJP.

She made no mention of the India Against Corruption movement, which she helped lead in 2011. Nor of its offshoot the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which she had praised but never joined.

After elections in December 2013, the AAP formed a short-lived government. But its chief minister, AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal resigned after just 49 days, claiming that the other parties in the assembly — the BJP and the Congress — were sabotaging efforts to pass legislation.

Delhi entered into political limbo, ruled by its lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung. Occupied with national elections last April-May and then several elections in other states, India’s Election Commission did not announce fresh polling dates for Delhi until mid-January.

As in December 2013, the two leading parties in the fray will be the BJP and the AAP, given the Congress’ political disarray and successive defeats over the past year, said Amulya Ganguli, a New Delhi-based political analyst.

"The BJP has always been nervous about Delhi — I don't know why," Mr Ganguli told The National. "In fielding Kiran Bedi, the party only exposed how bare its own cupboard was."

Ms Bedi is a charismatic figure, like Mr Kejriwal, Mr Ganguli said. “She can also portray herself as an outsider, just as he does. The BJP needed that kind of attractive figure, and it is hoping to ride on her integrity and boldness — the very qualities that the AAP prides itself on.”

Ms Bedi’s transfer to the BJP may also be seen as a U-turn, given how ruthlessly she derided mainstream politics in the past, Mr Ganguli said. “She has said that all politicians are crooks, and she has criticised Modi for his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat” when he was chief minister of that state.

But over the past year, Ms Bedi’s gradual shift towards the BJP was unmistakable.

Last February, in the run-up to the national election, she told a reporter that India could “expect governance from the BJP since it is being led by an experienced and tested leadership”.

Just before that election, rumours also emerged that the BJP was planning to nominate her as a candidate for parliament, though this later proved unfounded.

“She has an image of a crusader,” Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister and a senior BJP leader, said after Ms Bedi joined his party. “Her presence will add strength to the party.”

Born in Amritsar, Ms Bedi began her career as a political science lecturer. She joined the police force in 1972 — the first Indian woman to do so.

Over the next 35 years, she moved steadily up the ranks of the force, taking the helm at the Narcotics Control Bureau, India’s prisons, Delhi traffic and the Bureau of Police Research and Development at different points of her career.

She was well known for her independence and her refusal to kowtow to authority. In one prominent incident, in 1982, Ms Bedi ordered a police tow truck to haul away prime minister Indira Gandhi’s car because it was violating a parking rule.

Ms Bedi also instituted several reforms within the police force. Notable among them was a comprehensive drug de-addiction and rehabilitation scheme within prisons. In 1994, she won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for “building confidence in India’s police through dynamic leadership and effective innovations”.

In 2011, Ms Bedi joined Mr Kejriwal and another social reformer, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, in conducting a series of anti-corruption protests in Delhi. She was briefly jailed that August, just hours before a planned hunger strike. She was released from prison the same day.

When Mr Kejriwal decided to form the AAP, Mr Hazare and Ms Bedi had refused to join him, arguing that participation in an essentially corrupt political system was too huge a compromise to make.

The television news channel NDTV reported that Mr Hazare "has refused to take Ms Bedi's calls" since Thursday as she did not consult him over her decision to join the BJP.

Mr Kejriwal, however, told reporters soon after Ms Bedi was drafted into the BJP: “I always tried to convince her that she should join politics. I am happy she did it today.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae