The Rise and Fall of India’s Obama

May 26, 2014 at 2:12 PM ET

Six months ago, Arvind Kejriwal, the head of India’s Common Man Party, was one of his country’s most promising politicians, a transformative, Barack Obama-type of figure who pledged to sweep away corruption as part of India’s “brooming” revolution.

And yet earlier this month, Kejriwal emerged as maybe the biggest loser in India’s national elections. As Narendra Modi, the eventual winner, was inaugurated as prime minister on Monday, Kejriwal languished in jail. The reason: He refused to pay a bail bond in a defamation suit filed against him by an opponent, whom the Common Man Party leader accused of being corrupt. Kejriwal says he is not a criminal and promised the judge he would show up every day in court, but to no avail.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this for the tax inspector turned anti-corruption activist. Kejriwal rose on a pledge to clean the muck out of India’s dirty political machine. In January, the 40-something politician and his party came out of nowhere to oust Delhi’s longstanding political leader, Sheila Dixit, and become the city’s chief minister, a role akin to a governor in the U.S.

Suddenly, the native of Haryana, a state in northern India, was the poster child for the future of Indian democracy. In April, he even bested Modi and celebrities like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber in a Time magazine readers’ poll of this year’s most influential people.

And then it all fell apart for Kejriwal. After just 49 days in office, he resigned as chief minister, saying his political opponents dragged their feet on the anti-corruption bill he was championing.

The vast majority of his supporters, however, saw his decision as a calculated move to boost his popularity before this spring’s national elections. Some derided him as an anarchist, who had failed the test of responsible leadership. Others felt his theatrics as chief minister—such as organizing a street protest for women’s safety—had simply become tedious.

After resigning in February, he made the stunning decision to challenge Modi, a powerful Hindu nationalist who was accused more than a decade ago of being complicit in deadly, anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat.

Modi had long denied the charges, and since amassed a fervent following. So Kejriwal’s decision seemed to confirm his supporters’ worst fears: That not only had he neglected his responsibilities in Delhi, but that he was also committing political suicide. A champion of secular politics, many felt he could never beat Modi in the holy city of Varanasi, a Hindu religious stronghold.

Now as Modi and his nationalist cohorts prepare to form India’s first majority government in 20 years, the Common Man Party has just four seats in Parliament and Kejriwal is grabbing headlines behind bars.

The former chief minister apologized last week for leaving his post in Delhi. For some in India, his apology may be too little too late. But Kejriwal is banking on a second act. He plans to run in this year’s chief minister elections in Delhi. As Modi showed more than a decade after the Gujarat riots, in Indian politics, anything is possible.