‘Dead democracy’: Will Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest unite India’s opposition?

Arrest of top opposition leader ahead of election sparks new accusations against PM Modi of trying to crush democracy.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during a protest against the alleged attacks on federalism by the federal government, in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during a meeting of the INDIA opposition alliance in New Delhi, India, Thursday, February 8, 2024 [Altaf Qadri/ AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – The arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal by India’s financial crime investigation agency on Thursday night has triggered near-unanimous condemnation from the country’s fragile opposition, with some leaders warning of a people’s “revolution” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kejriwal’s arrest, weeks before the first round of India’s mammoth seven-phase national elections, comes on the heels of similar arrests of opposition leaders and raids on their properties by law enforcement agencies. India’s biggest opposition party, the Congress, said Thursday morning that it was unable to continue campaigning because all its bank accounts had been frozen in connection with an ongoing tax dispute.

The latest arrest also plunged India’s capital into an unprecedented constitutional crisis – it is the first time that Delhi’s serving chief minister has been arrested. Calling it “dirty politics” by Modi over a “bogus case”, a spokesperson for Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) told Al Jazeera that the party leader would not resign, and, rather, “run the government from jail”.

India’s Enforcement Directorate (ED) has been investigating corruption allegations in a liquor policy implemented by Kejriwal’s government in 2022. The policy allegedly gave undue advantages to private retailers and has led to the arrests of ministers, officials and an executive of the Indian arm of French spirits giant Pernod Ricard.

Before the arrest, the agency had summoned 55-year-old Kejriwal nine times for questioning. The chief minister refused to appear before the authorities. Now, he joins almost the entire top leadership of his party – former deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, and former ministers Satyendar Jain and Sanjay Singh – in prison, deepening challenges for the AAP, which runs two opposition-ruled states: Delhi and Punjab.

AAP has denied allegations of corruption, while the Modi government has rejected charges of any political vendetta.

“Whatever the PM fancies, he can do. So far, they have arrested two chief ministers, and it’s possible they can arrest more chief ministers,” Saurabh Bharadwaj, Delhi’s health minister and a close aide of Kejriwal, said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

Last month, the agency arrested Hemant Soren, hours after he resigned as the chief minister of Jharkhand state, on charges of corruption. Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, like the AAP and the Congress, is part of the INDIA opposition alliance that hopes to take on Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming elections, in which the prime minister aims to secure a third term in office.

However, some analysts suggest that the arrests could prove politically risky for Modi and the BJP, potentially galvanising sympathy for targeted leaders and coalescing an otherwise divided opposition into greater unity against the shared threat of a crackdown on all of them.

‘Common man’ to ‘martyr’?

Devender Singh, a 34-year-old AAP worker, joined hundreds of protesters who gathered near the chief minister’s residence in Delhi while the agency questioned Kejriwal on Thursday before his arrest. “This is unbecoming of the Indian democracy,” he told Al Jazeera. “[An elected CM] is being harassed and tortured in daylight, what has gotten into Modi’s mind?”

“First time, I voted for Kejriwal; next time, I was campaigning for him,” said Singh, amid a building police presence and slogans lamenting a “death of democracy”. He added: “It is a witch-hunt of opposition leaders by the government that is afraid of any alternatives.”

Kejriwal founded AAP, Hindi for “common man’s party”, in 2011, riding on an anticorruption crusade. He went on to pull off thumping electoral wins over Modi’s poll-strong BJP in 2015 and in 2020, when he won 67 and 62 seats in successive elections to a 70-member assembly.

However, in the national election of 2019, the BJP swept all seven seats from Delhi in the parliament. The voter bases of the two parties partly overlap, including on elements of Hindu majoritarianism, analysts told Al Jazeera.

By closing in on Kejriwal, the Modi government not only risks positioning itself as authoritarian and arrogant, said Asim Ali, a political commentator, but could also alienate voters undecided between the BJP and AAP. Now, they “may stick with AAP out for sympathy, or even vote for Congress out of spite”.

“The risk for BJP is to make Kejriwal into a martyr,” he said.

Amid arrests and raids of opposition leaders, critics and journalists, India has slipped in international democratic indices under Modi. The government has said the reports are unreliable and, now, plans to come up with its own index.

“[The arrests] demonstrate the desperation of the Indian authorities and a blatant disregard for human rights,” Aakar Patel, chair of the board of Amnesty International in India, told Al Jazeera. “What we are witnessing is a government consolidating its power by consistent weaponisation of laws and central financial agencies at the expense of the people – and rights – that it deems dispensable.”

Since Modi came to power in 2014, 95 percent of the cases taken up by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – India’s premier investigative agency – and the ED have been against politicians from the opposition. This represents a rise of 60 percentage points for the CBI, and 54 percentage points for the ED, from the days of the previous Congress-led government that ruled from 2004 to 2014.

“It’s imperative that all state institutions function properly and with complete respect for human rights, including the Enforcement Directorate, the Election Commission and the justice system, to guarantee that the Indian population can fully and fairly exercise their civil and political rights before, during and after the general election,” Patel added.

‘INDIA will give befitting reply’

Kejriwal’s arrest also set off a wave of condemnations from opposition political parties – including those that have drifted away from the INDIA bloc in recent weeks.

Minutes after the arrest, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said: “A scared dictator wants to create a dead democracy.”

The Trinamool Congress that rules in the eastern state of West Bengal and has in recent days decided to contest the national election on its own — after previously being part of the INDIA alliance — also criticised the arrest.

“How can we expect fair elections in India if sitting CMs and prominent opposition leaders are arrested weeks before polls?” asked Trinamool leader Derek O’Brien on X.

In Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister MK Stalin described the arrest as a “fascist” step. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the arrest was “outright vicious and part of a callous plot to silence all opposition voices just ahead of the general elections”. Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Vijayan’s Communist Party of India (Marxist) are both part of the INDIA bloc.

Akhilesh Yadav, former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh whose Samajwadi Party is also part of the INDIA bloc, said Kejriwal’s arrest would “give birth to a new people’s revolution”. He said the arrests of opposition leaders showed that the BJP was “imprisoned in the fear of defeat” in the coming elections.

Most opinion polls suggest Modi and the BJP are positioned for a comfortable win in the elections, with the prime minister setting a target of 400 seats in India’s 543-seat lower house for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that the party leads. The NDA won 353 seats in 2019.

Meanwhile, AAP’s remaining leadership is trying to pick up the pieces. “They can arrest [Kejriwal], but they cannot arrest his ideology,” said Bharadwaj, Delhi’s health minister. “[He] is an idea which is germinating in each lane and neighbourhood.”

The BJP, however, lauded the arrest, describing Kejriwal as the “kingpin of the liquor scam”.

Late on Thursday evening, Sambit Patra, the BJP’s national spokesperson, took a dig at Kejriwal. “[AAP says] Arvind Kejriwal is not a person, he is an idea. I should say he is a bad idea.”

Source: Al Jazeera