Modi rival held in custody over corruption claims amid street protests

Modi rival held in custody over corruption claims amid street protests

A court in India sent Delhi’s top politician Arvind Kejriwal to seven days in judicial custody of an investigative agency on Friday in a massive setback to the country’s opposition against Narendra Modi in the upcoming general elections.

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister and a fierce political rival to prime minister Modi, will now be questioned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) over corruption allegations.

The financial crime agency on Thursday night arrested Kejriwal, an anti-corruption campaigner who heads the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party), in connection with graft allegations relating to the capital city’s liquor policy. Kejriwal is the first serving chief minister to be arrested in India.

The arrest has been labelled as a crackdown against Indian opposition leaders by the Modi administration ahead of the General Assembly elections to elect a new government starting in April.

Hundreds of protesters in Delhi took to the streets for a second day on Saturday, demanding the immediate release of Mr Kejriwal. Chanting: “Kejriwal is Modi’s doom” and “Dictatorship won’t be tolerated”, protesters accused Mr Modi of governing the country under a state of emergency – a claim the opposition has long professed – and using federal law enforcement agencies to stifle opposition parties before the election.

Officials at the central agency have accused the AAP chief as a “conspirator” behind the Delhi government’s now-defunct liquor policy – initially touted as successful for modernising alcohol sales in the city-state region – for allowing an impossibly high-profit margin of nearly 185 per cent for retailers.

Leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal (C) speaks to the members of the media upon his arrival at Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport on 24 December 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)
Leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal (C) speaks to the members of the media upon his arrival at Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport on 24 December 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

The agency has also accused Mr Kejriwal of accepting 1bn rupees (£9m) in bribes from liquor contractors nearly two years ago. Mr Kejriwal’s party has denied the accusations and called the charges politically motivated.

His wife, Sunita Kejriwal, held a virtual press conference on Saturday and said she was carrying a message from Mr Kejriwal from the prison.

“Your son and brother Arvind Kejriwal has sent a message for you from prison: ‘My dear countrymen, I was arrested yesterday. Whether I am inside or outside, I will continue to work in the service of the country every moment’,” Ms Kejriwal said.

“Each moment of my life is dedicated to the nation, every drop of blood is for the nation. I have been born on this earth only to struggle. I have struggled a lot till this day and seem fated to take on bigger struggles in days to come,” Ms Kejriwal said, quoting her husband. She added that the politician has issued an open appeal to citizens to “make Bharat (name for India in Hindi language) great again”.

The 55-year-old prominent politician has been sent to custody until 28 March for his “detailed and sustained interrogation” regarding his role in what the ED has called a policy scam. Mr Kejriwal’s deputy Manish Sisodia, who was also serving as Delhi’s education minister, has also been jailed for more than a year in the case.

Another senior AAP member and parliamentarian, Sanjay Singh, has also been arrested by the ED over money laundering charges in the policy.

On Saturday, AAP politicians said the roads leading to their party office in New Delhi were blocked and sealed off by the Delhi police officials, impeding their access to their office premises.

“The routes of our office were closed/ blocked by Delhi Police today during noon time and no one was allowed to come to the office despite all requests. We failed to understand how a political party can fight elections under such a repressive environment?” AAP politicians said in an email to the Election Commission of India.

Delhi’s finance minister and senior AAP leader, Atishi, said the party members have sought an “urgent appointment with the Election Commission to ensure a level playing field in the Lok Sabha elections”.

Shortly after Mr Kejriwal’s arrest on Thursday, several AAP leaders were detained as dozens entered the streets for protests against the political leader’s arrest just weeks before the elections.

The arrest of the Delhi chief minister is aimed at stopping him from campaigning in the general elections, Ms Atishi, who goes by one name, said.

Mr Kejriwal, a key part of the united Opposition bloc named INDIA, was set to bolster his pitch for voting against Mr Modi’s rule in the country and not allowing a third term to the leader of the Hindu majoritarian government in the upcoming elections.

The crackdown has also garnered international flak against Indian authorities as the German foreign ministry said they expected Mr Kejriwal to get a fair and impartial trial, citing India’s democratic nature.

However, India’s External Affairs Ministry shot back, saying it was “blatant interference” in the country’s internal affairs.

Political commentators monitoring India’s electoral environment have condemned the arrest.

“It looks like harassment because only opposition leaders are being singled out,” said political analyst Neerja Chowdhury, who added that there’s been no probe against anyone in the BJP. “It’s not a level playing field.