Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal challenges arrest ahead of India election

Published March 22, 2024
Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during a public rally in Guwahati on April 2, 2023. — AFP
Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during a public rally in Guwahati on April 2, 2023. — AFP

A top Indian opposition politician appeared in court on Friday to fight his arrest in a case supporters say is aimed at sidelining challengers to Prime Minister Narendra Modi before next month’s election.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the capital Delhi and a key leader in an opposition alliance formed to compete against Modi in the polls, was detained on Thursday in connection with a long-running corruption probe.

He is among several leaders of the bloc under criminal investigation and one of his colleagues described his arrest as a “political conspiracy” orchestrated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Kejriwal was escorted into a courtroom in the capital by officers from the Enforcement Directorate, India’s main financial crimes agency, to petition for bail while the case proceeds.

His legal team had originally sought to challenge the legality of his detention in the Supreme Court but Shadan Farasat, a lawyer for Kejriwal, told AFP they would instead contest his remand in a lower court.

Hundreds of supporters from Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) took to the streets on Friday to condemn the leader’s arrest, with police breaking up one crowd of protesters who attempted to block a busy traffic intersection.

Several demonstrators were detained including Delhi education minister Atishi Marlena Singh and health minister Saurabh Bhardwaj, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

Small rallies in support of Kejriwal were held in several other cities around India.

Kejriwal’s government was accused of corruption when it implemented a policy to liberalise the sale of liquor in 2021 and give up a lucrative government stake in the sector.

The policy was withdrawn the following year, but the resulting probe into the alleged corrupt allocation of licences has since seen the jailing of two top Kejriwal allies.

Kejriwal, 55, has been chief minister for nearly a decade and first came to office as a staunch anti-corruption crusader. He had resisted multiple summons from the Enforcement Directorate to be interrogated as part of the probe.

Singh, the education minister, said on Thursday that Kejriwal had not resigned from his office.

“We made it clear from the beginning that if needed, Arvind Kejriwal will run the government from jail,” she told reporters.

‘Decay of democracy’

Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin, a fellow member of the opposition bloc, said Kejriwal’s arrest “smacks of a desperate witch-hunt”.

“Not a single BJP leader faces scrutiny or arrest, laying bare their abuse of power and the decay of democracy,” he said.

Modi’s political opponents and international rights groups have long sounded the alarm on India’s shrinking democratic space.

US democracy think-tank Freedom House said this year that the BJP had “increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents”.

Rahul Gandhi, the most prominent member of the opposition Congress party and scion of a dynasty that dominated Indian politics for decades, was convicted of criminal libel last year after a complaint by a member of Modi’s party.

His two-year prison sentence saw him disqualified from parliament for a time until the verdict was suspended by a higher court, but raised further concerns over democratic norms in the world’s most populous country.

Kejriwal and Gandhi are both members of an opposition alliance composed of more than two dozen parties that is jointly contesting India’s national election running from April to June.

But even without the criminal investigations targeting its most prominent leaders, few expect the bloc to make inroads against Modi, who remains popular a decade after first taking office.

Many analysts see Modi’s reelection as a foregone conclusion, partly due to the resonance of his assertive Hindu-nationalist politics with the members of the country’s majority faith.

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