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Modi’s Opponent Challenges Arrest Ahead Of India Election

The court reserved its ruling on whether Kejriwal could leave detention, but could issue a decision as early as Friday evening.


FILES: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he speacks during a plenary session on the occasion of the ‘World Environment day’ in New Delhi on June 5, 2018. Money SHARMA / AFP

 

A top Indian opposition politician appeared in court 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).

“My life is dedicated to the country, whether I am inside or outside,” Kejriwal told reporters while being led into a courtroom by officers from the Enforcement Directorate, India’s main financial crimes agency.

The court reserved its ruling on whether Kejriwal could leave detention, but could issue a decision as early as Friday evening.

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.

Rallies in support of Kejriwal were held in numerous other big 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The policy was withdrawn the following year, but the resulting probe into the alleged corrupt allocation of licences has since seen the jailing of two top Kejriwal allies.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 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.

But Rajeev Chandrashekhar, a minister in Modi’s government, said the opposition’s reaction to Kejriwal’s arrest had been “extremely mystifying”.

“Arvind Kejriwal should understand… that the law and the consequences of violating the law don’t stop just because you are a political leader,” he told the Press Trust of India news agency.

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

US 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.

‘Undermining and sabotaging’

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, which is running from April to June.

A delegation from the bloc met with India’s election commission on Friday to condemn what they said were deliberate efforts to undermine the opposition’s campaign.

“It is a larger issue of impairing, undermining and sabotaging the basic structure of the Indian constitution,” Congress politician Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters after the meeting.

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 members of the country’s majority faith.

AFP