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Modi accused of ‘dirty politics’ as Indian opposition politician arrested weeks before election

Modi accused of ‘dirty politics’ as Indian opposition politician arrested weeks before election

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was arrested by a federal anti-money laundering agency on corruption charges just weeks before the country heads into the national elections – a move condemned by the opposition as the “murder of democracy”.

Mr Kejriwal, the chief of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and a key opposition politician, was arrested by the Directorate of Enforcement (ED) on Thursday night in connection with corruption allegations relating to the city’s liquor policy.

“My life is dedicated to the country no matter whether I am, in jail or outside,” Mr Kejriwal told reporters while being taken to a Delhi court where the ED sought 10 days of his custody.

AAP has called for countrywide protests with the top politicians of the party descending on the capital on Friday. People belonging to the party, including ministers and cabinet members, were detained by the Delhi Police during their protest.

Mr Kejriwal is also the first serving CM to be arrested, sparking fears of a constitutional crisis.

The opposition has accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by prime minister Narendra Modi of “conspiracy” and said Mr Kejriwal’s arrest was the “murder of democracy” in the country. The AAP’s legal team approached the Supreme Court requesting a late-night hearing, but the plea was withdrawn the next morning.

“His arrest is a conspiracy by the prime minister Narendra Modi and the BJP,” said Atishi, Delhi’s finance minister.

If there is any opposition member that the prime minister “is scared of, it is Kejriwal,” she added. “If necessary he will run the government from jail,” she said.

She was among several top party members detained. Police resorted to baton-charge on Friday afternoon as protests intensified in the national capital region, apart from the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

A spokesperson of AAP told Al Jazeera that the arrest was “dirty politics” by Mr Modi over a “bogus case”.

Mr Kejriwal is the second top opposition member to be arrested by the federal agency in two months just weeks before the general elections, where Mr Modi is eyeing a third term. The ED in January arrested Hemant Soren – who was, until then, the chief minister of eastern Jharkhand state – for allegedly facilitating an illegal land sale. His party denies the accusations.

Member of the upper house of parliament, Raghav Chadha, said: “India is under an undeclared Emergency. Our democracy stands critically endangered today. This is an act of cowardice, and a vicious plot to silence the strongest opposition voices.”

Indian Rapid Action force soldiers stand outside Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man's Party, leader Arvind Kejriwal's residence as Enforcement Directorate (AP)
Indian Rapid Action force soldiers stand outside Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man's Party, leader Arvind Kejriwal's residence as Enforcement Directorate (AP)

Mr Chadha, who is also an AAP spokesperson, was comparing the situation to when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended India’s constitution during a crisis in 1975.

The arrest is seen as the latest setback to the AAP after its top politicians, including deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and lawmaker Sanjay Singh, were arrested in the same case.

The party leadership has been under investigation over allegations that a liquor policy implemented by the Delhi government in 2022 gave undue advantages to private retailers and received kickbacks from alcohol companies.

The policy ended the ED’s control over the sale of liquor in the capital and was rolled back within months with most of the 849 private alcohol shops shutting their outlets.

The AAP has said no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged in the investigation and Mr Kejriwal previously claimed that if he is corrupt "then there is no one in this world who is honest".

Mr Kejriwal was arrested after the ED issued nine summons to him for questioning, which went unanswered.

Supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party shout slogans outside in front of the home of Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal after he was arrested (AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party shout slogans outside in front of the home of Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal after he was arrested (AFP via Getty Images)

Critics of the Modi government have accused the Hindu nationalist government of weaponising law enforcement agencies against political rivals to intimidate and weaken them ahead of elections. A slew of politicians have faced legal challenges with some arrested and others convicted.

The alleged clampdown on the opposition party comes just days after details of a now-scrapped opaque electoral funding system were released. The first release last week sparked political turmoil after Mr Modi’s BJP emerged as the biggest beneficiary of the scheme by a large margin.

Heavy security has been deployed around Mr Kejriwal’s residence and places where he will be taken, with drones monitoring the movements. Mr Kejriwal is scheduled to undergo a medical checkup before the ED’s proceedings begin.

Several traffic restrictions are in place in anticipation of protests by AAP supporters with roads leading to the BJP headquarters and ED office in central Delhi barricaded.

Opposition politicians from across the political spectrum denounced Mr Kejriwal’s arrest, with senior Congress member Rahul Gandhi offering to provide his family with legal assistance.

Mr Gandhi called Mr Modi a “scared dictator” and doubled down on his criticism as the arrest came on the same day his party claimed that the government allegedly froze its bank accounts ahead of the election.

“A scared dictator wants to create a dead democracy. While capturing all the institutions including the media, breaking up the parties, extorting money from companies, freezing the account of the main opposition party was not enough for the ‘devilish power’, now the arrest of the elected Chief Ministers has also become a common thing,” Mr Gandhi said.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the arrest “exposes the cowardice of those who fear democratic process and calls for collective action to resist abuse of power”.

Tamil Nadu chief minister M K Stalin said the BJP was a fascist regime. “Not a single BJP leader faces scrutiny or arrest, laying bare their abuse of power and the decay of democracy.”

Mr Kejriwal, 55, rose to power as an anti-corruption crusader and founded the AAP, Hindi for “common man’s party” in 2011. After storming into power in Delhi in 2013, AAP swept state elections in the northern state of Punjab in 2022 and won a few seats in Mr Modi’s home state Gujarat in the same year.

The arrest is also seen as a blow to the “INDIA” block, an alliance of opposition that hopes to challenge the BJP party as it seeks a third term in the elections beginning on 19 April.

“It looks like harassment because only opposition leaders are being singled out,” political commentator Neerja Chowdhury told the Associated Press.

Mr Gandhi was convicted of criminal libel in 2023 after a complaint by a member of Mr Modi’s party. A two-year prison sentence disqualified him from parliament, until the verdict was suspended by a higher court.