‘Signs of emergency’ in Delhi after senior opposition politician arrested on corruption charges

The recent arrest of an opposition leader in India has triggered nationwide protests and raised questions about the Narendra Modi government’s crackdown on opposition parties.

Manish Sisodia, the deputy chief minister of Delhi, was arrested by the federal government’s nodal investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), on Sunday.

Mr Sisodia belongs to the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, which is in direct opposition to Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is perceived as a moderate figure who has led a modernisation drive for the capital’s schools, despite his party’s clear populist tilt to the right.

Mr Sisodia was arrested by the CBI after over eight hours of questioning in connection with alleged irregularities in the now-scrapped liquor excise policy for the national capital.

On Monday, a court in Delhi remanded him to five days in CBI custody.

CBI officials said Mr Sisodia was arrested after refusing to cooperate in the probe.

The case was registered against Mr Sisodia and 14 others for “investigation into the matter of alleged irregularities in framing and implementation” of the policy and for “extending post tender benefits to private persons”, read the CBI statement, as per NDTV.

The CBI said Mr Sisodia was asked to come in for questioning on 19 February but had sought time.

The agency said he was arrested after he gave “evasive replies” and did not “cooperate (with) the investigation despite being confronted with evidence to the contrary”.

The arrest comes months after Delhi’s chief secretary submitted a report to the state’s Lt Governor last July.

It accused Mr Sisodia of providing undue benefits to liquor vend licensees in lieu of “kickbacks” and “commissions” allegedly used by the AAP in the Punjab Assembly elections in February that year, reported The Indian Express.

The case comes as AAP, led by Delhi chief minister and national convenor Arvind Kejriwal, tries to position itself as a direct alternative to the BJP.

With an election victory in nearby Punjab state last year, AAP wants to expand and become a national player ahead of the national elections next year, as the Congress party ceded the opposition space after a string of losses.

Mr Sisodia is the second minister from the Delhi government to be arrested by federal government agencies.

Delhi’s health minister Satyendar Jain has been lodged in jail on charges of money laundering since May last year after he was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate.

Ahead of his arrest, Mr Sisodia said the BJP was afraid of the challenge posed by AAP.

“Going to the CBI again today, will cooperate fully with the entire investigation,” he tweeted in Hindi and invoked left-leaning freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, who was hanged during British rule.

Addressing party workers before going to the CBI, Mr Sisodia said: “They are scared of Kejriwal’s rise in politics. AAP is spreading fast across the country. Today, Prime Minister Modi doesn’t even care about [opposition Congress MP] Rahul Gandhi, he is only afraid of one man and that is Kejriwal.”

On Monday, Mr Sisodia was produced in a court in Delhi and said through his counsel that he had cooperated with the CBI in producing his phone last September and also complied with notices for appearances. The CBI, however, sought five days custody to investigate the lawmaker.

Meanwhile, AAP workers took to the streets to protest against Mr Sisodia’s arrest.

In Delhi, tense scenes were witnessed between AAP workers and officials of the Delhi police – that is run by the federal government – outside the party office.

The party claimed police officers barged into the AAP office and arrested workers.

At a news conference, AAP spokesperson Saurabh Bharadwaj said the incident showed “signs of an emergency”, comparing the situation to when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended India’s constitution during a crisis in 1975. “This is a dangerous trend. What Indira Gandhi had done during Emergency, Modi’s government is doing it today. All big leaders are put behind bars without any reason,” he said.

“EMERGENCY LIKE SITUATION IN DELHI,” proclaimed the party’s official Twitter handle in all capital letters.

The party also held protests in Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Other members of the opposition have also called out the Modi government for targeting opposition parties in the country.

Mr Kejriwal said his deputy was arrested as the CBI was under “political pressure”.

The BJP, on the other hand, said Mr Kejriwal was the “kingpin of the liquor excise scam” and said “for now the noose is around Sisodia’s neck”.

While Mr Sisodia’s arrest has been condemned by most opposition members, the Congress – that suffered a drubbing at the hands of the AAP in both Delhi and Punjab – hailed his arrest, despite being in opposition to the BJP as well.

The Congress has bizarrely said the BJP has protected Mr Kejriwal by arresting his deputy.

Mr Modi’s government has been accused of using federal agencies to crack down on opposition members.

Other leaders that have been targeted include senior Congress leaders P Chidambaram and DK Shivkumar, the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, Nationalist Congress Party leader Anil Deshmukh and the Trinamool Congress’s Saket Gokhale.

This article was amended on 1 March 2023. The headline originally contained the quote “state of emergency”, but while many commentators compared the situation to India’s 1975 Emergency, none of those quoted used the phrase “state of emergency”.