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India election: Will Kejriwal arrest boost opposition?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
April 3, 2024

The arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on corruption charges just weeks before a general election has fired up India's opposition, which accuses the ruling BJP of "weaponizing government agencies."

India opposition supporters wear yellow shirts and masks at a rally
Opposition supporters wear Arvind Kejriwal masks at a recent rally in DelhiImage: Manish Swarup/AP Photo/picture alliance

A coalition of Indian opposition parties is rallying behind Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, after a court ruled he would remain behind bars on corruption charges until April 15.

Kejriwal, the leader of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), was arrested in March, along with much of the party's leadership, on allegations related to Delhi's liquor policy.

His continued incarceration comes as campaigning kicks into high gear ahead of India's marathon general elections, which begin on April 19 and last until June.

The AAP says the charges are a politically motivated ploy to crack down on opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Opposition united against Modi

In February, the AAP struck a deal to join the INDIA bloc, led by India's main Congress opposition party, which seeks to pose a credible challenge to the BJP in the elections.

Top opposition figure arrested in India ahead of elections

The alliance comprises dozens of parties, but AAP and Congress are among the most influential. At a "Save Democracy" rally in New Delhi over the weekend, opposition leaders accused Modi of using India's federal agencies to crack down on the BJP's political opponents.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi alleged that the BJP is trying to fix the elections in its favor. 

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to do match fixing in these elections. Without electronic voting machines, match-fixing, social media, and pressurising the press, they cannot win more than 180 seats," said Gandhi. 

Political scientist Zoya Hasan said the rally shows how Kejriwal's arrest has galvanized opposition parties.  

"The question is not about the merits of the liquor policy for which Kejriwal has been arrested but the timing of his arrest in the midst of the election campaign which vitiates the political process and skews the playing field," Hasan told DW. 

Can opposition rally voters?

However, the big question for the opposition is whether Kejriwal's case will draw sympathy with voters.

Kejriwal's role is comparable with that of a governor in the US or a state premier in Germany. Cosmopolitan Delhi is one of the few parts of India where Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP does not hold the upper hand.

For the last decade, voters have supported the AAP in state-level assembly elections, backing Kejriwal's welfare politics pitch that has promised good quality government schools, an improved health care system and free electricity.

However, the AAP has consistently fallen short in parliamentary polls. 

"This high-profile arrest will end up helping us in the parliamentary elections also. If Kejriwal is unable to campaign for whatever reason, we will go to town on how the BJP wants a political field empty of the opposition," a senior AAP leader told DW.  

The BJP, which in the last election in 2019 won 303 of 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, is confident of its chances in 2024.

"It is an election to uproot corruption from its core. This is the first election where all corrupt individuals are rallying together to halt action against corruption," Modi told an election rally in Rajasthan state on Monday. 

"The make-pretend unity forged by the INDIA bloc will not carry traction, especially when they do not have unity in states like West Bengal, Kerala, and Punjab. The BJP remains the first and credible choice of the people," Shazia Ilmi, a BJP spokesperson told DW.  

India's opposition alliance 'I.N.D.I.A' challenges Modi

BJP denies wrongdoing

Yamini Aiyar, a Delhi-based public-policy scholar, told DW that the BJP is "systematically weaponizing" investigative agencies, tax laws, sedition laws, anti-terror laws and laws regulating foreign funding of NGOs to "disproportionately target opposition politicians and criminalize dissent."

"The most brazen illustration of this is the arrest of Kejriwal, a popular opposition figure," she added.

One of these investigative bodies is India's Enforcement Directorate (ED), a federal agency tasked with investigating large-scale economic offenses.

Publicly, the BJP has gone on the offensive denying there is any political agenda in the case against Kejriwal.

The party maintains that the ED is completely independent, and that law-enforcement agencies are independent of the government and are merely doing their job in rooting out corruption. 

"This issue is between the Enforcement Directorate and the judiciary and the law will take its own course. The investigation is being monitored by the court and it would be inappropriate to comment on the opposition parties' charge," BJP national spokesman Tom Vadakkan told DW.

Since Modi took office in 2014, the ED has become one of India's most feared agencies. It has conducted over 3,000 money-laundering raids, but has secured only 54 convictions.  

The agency has targeted dozens of opposition politicians. However, few BJP politicians have found themselves in the crosshairs of law enforcement.  

Disclosures last month of controversial corporate donations through electoral bonds which largely went to the BJP, has given the fraught INDIA bloc an unexpected and much-needed political talking point.

"The BJP has misused the agencies in its control to undermine Indian democracy and civil society as has never been done before," Aakar Patel, the former head of Amnesty International India, told DW. 

Amnesty was forced to stop its India operations in 2020 after the government froze its bank accounts in what the human rights organization called a "continual crackdown on civil society in India."

Edited by Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11