Arrest of Modi Political Rival Slammed by Opposition

New Delhi — In India, the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has triggered an outcry from opposition parties that accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of targeting the opposition weeks before the country heads into a national election.

Protests by supporters of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) erupted in the Indian capital and rallies were held in several other cities Friday, a day after the key opposition leader was arrested by the federal Enforcement Directorate in a case involving alleged corruption.

Prominent leaders of the “INDIA” bloc alliance that has been formed by over two dozen opposition parties to mount a collective challenge to Modi have rallied behind Kejriwal, slamming his arrest and saying that the actions of the federal agency are aimed at harassing and weakening the opposition.

“A scared dictator wants to create a dead democracy,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said after Kejriwal’s arrest in a post on X, formerly Twitter. Another prominent alliance leader, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress Party, called it “a blatant assault on democracy.”

India’s main opposition Congress party has also accused Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of crippling its ability to campaign because the tax department has blocked access to its bank accounts over a tax dispute.

The BJP denies any political interference in the actions taken by the federal agencies, which are controlled by the government.

Modi said last week at a media conclave that a major aspect of “our governance is zero tolerance towards corruption.” He said all agencies “are completely independent to act against corruption.”

Kejriwal, who functions as the top executive of India’s Delhi territory and is one of the fiercest critics of Modi, formed the AAP or Common Man’s Party in 2012. The party was born out of a civil society anti-corruption movement, which put graft in the public spotlight.

The 55-year-old led his party to victory in state elections in Delhi in 2015 and 2020 at a time when Modi’s popularity soared, and his Hindu nationalist party was consolidating its hold on many states in the north.

Staying away from the traditional support bases of India’s political parties such as community, caste, and religion, he instead focused on getting support from slum dwellers, rickshaw pullers and lower economic classes.

The AAP also won elections in the northern Punjab state in 2022.

His party said the arrest was politically motivated.

“Why was he arrested soon after the elections were announced?” senior AAP leader Atishi Singh asked at a news conference. “He has been arrested because the BJP does not want him to campaign during the elections.”

The government has strongly dismissed allegations of targeting its opponents.

After Kejriwal’s arrest, senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters it “is a process of law, which is being done with a view to taking appropriate action against corruption.”

The Enforcement Directorate, one of the most powerful federal agencies, can search and arrest without a court-ordered warrant.

It has accused Kejriwal’s AAP and ministers of accepting bribes from liquor contractors after it introduced a new policy in 2021, which ended a government monopoly on liquor sales and allegedly gave advantages to private retailers.

The policy has since been scrapped. Two of the party’s senior leaders are already in jail in connection with the case. Kejriwal was arrested after he refused summons nine times to appear before the federal agency. His party says the charges are fraudulent.

Opposition parties and political analysts point out that corruption probes by the Enforcement Directorate into politicians have jumped in the last ten years since Modi rose to power with most being launched against opposition leaders.

“This is the first time that a sitting chief minister has been arrested and the first time a sitting chief minister has been arrested after elections have been called. So clearly it is politically motivated. They are trying to weaken the opposition as much as possible,” said political analyst Arati Jerath.

Another politician, Hemant Soren, the chief minister in Jharkhand state, was arrested in January on charges of corruption in land deals. He belongs to a regional party called the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

The Congress party said at a news conference Thursday that the tax department has frozen the party’s accounts.

“We can’t support our workers, our candidates and our leaders can’t travel by air or train,” party leader Gandhi told reporters.

“This is a criminal action on the Congress party done by the prime minister and the home minister,” he said. “The idea that India is a democracy is a lie. There is no democracy in India today.”

The case relates to penalties imposed for irregularities in filing tax returns by the party.

The opposition points out that probes against former opposition leaders who later allied with Modi’s ruling BJP have been dropped.

Modi, who critics accuse of undermining democracy and polarizing the country along communal lines, remains one of India’s most popular leaders in decades and is expected to win the elections easily, according to several recent surveys.

The elections that begin April 19 will be held over six weeks until June 1.

Political analysts say Kejriwal’s arrest could galvanize the opposition.

“They have an opportunity to band together and launch a united campaign against this government on the issue of democracy, on the issue of denying them a level playing field,” Jerath said. “If the campaign catches on we could see an interesting election.”

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