Modi Rival’s Arrest Before Elections Prompts Opposition Fury

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India’s opposition parties slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for arresting a key leader just weeks before elections, alleging the move was a “vindictive misuse of central agencies” and an attempt to stifle them.

Arvind Kejriwal was arrested by the Directorate of Enforcement, or ED, on Thursday. On Friday, a court in Delhi sent him to the custody of the federal agency till March 28.

Delhi is controlled by Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, in India’s federal government system. The chief minister, 55, is a key member of an opposition alliance challenging Modi’s bid for a third straight term in office in nationwide elections that kick off in April.

Modi, 73, remains a popular leader with voters and his Bharatiya Janata Party is in a strong position to return to power. The opposition alliance, created last year to mount a united defense against Modi, has been hamstrung by defections, government investigations and a cash crunch.

They allege the federal agency’s move against Kejriwal is part of an on-going campaign to malign and weaken them ahead of the elections.

The BJP has refuted any suggestion that it’s deliberately targeting opposition leaders and has defended the government’s actions as necessary to root out wide-spread corruption. “Our sincere and unsolicited advice to opposition parties who are attacking the BJP is to trust the courts and seek relief from them,” Sambit Patra, national spokesman for the BJP, told reporters Friday. “The BJP cannot stop that,” he added.

Financial Squeeze

Last month, another chief minister, this time from the eastern state of Jharkand was arrested by the ED in a case of alleged land fraud. He remains in prison. Hours before Kejriwal’s arrest, India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, accused Modi and his government of trying to “cripple” the party financially by freezing their bank accounts.

“The intensity and manner in which these agencies are against key opposition leaders clearly show that there is political intention,” said Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

The ED has been investigating Kejriwal over allegations that his government skewed the state’s alcohol pricing in return for bribes. Other federal anti-corruption agencies, including the Central Bureau of Investigation, are also probing the alcohol policy. Introduced in 2021, the policy was rolled back within months following allegations of wrongdoing. Since then, the ED has arrested two other top AAP leaders. None of those arrested have been convicted.

Kejriwal and his party have denied the allegations. The AAP had been anticipating Kejriwal’s arrest since the ED sought to question him over the bribery scandal in November.

“One by one, they (BJP) are putting opposition leaders in prison. There will be no one left to fight in the elections,” Kejriwal said last month. “BJP does not win elections, they steal them.”

India’s opposition parties lambasted Kejriwal’s arrest. “A scared dictator wants to build a dead democracy,” Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader with the Congress party posted on the social media platform X, referring to Modi. Others described Kejriwal’s arrest as a “desperate witch-hunt.”

Indian investigative agencies do not “really have functional autonomy,” said Sahoo. We have seen this with past governments as well and now the BJP has only “accelerated the pace. It is actually using them more aggressively,” he added.

Over the decade the BJP has been in power, the number of registered cases by the federal agencies have risen as conviction rates have plummeted, according to statistics released by the government. Of the cases filed against politicians for graft and money laundering, 95% target opposition politicians, according to a report by an Indian media house.

AAP members are protesting in the capital New Delhi on Friday, which have led to the closure of several roads and a metro station. Police detained protesters, including the state’s education minister. “If this isn’t the death of democracy, then what is,” Atishi, who goes by one name, posted on X.

“I would say it is not a setback for the opposition,” said Sahoo. “This is an opportunity for opposition to rally around a popular leader and this can galvanize” the opposition just a few weeks before the elections, he added.

--With assistance from Shruti Mahajan and Ruchi Bhatia.

(Updates with custody details in second paragraph.)

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