As Indian Elections Near, a Delhi Chief Minister’s Arrest Raises Concern

After his party's meteoric rise, the national government’s detainment of opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal prompts worries about democracy

As Indian Elections Near, a Delhi Chief Minister’s Arrest Raises Concern
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. (Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was arrested for an alleged liquor scam in March by the Enforcement Directorate, India’s central agency that investigates financial crimes, it became the latest incident in a long list of legal offensives against opposition leaders ahead of the general elections in India.

A couple of political associates of Kejriwal, who remains detained, had already been implicated in the same alleged scam. Hemant Soren, a former chief minister of the eastern state of Jharkhand, was arrested on Jan. 31 on charges of corruption. He resigned from his post hours before his arrest.

Since February the Indian National Congress (known as the Congress party), the chief opposition party in India, has said that its bank accounts have been frozen over an alleged delay in filing tax returns. Senior leader, Rahul Gandhi, called it a “conspiracy” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to cripple political opponents. The party was struggling to manage campaign-related expenses ahead of general elections, he said.

Polling will begin on April 19 and continue over seven phases till June 1, with the results announced on June 4. Surveys indicate that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is ahead of the opposition bloc, with Modi gaining traction among voters. But worries over unemployment and inflation are among the top issues in the minds of the electorate, which could help the opposition.

Since senior politicians in different opposition parties are Modi critics, the recent developments have raised questions about India’s ability to deliver free and fair elections. To them it appears that the Modi-led government has weaponized central agencies to put his political opponents under pressure.

A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the media that the world body “hopes” that people’s political and civil rights are “protected” in India and other countries with elections this year.

This prompted a fierce response from India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. “I don’t need the United Nations to tell me that the elections in India should be free and fair,” he said. Similarly, when the U.S. and Germany expressed concerns over the upcoming elections, the Indian government summoned diplomats from both countries and lodged strong protests against their remarks.

The BJP said that the authorities were just doing their jobs and that allegations of political vendetta were baseless.

“Investigative agencies only go to places where they find some proof of corruption,” said Ravi Kishan, a BJP parliamentarian from Gorakhpur. R.P. Singh, a national spokesperson for the BJP, told New Lines, “If it is a case of political vendetta, Mr. Kejriwal should prove that in the court and get bail granted for himself.”

Even though the Congress is the chief opposition party in India, with Gandhi effectively at the helm, Kejriwal, 55, may have come in the line of fire because of the meteoric rise of his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) over the past decade. His party is now the only one in India, apart from the BJP and Congress, to govern in more than one state.

Modi, who is seeking reelection, has appealed to citizens to ensure that the BJP-led coalition wins 400 of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament. Earlier he had claimed that the BJP alone would win 370 seats — an ambitious increase from 2019, when the party won 303 seats. Apart from focusing on development and national security in his campaign speeches, Modi has also targeted the opposition on multiple occasions, calling them weak and indecisive and accusing them of dividing India on the basis of caste and religion.

Since its formation in 2012, the AAP, which started out in Delhi, has risen up the ranks to gain national party status and has emerged as an important player in India’s politics. While speaking to New Lines, several opposition leaders and political observers said that the BJP could be bothered by the pace of AAP’s expansion. The BJP, they say, which has not been in power in Delhi since 1998, seeks control over its administration.

Being the national capital, Delhi is considered the power center of Indian politics and being in control of it gives immense political heft to the ruling party.

Hence, there is speculation that Kejriwal’s arrest could pave the way in Delhi for what is known as President’s Rule, which would mean the dissolution of the AAP-led government, with the BJP-led central government effectively taking charge of the state. Several AAP leaders also fear that the BJP could engineer defections from the party, given Kejriwal’s absence, and try to depose his government. Even though one senior Delhi-based political leader, who did not wish to be identified, said it would be difficult because the AAP has 62 members in the Delhi Assembly (the local legislature for Delhi) while the BJP has only eight, it would “not be impossible.”

Either strategy could undermine public support for the BJP in Delhi.

“It is possible that the BJP took a calculated risk in terms of checking the potential of the AAP once Arvind Kejriwal is arrested,” Rahul Verma, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, told New Lines. “If Kejriwal is not around, the AAP might disintegrate or weaken and that can give the BJP an opening in Delhi. In the coming months, we would be able to see if the risk paid off or backfired.”

Kejriwal has come a long way in his career, from being a bureaucrat in the Revenue Service to social activist and now a politician. In 2011, he played a pivotal role in the India Against Corruption movement, which mobilized tens of thousands across India to protest large-scale corruption scams unfolding in the country. It paved the way for the decline of the Congress party, bolstered the reemergence of the BJP in 2014 and led to the creation of the Aam Aadmi Party (roughly translated as the Common People’s Party), a new political party founded by the activists involved in the movement.

People across the country joined and donated to the party, and for millions of Indians, Kejriwal, with his middle-class background, embodied the persona of the “common man” of India. His look — with a mustache; untucked, short-sleeved shirts; and sandals as well as scarves that came out during winters — added to the appeal.

In 2013, the AAP contested the Delhi elections and came to power with the support of the Congress party. However, Kejriwal resigned after 49 days, having been unable in the assembly to bring up his flagship anti-corruption bill for discussion. He alleged that the BJP, the Congress party and industrialist Mukesh Ambani were colluding against it. This move earned him the image of an “anarchist.” Later, in 2014, he ran directly against Modi for the parliamentary seat in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh but lost resoundingly.

After facing a crushing defeat at the national level, Kejriwal returned to his home state and once again focused on Delhi’s state elections. AAP recorded massive wins in two consecutive elections for seats in the Delhi Assembly in 2015 and 2020, which has established Kejriwal as a credible and effective administrator. In 2020, the AAP had nearly 54% of the total votes in Delhi, winning its current 62-8 majority over the BJP in the assembly (the Congress party won no seats).

After the wins in Delhi, the AAP started expanding into other states. In 2022, it came to power in Punjab, winning 92 of 117 seats. AAP candidates won legislative seats in two other states, Goa and Gujarat. At present the AAP has representatives in local bodies in at least seven states, as well as 10 members in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament.

While its expansion has come largely at the cost of the Congress party, political observers have said that over time, it has started to eat away at the BJP’s vote share in some regions, too. In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the BJP has been ruling for three decades, the AAP received nearly 13% of the votes in the 2022 state elections. This, some opposition leaders believed, may have hurt the BJP and triggered its aggressive political stance against Kejriwal and his party.

However, according to Chandrachur Singh, associate professor of politics at the University of Delhi, while the party wants to be perceived as the main challenger to the BJP, it could not be called a threat just yet. “The BJP has a massive organizational base and a strong ideology,” he said. “The AAP has neither of them so far.”

The AAP often flaunts its governance style as the “Delhi model” in campaigns in other Indian states. Its welfare-centric approach stresses improving the quality of health care facilities and schools, and relies on heavily subsidized services, such as free electricity, free bus rides for women and free medical treatment in public hospitals. Public schools in Delhi, which were dealing with a crumbling infrastructure and a poor quality of education, have received global attention for getting a facelift.

Over the past few years, the AAP has also been “carefully” planning its “political strategies,” Akshay Marathe, AAP leader and former adviser to Kejriwal, told New Lines. “The BJP uses a few cards to tarnish the image of its political opponents, such as the anti-national card, the anti-Hindu card and the political dynasty card,” he said.

Even though the AAP seems to lack a strong ideological foundation, the party seems to have embraced the ethos of Hindu nationalism, despite this being a primary component of Modi’s broader appeal and popularity.

In 2016, while Kejriwal questioned the Modi government’s claims of conducting “surgical strikes on terrorist camps” in Pakistan in retaliation to an attack on an Indian army base that killed 19 soldiers in Kashmir, he expressed support for their controversial decision to scrap the special, semiautonomous status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, aimed at integrating the conflict-ridden region with the rest of India. At several instances, Kejriwal has also noted that “staunch nationalism” is at the “core” of AAP’s ideology.

Kejriwal also shows that he is a devout Hindu. His government in Delhi has hosted religious events during Diwali that were livestreamed on AAP’s social media accounts. Despite being in the opposition, Kejriwal visited the controversial, newly constructed Ram temple, inaugurated by Modi, in Ayodhya, and shared photos of him with his family on social media. The temple was constructed on the site where once stood the 16th-century Babri mosque, which was demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. Construction of the temple has been among the top priorities of Modi.

The AAP has also refused to engage with issues on behalf of Muslim citizens. It remained silent on the massive protests led by Muslim women in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighborhood against the contentious citizenship law passed by the Indian Parliament in 2020. Conversely, Kejriwal’s colleagues blamed “Rohingyas” and “Bangladeshis” (both predominantly Muslim communities) for increasing the crime rate in Delhi.

While critics from liberal quarters have dubbed this “soft Hindutva” (Hindu nationalism) and have called the AAP the “B team” of the BJP, according to one of his close aides, Kejriwal did not seem bothered by this because he feels the potential advantages of this strategy outweighs the risks.

“It is to make him more acceptable for a large number of Hindus who may have an affinity for the BJP because of its Hindu credentials but [who] could be disgruntled with it due to inflation, unemployment and other issues,” said the AAP leader. Secondly, it could help push a “Modi versus Kejriwal” narrative, since both portray themselves to be nationalists and “staunch Hindus.”

Modi and Kejriwal have shared a bitter relationship over the years. Kejriwal once called Modi a “coward and psychopath,” has compared him to Adolf Hitler on multiple occasions and has often questioned his qualifications, implying that if Modi were better educated, the country wouldn’t have such poor policies. Modi, on the other hand, has strongly criticized Kejriwal’s governance model, calling it a “freebie culture” to lure voters, raised questions about his anti-corruption credentials and cast aspersions on his projection of a common man persona.

With Kejriwal being the party’s most popular face, his arrest ahead of the general election is a significant blow both for the AAP and the opposition alliance. The AAP has fielded candidates in Delhi, the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, the western state of Gujarat and the northeastern state of Assam. “Our Lok Sabha campaign will continue,” said Sanjay Singh, an AAP politician and member of the Rajya Sabha.

Singh was also arrested in the liquor case and remained imprisoned for over six months. He was granted bail earlier this month. Meanwhile, Manish Sisodia, who was Delhi’s deputy chief minister until his arrest last year, remains in jail. So, too, does senior AAP leader Satyendar Jain, who was arrested by the financial crimes agency in a separate case about money laundering.

“Kejriwal’s arrest certainly has the potential to create an existential crisis for the AAP,” wrote Ashutosh, a journalist and former AAP leader, in The Indian Express. “Before launching a political party, its leaders had no experience in active politics. Unlike other political parties, the AAP does not have an institutional memory to fall back on, and neither does it have the institutional robustness to face a crisis of this magnitude.” Chandrachur, the associate professor, added, “All political parties centered around one leader have suffered when [they] are not around.”

Since Kejriwal’s arrest, all eyes have been on the opposition bloc to see how it would galvanize public support. Its leaders recently hosted a “Save Democracy” rally at Delhi’s historic Ramlila Maidan — coincidentally the venue used by the India Against Corruption movement — which was attended by thousands and where speakers took digs at the prime minister.

Kejriwal’s wife, Sunita, also spoke at the rally, reading a message he sent from jail. Following his arrest, she has been trying to hold the fort for the AAP and has appeared in several videos — livestreamed on the party’s social media accounts. Her recent emergence has also triggered speculations that she might be appointed as Kejriwal’s proxy. However, senior party leaders have dismissed such claims.

Kejriwal, technically, is the first chief minister in the country to be in jail. When chief ministers have been arrested in the past, they have resigned from their positions before going to jail. While the BJP has been demanding his resignation, AAP leaders have insisted that Kejriwal, who is now in Delhi’s central prison, would run the government from jail, even though technical and legal aspects of this decision raise questions about its impracticality. After the Delhi High Court dismissed his petition challenging his arrest, Kejriwal has now approached the Supreme Court.

Until the courts deal with that, the AAP faces two unresolved questions. How will the party run a strong general election campaign in the absence of Kejriwal’s charismatic leadership? And will this crisis put the brakes on the AAP’s growth?

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy