Supporters of India's opposition leader flock to capital in protest of his arrest

Supporters of an anti-corruption crusader and one of India’s most consequential politicians of the past decade held protests Friday against his arrest, which opposition parties say is part of a crackdown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government before national elections.

Arvind Kejriwal, who is New Delhi’s top elected official, was arrested Thursday night by the federal Enforcement Directorate, which is controlled by Modi’s government. The agency accused his party and ministers of accepting $12 million in bribes from liquor contractors nearly two years ago.

Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, or Common People’s Party, denied the accusations and said they were fabricated. The party said Kejriwal will continue to be Delhi’s chief minister while it fights the accusations in court.

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Adding to the party’s troubles, as part of the same case, the agency also arrested Kejriwal’s deputy Manish Sisodia and AAP lawmaker Sanjay Singh in 2023.

In the lead up to the general election, which starts April 19, India’s opposition parties accuse the government of misusing its power to harass and weaken its political opponents to gain an unfair advantage in the polls. They point to a spree of raids, arrests and corruption investigations against key opposition figures. Meanwhile, some probes against erstwhile opposition leaders who later defected to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been dropped.

“It looks like harassment because only opposition leaders are being singled out,” said political commentator Neerja Chowdhury, adding that there’s been no probe against anyone in the BJP. “It’s not a level playing field.”

A supporter of Aam Admi Party, or Common Man's Party, is detained by the police officials

A supporter of Aam Admi Party, or Common Man’s Party, is detained by police officials during a protest against the arrest of their party leader Arvind Kejriwal, in New Delhi, India, on March 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

The BJP denies using law enforcement agencies to target the opposition and says the agencies act independently.

On Friday, hundreds of AAP supporters and some senior party leaders clashed with the police, who whisked a number of them away in buses.

“This is dictatorship. All this is done to win the national polls,” said AAP leader Saurabh Bharadwaj, referring to the BJP.

Kejriwal’s AAP is part of a broad alliance of opposition parties called INDIA, the main challenger to Modi’s BJP in the elections to be held in April-June.

His arrest is another setback for the bloc, and came after the Congress party accused the government Thursday of crippling the party by freezing its bank accounts in a tax dispute. But it has also led to a rare show of strength by the opposition figures who slammed the move as undemocratic, and accused Modi’s party of misusing the agency to weaken them.

“A scared dictator wants to create a dead democracy,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said about the arrest in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

“India is under an undeclared Emergency. Our democracy stands critically endangered today,” said Raghav Chadha, a lawmaker from the AAP.

Meanwhile, the BJP’s spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla said Kejriwal’s party was playing the “victim card,” and that the leader should resign from his chief minister post.

The Enforcement Directorate has investigated many key opposition leaders and others have faced a variety of legal sanctions.

In January, the agency arrested Hemant Soren — who was, until then, the chief minister of eastern Jharkhand state — for allegedly facilitating an illegal land sale. Soren’s party denies the accusations.

Gandhi was convicted of criminal libel in 2023 after a complaint by a member of Modi’s party. A two-year prison sentence disqualified him from parliament for a time, until the verdict was suspended by a higher court.

Kejriwal launched the AAP in 2012 and campaigned on a promise to rid the Indian political system and governance of corruption and inefficiency. The party’s symbol — a broom — and its promise to sweep the administration of graft struck a chord with Delhi residents.

The party won the Delhi state legislature election a year later, when he became the chief minister — a feat he repeated in 2015 and 2020. Kejriwal’s party also governs northern Punjab state.

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Modi has previously said his party is targeting 370 seats out of 543 in the upcoming national polls. To achieve that, experts say the BJP will have to repeat its electoral triumph in 2019, in which they won an overwhelming majority of the seats in northern India, including all seven seats in Delhi.

Chowdhury, the commentator, said Kejriwal is the star face of his party. “He’s very politically savvy and in Delhi, the AAP has goodwill — their tie-up with the Congress for the elections would have posed a challenge for the BJP to pull that off again.”

“But the big question is: Will Kejriwal’s arrest galvanize voters? The investigations against opposition leaders so far has not had the kind of traction they may have expected,” Chowdhury said, “but now with this arrest, will public opinion start to turn?”

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