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Does Arvind Kerjriwal’s arrest signal strained democracy in India?

The dramatic late-night arrest of Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi and chief of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), by the Enforcement Directorate on March 21st has sent shockwaves across India’s political landscape.

Despite the ED seeking a 10-day remand, Kejriwal was remanded to their custody for 6 days until March 28th after being presented before a Delhi court on March 22nd. It marks the first time in the nation’s history that a sitting Chief Minister has been arrested by federal investigative agencies in an alleged corruption case.

The ED accuses Kejriwal of involvement in an excise policy scandal, alleging the AAP government received kickbacks exceeding Rs 100 crore from liquor contractors. The ED on Friday told the Rouse Avenue Court that AAP benefitted out of Delhi liquor policy and used 45 crore from that for Goa elections.

‘As Convenor of AAP, Kejriwal named accused on behalf of the party and arrested’, ED said. His former deputy Manish Sisodia and AAP leader Vijay Nair are already in custody. The ED claimed Kejriwal’s arrest was necessary to unearth the purported ‘proceeds of crime’ from the scam.

However, Kejriwal’s legal team vehemently denied any wrongdoing, terming his arrest a ‘brazen abuse of law’ driven by political vendetta ahead of national elections. They argued the ED lacked direct evidence beyond statements by other accused who were pardoned as ‘approvers’ to potentially implicate Kejriwal.

While entering the court complex CM Kejriwal told reporters ‘My life is dedicated to the country whether I am inside or outside the prison.’ AAP has denied the corruption accusations claiming they were fabricated.

The circumstances surrounding Kejriwal’s dramatic arrest have sparked widespread outrage from opposition parties and constitutional experts. They view it as the latest salvo in the Modi government’s alleged campaign to weaponize agencies like the ED and CBI against political rivals.

In an unprecedented move, other opposition parties have rallied behind Kejriwal, temporarily putting aside their differences with the AAP. Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited Kejriwal’s family, calling Modi a ‘scared dictator’ intent on creating a ‘dead democracy.’

Parties like the Communist Party of India, National Congress Party, and Trinamool Congress have condemned the ‘motivated’ arrest as an attempt to crush dissent and undermine the electoral process.

Concerns over democracy and autocracy

The timing of Kejriwal’s arrest, just weeks before the Lok Sabha elections, has raised serious concerns about the integrity of the electoral process and the state of Indian democracy. The V-Democracy Report 2024 has already flagged India as becoming increasingly autocratic under the Modi government.

The report’s findings seem to be validated by Kejriwal’s arrest, as well as the recent freezing of the Congress party’s bank accounts and the alleged use of central agencies to target opposition leaders.

These actions have fueled fears that the ruling BJP is systematically undermining its political opponents, raising questions about the fairness of the upcoming elections and the future of Indian democracy.

If the Modi government secures a third term, critics warn that India could be on a slippery slope towards autocracy and one-party rule, similar to the systems in Russia and China. The crackdown on opposition leaders, coupled with the capture of key institutions and the alleged extortion of companies, paints a bleak picture of a democracy in decline.

While it remains unclear whether Kejriwal is indeed culpable in the excise policy case, his arrest as a sitting Chief Minister has set a dangerous precedent. It has raised doubts about the impartiality of investigative agencies and the rule of law, further fueling concerns about the BJP’s alleged attempts to eliminate all opposition and establish a de facto one-party state.

With this damning backdrop, Kejriwal’s arrest takes on far graver significance than a routine corruption probe by federal agencies. Coming barely a month before national elections, it feeds into fears that the Modi government is bent on decimating the opposition by any means necessary to entrench its long-term dominance.

Politically calculated moves for crushing opposition

Critics allege the excise policy case reeks of selective prosecution. If the policy was indeed rotten with quid pro quo corruption, surely all beneficiaries should have faced equal investigative zeal? However, only AAP leaders have been arrested while corporate entities from the ‘South lobby’ remain relatively unscathed.

More damningly, Hyderabad-based businessman Sarath Chandra Reddy of Aurobindo Pharma, a key ‘approver’ in the ED’s case, donated a staggering Rs 30 crore to the BJP through electoral bonds soon after his arrest and granting of bail.

It implies a clear conflict of interest and ulterior motives behind the agency’s single-minded pursuit of the AAP leadership.

The V-Dem report’s damning conclusion – that a third consecutive Modi term would potentially make Indian democracy’s regression towards authoritarianism ‘irreversible’ – suddenly appears all too plausible.

Kejriwal’s fate has emerged as a litmus test for whether the world’s largest democracy can still self-correct its democratic regression.

India’s democratic future likely hinges on whether this operational code can still be disrupted, or whether the die is already cast towards inevitable elected autocracy under the weight of the Modi juggernaut.

Kejriwal’s defiant vow to continue governance from jail may be a mere symbolic speed bump in a road already determined. Only time will tell.