OPN Manish Sisodia
CBI brings Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia to Rouse Avenue Court, in New Delhi on Monday. He was arrested on Sunday by CBI in an Excise Policy case. Image Credit: ANI

What with the 2024 general elections gradually taking centre stage, it is open season in Indian politics when it comes to political skirmishes and slugfests. “Corruption” is the favourite war cry of the ruling party, especially when it is hurled at opposition leaders.

“Vendetta politics” is the opposition’s usual response, as it accuses the government of using powerful law and order agencies, such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED), against its opponents.

Accusations and allegations fly thick and fast not just across the treasury and opposition benches within the parliament and state assemblies. Sometimes even coming down not just to unparliamentary language, but jostling and shoving, throwing sheaves of paper, storming the well of the house, if not downright fisticuffs.

Charges and counter charges are also traded in the public sphere, even on city streets and the country at large. Indian politics is thus a never-rending spectacle, a theatre with many fascinating actors, a continuous carnival.

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Ruling party vs opposition

The latest in the unfolding drama of ruling party vs opposition is the arrest and judicial remand of Manish Sisodia, the Deputy Chief Minister of the National Capital Territory of Delhi and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader.

Sisodia, who is considered second only to party supremo and Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, in the party hierarchy, is in charge of over half of portfolios. His arrest is therefore seen as both a political and administrative setback to AAP.

In fact, Sisodia runs 18 of the 33 departments of the state, including Finance, Education, Tourism, Public Works Department, Excise, Labour, Planning, Land & Building, Services, Art, and Culture, among others. Kejriwal is severally short-staffed, especially with the state budget due in March.

If Sisodia’s incarceration is extended, the party will have to find rapid replacements so that the state administration is not seriously handicapped. Some speculate that Sisodia’s arrest is a prelude to Kejriwal’s own detention. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is merely testing the political waters with AAP’s number two, Sisodia.

The BJP already bared its fangs when they arrested Delhi’s former health minister, Satyendar Jain, last year in a money laundering case. Jain is still in jail. With the famously sluggish, some would say, crawling pace of India’s judiciary, it is commonly believed that process itself is the punishment.

OPN Manish Sisodia
Members of Aam Aadmi Party stage a protest against the arrest of Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia (not pictured) in New Delhi on February 27, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

The conviction rates of politicians, who are frequently charged with breaking some law or other, even occasionally arrested, being abysmally low, it is not the ultimate verdict that is as important as enduring the months spent out of commission during the lapidary judicial proceedings.

A credibility problem

In AAP’s case, however, Sisodia’s arrest poses an additional credibility problem. AAP came to power riding on a hugely popular anticorruption wave in 2011. To find themselves and their key functionaries targeted for corruption in just over a decade does not bode well for the party.

If the party and its leaders are seen as tainted with fiduciary depravities, they will lose their original USP and sheen. In Sisodia’s case, one of his own departments, ironically, was Vigilance.

What was Sisodia’s fault and how was he indicted? It all started on July 8, 2022, when Delhi’s Chief Secretary, Naresh Kumar, the top bureaucrat in the state, turned whistle blower against AAP’s changed 2021-22 Excise Policy. The nub of the matter was the highly lucrative liquor licensing policy in Delhi.

Kumar red-flagged deviations from standard procedures in his 5-page report to the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Vinai Kumar Saxena.

Saxena turned the matter over to the Vigilance Department, which within two weeks, found several “arbitrary and unilateral decisions” by the Excise Department that resulted in “huge financial losses to the exchequer.”

Furthermore, it was alleged that “kickbacks … received by the AAP Delhi government and AAP leaders” were used to “influence” the Assembly elections in Punjab 2022. One of the many departments that Sisodia controlled was Excise.

That is how his neck came into the noose of the investigative agencies. Sisodia’s popularity in state is considerable, attributed largely to his reforms in Delhi’s public school system.

In addition, in Punjab, the second state which they rule, AAP has been associated with pro-Khalistan lobbies. In a recent outbreak, Amritpal Singh, newly anointed head of “Waris Punjab De” (The Heirs of Punjab), led a large mob against the Punjab police.

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In separate incidents, they waved swords and lathis (large sticks) in hand-to-hand combat with the law enforcement officers and even stormed into a police station. The provocation was the arrest of an associate of Amritpal, Lovepreet Singh alias “Toofan” (storm).

Lovepreet was released from custody, all charges dropped. When he was let free, Lovepreet hailed Amirtpal as “Jarnail” or general, a chilling reminder of Khalistani separatist Bhindaranwale, who arguably mounted the most dangerous and violent internal rebellion against the Indian government in the sensitive border state of Punjab.

According to an Indian Express report, the CBI’s targeting of opposition leaders has gone up from 60% in the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to 95% under the BJP. Worse, according to the report, when opposition leaders under the CBI scanner join the BJP, the charges come to be mysteriously dropped.

Advantage BJP?

The investigative agency’s comeback that the CBI’s raids on opposition leaders are “merely a coincidence” will do little to convince those, such as Sisodia who has repeatedly affirmed his innocence, let alone assure the general public.

The struggle over Sisodia’s arrest has hit the streets, with AAP cadres blockading the BJP headquarters, holding protests, and giving press conferences hitting back at the ruling party on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged links with the business house Adani, whose stock has come under enormous selling pressure after the hit job by short-seller Hindenburg. But while Adani, who was the world’s second richest man just weeks back, has slid down to number 38, Modi’s popularity continues to be sky high.

Nobody knows whether Sisodia will actually be convicted. Instead, most believe that politics is a dirty business in which it is impossible to be perfectly clean. What remains to be seen, however, is who comes out on top in the political tussle over Sisodia’s arrest.

On Tuesday afternoon, team Sisodia, backed by top lawyer and Congress leader, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, approached the Supreme Court for relief. India’s apex court declined to interfere in the case.

The Chief Justice, DY Chandrachud, said, “This is regarding prevention of corruption act … Our doors are open, but we are not ready to entertain. This will be a very bad precedent.”

Both Sisodia and Jain, AAP’s two tainted ministers, have tendered their resignations. At the end of round one, it certainly looks as if it is advantage BJP.