The CBI Sunday arrested Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia in connection with alleged corruption in the now-scrapped excise policy relating to the sale of alcohol, in a move that could plunge the city into a governance crisis and further widen the political rift between the AAP and the BJP-led Centre. Sisodia's arrest, one of the most high-profile actions against an opposition leader, comes after that of Satyendar Jain, Delhi's then-health minister, in June last year. Both ministers have led what the Aam Aadmi Party describes as the successful transformation of Delhi's education and health services, contributing to the party's popularity and continued electoral success.
Their absence in the government would leave Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with no heavyweight lieutenant to implement his governance agenda in Delhi. Sisodia was arrested after nearly eight hours of questioning on various aspects of the excise policy for 2021-22, which the probe agency says suffered from irregularities both in its formulation and implementation, allegedly intended to benefit people with links to the AAP. The CBI investigators were not satisfied with Sisodia's answers, an official said, adding he was not cooperating in the probe and avoided clarifications sought on crucial points.
"He gave evasive replies and did not cooperate in the investigation despite being confronted with evidence to the contrary. Therefore, he has been arrested," the CBI said in a statement. Security has been beefed up at several locations because of anticipated protests by Aam Admi Party workers following the deputy chief minister's arrest. Reacting to the development, Kejriwal said his deputy was innocent and termed the arrest "dirty politics"."Manish is innocent. His arrest is dirty politics. It has angered people quite a lot. People are watching everything. People now understand everything and will give reply to this. It will boost our spirit and our struggle will only get stronger," Kejriwal said in a tweet in Hindi.
"It is a black day for democracy," the AAP said while claiming that Sisodia was innocent and had been arrested due to vendetta politics, a charge rejected by the BJP which said the law was taking its course. The BJP alleged that AAP leaders had failed to explain several questionable actions in the Delhi excise policy matter, and said that agencies do not work on emotion but look into technicalities. While the Delhi Congress demanded that Kejriwal should also be arrested and called him the "mastermind", the Trinamool Congress took a swipe at the BJP, saying only agencies like the CBI and the ED remain its "true allies".
In a statement, the CBI said Sisodia was issued a notice under CrPC section 41A to attend the investigation on February 19. "He sought time of one week citing his preoccupation. Accepting his request, he was issued a notice for attending the investigation on February 26 for answering various questions evaded by him during his examination on October 17, 2022, and further questions relating to his incriminating role based on evidence collected during the investigation of the case," the agency said. The CBI had found that profit margins of liquor wholesalers were increased from five percent to 12 percent in the new excise policy on the insistence of the 'South Lobby', a coterie of politicians and liquor businessmen who allegedly swung the policy in their favor.
It is alleged that a group of ministers was of the view to cap profit margins to five percent which was also the crux of the draft policy, sources said. A report of the expert committee on excise policy was also completely changed by constituting a GoM in a "calculated manner" by "concealing" an earlier note for the council of ministers in support of the expert committee, they alleged. Officials said Sisodia was subjected to questions related to these issues which he was evading. Before leaving for a second round of questioning by the CBI, Sisodia had, earlier in the day, expressed apprehension that he may be arrested.
"I can go to jail several times and I am not afraid. When I left my job as a journalist, my wife supported me. Even today, my family is standing by my side. My workers will take care of my family if I get arrested," Sisodia told reporters at Raj Ghat. Sisodia, who also holds the finance portfolio, was summoned last Sunday but he sought deferment of his questioning citing the ongoing Budget exercise, following which, the CBI had asked him to appear on February 26. This was the second round of questioning of Sisodia after the agency registered a case on August 17 last year. He was quizzed on October 17 last year. The AAP leader will be put through a routine medical examination Monday by a government doctor, officials said. He will spend the night in the lock-up and will be produced before a designated court Monday.
Kejriwal and his Punjab counterpart Bhagwant Mann visited Sisodia's residence to meet his family members after the arrest. Kejriwal said the AAP will take responsibility for the family of Manish Sisodia, as his wife has been suffering from multiple sclerosis. "Bhagwant Mann and I met the wife of Manish Sisodia, who has been suffering from multiple sclerosis, and assured her that we will look after them. We told her not to worry as her husband is innocent and is fighting for the country," Kejriwal said. Mann said, "We are not afraid of the misuse of CBI and ED by the Union government and will continue to serve the people without any fear."
"Sisodia's arrest is an insult to the education of lakhs of children of Delhi... Sending the one who builds schools to jail is part of the BJP's agenda," he tweeted. AAP MP Sanjay Singh said Sisodia's arrest is the "height of dictatorship" while party spokesperson Atishi said the arrest was made due to the growing popularity of the party and Kejriwal. But BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra targeted Sisodia, saying he must be the only education minister who is involved in a liquor scam, and added the entire episode is an eye-opener and shocking. He termed Sisodia a "liquor minister" and accused him of several irregularities including a hike in commission for wholesalers to make money for his party through the backdoor.
Probe agencies, he said, do not work on emotion but look into technicalities and the AAP never answered technical questions about the excise policy its government had brought in the national capital. Patra said Delhi minister Satyendar Jain, arrested by the ED in a money laundering case, has been rejected bail as there is merit in the case against him despite the AAP's claim of his innocence. The BJP believes that there is merit in the case against Sisodia, Patra said, adding the AAP is "doing drama". "Manish Sisodia, you played with the future of children," he charged.
The BJP leader also rejected the allegation that politics was behind Sisodia's arrest, saying probe agencies and parties are two separate entities. Sisodia arrived at the CBI headquarters along with his supporters who were stopped at the barricades raised by Delhi Police. The concrete and glass CBI headquarters was turned into an impregnable fortress by Delhi Police by raising four layers of barricades and several personnel on the JLN Stadium Road since 1 am, officials said. Media personnel and everyday passersby were stopped at the SCOPE Complex gate, around 500 meters from the CBI Headquarters, to prevent any protests or breakdown of law and order.
Sisodia, who also held the charge of the Excise department, was not mentioned as accused in the charge sheet filed in the case on November 25 last year. According to officials, the CBI had not named Sisodia in the charge sheet as the central probe agency kept the probe open against him and other suspects and accused. In the FIR, the CBI has booked him under IPC sections 120-B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) and 477A (falsification of accounts) and provisions of the Prevention Of Corruption Act including Section 7 (taking undue advantage to influence a public servant by corrupt or illegal means or by the exercise of personal influence).
Along with Sisodia, the CBI had also named Arva Gopi Krishna, the then commissioner (excise); Anand Tiwari, the then deputy commissioner (excise); Pankaj Bhatnagar, assistant commissioner (excise); Vijay Nair, former CEO, Only Much Louder, an entertainment and event management company; Manoj Rai, ex-employee of Pernod Ricard; Amandeep Dhal, director, Brindco Sales Pvt. Ltd; Sameer Mahendru, managing director, Indospirit Group, as accused in the FIR. It is alleged that the Delhi government's excise policy for 2021-22 to grant licenses to liquor traders favored certain dealers who had allegedly paid bribes for it, a charge strongly refuted by the AAP. The policy was later scrapped.
"It was further alleged that irregularities were committed including modifications in Excise Policy, extending undue favors to the licensees, waiver/reduction in license fee, the extension of L-1 license without approval, etc."It was also alleged that illegal gains on the count of these acts were diverted to concerned public servants by private parties by making false entries in their books of accounts," a CBI spokesperson had said. Recently, the CBI arrested Butchibabu Gorantla, a former chartered accountant of K Kavitha, a BRS MLC in Telangana, and a daughter of Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao.
Babu had allegedly met several accused named in the FIR in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai and was one of the prime negotiators from the South Lobby, which wanted to swing policy in its favor. The CBI had also questioned Kavitha in December last year. During its probe, the CBI had found evidence that Babu acted on behalf of the South Lobby comprising the Telangana MLC, Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party MP Magunta Srinivasulu Reddy, and Aurobindo Pharma's P Sarat Chandra Reddy.