National

Weeks Away From Lok Sabha Polls, Can INDIA Unite Over Kejriwal, Soren Arrests?

While the ground is ripe for a united mass movement, analysts feel it might be too little too late for the opposition bloc.

Hardik Chhabra/ The India Today Group via Getty Images
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan with Communist Party of India (CPI) General Secretary D Raja, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann, Secretary-General, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitaram Yechury, Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) President Farooq Abdullah and others. Photo: Hardik Chhabra/ The India Today Group via Getty Images
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The arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ahead of Lok Sabha seemed to galvanise the Opposition leaders into action, giving the fragmenting INDIA alliance bloc an opportunity to find common ground against the ruling BJP. The Aam Aadmi Party chief was “arrested” on March 21 by the Enforcement Directorate amid ongoing investigation into an alleged liquor scam weeks after it arrested JMM leader and Jharkhand chief Hemant Soren on Feb 1 in relation to an alleged land scam. 

Soon after Kejriwal’s arrest, Opposition unity was apparent on social media. Congress leaders including Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, TMC’s Derek O’Brien, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader M K Stalin, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party were among those who slammed the BJP government for using ED and arrests as a pre-poll tactic to “silence” democracy. 

This is what top Opposition leaders have said since the arrest:

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said: "To try and tamper with what was supposed to be a level playing field by arresting somebody who is not just a Chief Minister of a state but also a President of an Opposition party in the fray and at the same time to freeze the bank accounts of principal Opposition party, the Congress, this is for us is completely unacceptable. It is an assault on democracy and it reveals the depths to which this BJP govt of PM Modi will sink, they would rather throw our democracy in the gutter than risk losing the election which they're clearly afraid of losing. This is one more indication of the panic that has set in in the BJP ranks. I urge SC to take suo moto cognizance of the matter."

Taking to Twitter, Rahul Gandhi called the ruling party a “scared dictator” while others questioned the ED’s move to arrest an Opposition leader ahead of elections when the model code of conduct has already been implemented. “Clearly, the arrest of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal is linked to elections. Within days of the Lok Sabha polls announcement, you see a sitting CM and an important partner of opposition alliance, has been arbitrarily arrested by ED. His arrest unfortunately is a part of the process whereby the democratic institution of the country has gradually been eroded,” INDIA-bloc partner Jammu Kashmir National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah told media in Srinagar. 

DMK chief MK Stalin condemned the “egregious assault” on democracy and the party’s workers have been holding protests in support of Kejriwal. Warning the BJP to get ready to “face the people’s wrath,” the TN CM posted, “Ahead of driven by fear of a decade of failures and the imminent defeat, the Fascist BJP Govt sinks to despicable depths by arresting  Delhi CM (Kejriwal), following the unjust targeting of brother Hemant Soren”. He further highlighted how no BJP leaders were “facing any scrutiny” even amid  “relentless persecution of opposition leaders,” which “smacks of a desperate desperate witch-hunt”. 

“Their futile arrests only fuel our resolve, fortifying the #INDIAalliance's march to victory,” Stalin added. 

NCP stalwart Sharif Pawar also took to Twitter to express his solidarity with Kejriwal: “Strongly condemn the vindictive misuse of central agencies to target the opposition, especially as general elections loom. This arrest showcases the depth to which BJP will stoop for power. ‘INDIA’ stands united against this unconstitutional action against #ArvindKejriwal” 

Many of these leaders including Stalin had previously come out in support of Soren. “Thiru Hemant Soren is a blatant display of political vendetta by the Union BJP Govt. Using investigative agencies to harass a tribal leader is a new low,” Stalin had stated. 

Will the arrests of Kejriwal and Soren give the INDIA bloc the much needed plank it needs to unite all its ideologically differing alliance partners from across different states? 

Can the INDIA bloc capitalise on this issue in time for Lok Sabha elections?

The ground is ripe, feel analysts. Nevertheless, the ground is ripe for a mass movement against the BJP. Coming in the backdrop of the electoral bonds controversy, the arrests have the potential to snowball into an ideological agreement between the various INDIA leaders. Perhaps the INDIA bloc parties can take a few lessons from the past. The 1977 electoral defeat of India Gandhi was the result of the coming together of Opposition parties across strands of ideology or politics for a common cause. The end of the Emergency period which saw several Opposition leaders and governments dissidents were indiscriminately jailed and sanctions placed on media, was followed by the nation’s first national coalition government, made up of five parties, four of which had formed the Janata Party, itself a party forged out of alliance. 

Many have indeed likened the current political situation to the Emergency era. Delhi Commission of Women chief Swati Maliwal said, “Arvind Kejriwal arrested, Hemant Soren arrested, Congress Bank Accounts frozen, Election Commissioners resigning, Electoral Bonds scam not being investigated…If this is not a state of emergency, what is?” 

“There is, however, a world of qualitative differences between now and then. Politicians may want to use the term ‘Emergency’ or as a slogan but they have to realise that it doesn’t work,” political analyst Rasheed Kidwai stated.

“The acts by Indira Gandhi which were deemed “unconstitutional” or illegal were proven or declared to be so by the country’s laws, intelligentsia and agencies. Gandhi’s own election was set aside by the Allahabad High Court in 1974 which her critics believe may have led to her decision to implement emergency, thereby freezing all democratic channels. 

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As opposed to that, most of the arrests made under Modi government are backed by law. “The arrests of leaders, even those known to have high integrity like Manish Sisodia, Soren or Kejriwal, are being carried out within the legal framework and the law seems to be against them. Therefore, they are not even able to get bail”. 

There is also a shift in the attitudes of media and civil society. Much of mainstream media, which acted at a watchdog capacity in the 70s and publicly resisted censorship, has today become largely polarised and aligned with the party in power. “Moreover, they have shown not just indifference but have been rather adversarial to the Opposition’s cause,” Kidwai adds. 

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Political scientist Manindra N Thakur states that while the controversy over the arrest might make some of Kejriwal’s voters in Delhi question the ruling party, the on ground situation is not likely to be in favour of INDIA electorally. It would dependson how quickly and effectively the Opposition parties can marshal all their resources and mobilise their individual cadre bases to take to grounds in large numbers. “It is a question of how quickly and unitedly the parties can mobilise their cadres and ensure that their ideas reach the ground,”  says political scientist Manindra N Thakur. There is also the question of ironing out ideological differences and rivalries not just at the leadership level but also between workers pf both parties. 

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Another important aspect, in case of Kejriwal is his own political identity and credibility among his voter bases in Delhi. Thakur, however, feels that it is unlikely as his core voters - the middle class - has been disillusioned with the party due to its apparent fall from moral high ground. A slew of controversies like the Kejriwal house renovation expenses row or the Supreme Court’s denial of bail to Sisodia, have added to loss of credibility for AAP on ground. “AAP’s other voter base which consisted of domestic workers, people with small jobs etc in areas like JJ colony has also been penetrated by the BJP,” he states. In such a scenario, massive on ground mobilisation is unlikely in Delhi. 

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 “The setting is perfect. But the problem is, who will bell the cat? Mallikarjun Kharge, at 83, as Congress President, does not carry that kind of heft. It has to have Sachin Pilot, Priyanka Gandhi, other Opposition leaders to come to the fore and bring things to a standstill, so that the people really see that they are upset,” Kidwai states. The reaction of regional partners will also depend on political aspirations and intent of the regional parties. “The BSP, for instance, is likely to go easy against BJP this time, perhaps in return for an easier run during the assembly elections,” Thakur adds. 

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