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Who is Arvind Kejriwal? Opposition politician with a history of rivalry with Modi

Who is Arvind Kejriwal? Opposition politician with a history of rivalry with Modi

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi chief minister and a prominent political rival of Narendra Modi, was arrested on Thursday just weeks ahead of India’s general elections in which the prime minister is seeking a third straight term.

India’s financial crime agency arrested Kejriwal, an anti-corruption campaigner who heads the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party), in connection with graft allegations relating to the capital city’s liquor policy.

Kejriwal is the first serving chief minister to be arrested in India.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is investigating allegations that a liquor policy implemented by the Delhi government in 2022, which ended its control over sale of liquor, gave undue advantages to private retailers. The policy was subsequently withdrawn and the AAP government has said no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged in the investigation.

His arrest comes as a blow to AAP and a broader opposition coalition against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power. Kejriwal plays a pivotal role in an alliance of opposition parties aiming to take on the Modi juggernaut in the April elections that the prime minister is widely expected to win, riding a populist wave.

AAP’s members allege that Kejriwal’s arrest was the BJP’s way to stop him from campaigning in the elections. They accuse the Modi government of misusing its power by wielding federal investigative agencies under its government to intimidate political opponents.

After Kejriwal’s arrest, several protesting AAP affiliates were detained by the police as they attempted to proceed towards the municipal court where Kejriwal was slated for an appearance.

“This is a way to steal elections,” says Delhi finance minister Atishi, who uses only one name.

Who is Arvind Kejriwal?

More than a decade ago, Kejriwal, a former tax collector from East Delhi and a prominent figure in the Indian anti-corruption movement, emerged as a disruptive force in Indian politics, challenging corruption within the nation’s political, government, and business sectors.

From a non-descript, humble office in the city, Kejriwal accused various high-profile individuals, including members of India’s leading political families and parties, of corruption, utilising the Right to Information Act and whistleblower information as his arsenal.

Despite not leading to formal investigations, his accusations received extensive media coverage and stirred a public discourse on corruption.

The federal government and the BJP refute any allegations of political meddling, stating that law enforcement agencies were merely carrying out their duties. All the main leaders of AAP are in jail in connection with the liquor case.

Kejriwal, who started out in politics with the intention of directly challenging and changing the political establishment, has been called an opportunist as well as a naive idealist by his rivals. Observers note that his strategy and the establishment of his political party a decade ago represented a courageous effort to revolutionise Indian politics from the inside, targeting systemic reform to address the widespread issue of corruption.

“Without jumping into the system, it will be impossible to clean up the system. We are going to challenge this political system on a daily basis,” Kejriwal said as he began his political journey.

Kejriwal’s history of rivalry with Modi

If there is any opposition member that prime minister Modi “is scared of, it is Kejriwal”, says Atishi, who was among the AAP politicians who were detained on Friday. “If necessary, he will run the government from jail,” she says.

This is not the first time Kejriwal has locked horns with BJP.

He assumed the role of Delhi’s chief minister for the first time in 2013 for 49 chaotic days before resigning, frustrated by obstacles put in the way of an anti-corruption bill that his party wanted to table in parliament. He said the country’s entrenched political parties were not letting him govern.

His decision to resign was seen as a strategic move, casting him as a principled politician who prioritised the fight against corruption over holding onto power. This led to a comprehensive win in the 2015 Delhi assembly elections.

The rivalry between the BJP and the AAP began nearly simultaneously, with the BJP winning a significant majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the AAP securing a landmark victory in Delhi by claiming 67 out of 70 assembly seats in 2015.

Indian Rapid Action force soldiers stand outside Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man's Party, leader Arvind Kejriwal's residence (AP)
Indian Rapid Action force soldiers stand outside Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man's Party, leader Arvind Kejriwal's residence (AP)

Prior to this, Kejriwal had already set the stage for the ongoing conflict by challenging and losing to Modi in Varanasi, an ancient Hindu holy city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The state sends the most number of lawmakers to parliament.

But AAP’s focus on healthcare, schools and subsidies on power and water bills – benefiting the poor the most – gained traction in Delhi, Punjab and some parts of Gujarat, Modi’s home state.

In 2018 India’s Supreme Court upheld the powers of the chief minister of Delhi in a win for Kejriwal’s political party embroiled in a protracted fight with Modi’s government.

Under India’s political system, Delhi has a unique position in which the federal government controls the state police and oversees land issues while the local government is in charge of the general upkeep of the capital of some 19 million people. But Kejriwal’s party sought more powers and operational autonomy to govern the city ever since it beat Modi’s party in the stunning election upset in the capital in 2015.

It accused Modi’s party of trying to interfere in Delhi’s governance through the federally appointed lieutenant governor.

“The BJP controls officers and staff in Delhi…. officers are being called and threatened that they will be suspended if they work for the AAP government. They brought an ordinance to nullify the Supreme Court order which said AAP will control services. The finance department is not giving payment to the Delhi Jal Board. Sewer lines are overflowing and people are facing a water crisis,” Kejriwal said at that time.

In February Kejriwal said that his party, and not the century-old Congress, was the main challenger to the BJP, especially for the 2029 election.

File. Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, waves from a truck as he campaigns for the Gujarat state elections in Ahmedabad, India, Thursday, 1 December 2022 (AP)
File. Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, waves from a truck as he campaigns for the Gujarat state elections in Ahmedabad, India, Thursday, 1 December 2022 (AP)

In response to what it termed a targeted campaign by the federal government to dismantle the party, the AAP initiated a campaign in December last year to gather public support in Delhi.

Manish Sisodia – once the deputy chief minister of Delhi from AAP – was already in jail for corruption and money laundering charges connected to Delhi’s liquor rules. Kejriwal was also under scrutiny, with ED summoning him for questioning in the same case.

File. Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during a public rally in Guwahati on 2 April 2023. Indian authorities arrested prominent opposition politician and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on 21 March 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)
File. Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal speaks during a public rally in Guwahati on 2 April 2023. Indian authorities arrested prominent opposition politician and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on 21 March 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

Through the campaign, titled “Mai Bhi Kejriwal” (I am Kejriwal), AAP sought to rally public opinion by questioning Delhi residents on whether the CM should resign or lead from jail if arrested. The campaign was aimed at highlighting the BJP’s alleged vendetta against them ahead of the upcoming elections.

This heightened the ongoing clashes and political disagreements between the Delhi government under Kejriwal and the federal government, with both parties entrenched in an extended blame game.