By arresting Kejriwal, Modi govt has created its own nemesis

Arrested politicians can win public sympathy, but they need to get the optics right


The images were grim, menacing. On the night of March 21, a posse of Enforcement Directorate (ED) officials surrounded Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s house. Police arrived, roads were blocked, and a tense atmosphere was created. The CM was arrested that night, and the next morning taken away to custody.

The arrests of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and former Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren earlier, reveal an unprecedented brazenness. Elections had been notified, the Model Code of Conduct was in force and none other than a sitting chief minister was jailed on charges that are more than a year old.

There’s a debate in the media about how the arrests will play out. Is the public mood sympathetic or enraged? So far, it’s difficult to tell. Come voting day, will there be an outpouring of public sympathy to the benefit of Kejriwal and Soren, or will angry voters decide that those accused of corruption have got their just desserts and must be punished?

If Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party do benefit politically from his arrest, the question arises: why then did the Narendra Modi government do it, that too on the eve of polls?

By arresting Kejriwal and Soren, the BJP government has taken a huge gamble. Modi has taken a big risk. The calculation could be that Modi’s own popularity will offset any adverse fallout. Also, the apathy and indifference towards politicians is so pervasive that it’s difficult for any jailed neta today to pose as a martyr. Ironically, it was Kejriwal himself who had, when he was the anti-corruption crusader leading the India Against Corruption agitation in 2011, popularised the phrase “Sab neta chor hai”.

Whether a jailed politician and his or her party can best use the incarceration to win the public’s heart depends on how well he or she is able to swing sentiments. The optics are key.

Rewind to 1977. Indira Gandhi had been defeated earlier that year by the Janata Party. But, by October, sensing that the momentum was once again gathering behind Indira, the Janata Party government arrested her. Indira Gandhi converted her arrest into excellent theatre. Dressed in a stark white sari, she made sure the press gathered to report on her arrest and in front of the cameras, she insisted on being handcuffed. Then she stopped the police van on the road to hold an impromptu press conference, sitting on a roadside culvert looking pained and helpless. The image worked superbly and sympathy for Indira soared across India. Images of Indira Gandhi being hauled off to jail was the moment that sealed the fate of the Janata regime. Within two years, the Janata Party government had fallen, and she was back as prime minister with a two-thirds majority. Indira Gandhi, very skillfully, took full political advantage of her arrest.

AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa and DMK chief Karunanidhi engaged in a cycle of competitive arrests and forming governments, each successfully mopping up public empathy after spells in prison. In 1996, Jayalalithaa was arrested by the DMK government. Surrounded by police, Jayalalithaa presented a picture of striking dignity. Peering out from behind the barred windows of the police vehicle, she looked pensive and solitary and struck an instant chord with crowds. In the 2001 elections, Jayalalithaa roared back to power on a tide of public empathy.

Later that year the Jayalalithaa government arrested then former CM Karunanidhi, the police dragging the then 78-year-old into custody even as he kept crying out in protest. Karunanidhi’s arrest became an extremely powerful image—an ageing leader, shouting in agony as cops pulled and pushed at him from all sides, his clothes half off and glasses askew. This image clicked and gained the veteran sympathy. In the next round of elections held in 2006, the Karunanidhi-led DMK came back to power. Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi by arresting each other also ended up conferring the halo of martyrdom on the other and enabled each other’s return to power.

Today, the Modi government has arrested Hemant Soren and Arvind Kejriwal under the notorious Prevention of Money Laundering Act. PMLA, an absurdly draconian law, does not provide for bail and puts the burden of proving innocence on the accused. The judicial principle of innocent until proven guilty has been turned on its head. Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia has been in jail for an astounding 13 months under PMLA without any charges being framed. No charges have been framed against Kejriwal either.

Arrests of opposition leaders during elections smacks of trying to neutralise opposition parties and paralysing them ahead of polls. The Modi government seems to just want to erase Kejriwal and AAP from the public space.

In fact, the ED’s counsel has argued in court that the whole of the Aam Aadmi Party may be guilty. “As per the PMLA, the definition of a company is wide. It also includes an association of persons. Aam Aadmi Party is also an association of Indian persons,” the ED’s counsel Additional Solicitor General S.V. Raju argued. By trying to declare the whole of AAP guilty, the BJP is not waging war on corruption, instead it is attempting to annihilate the opposition.

After all, if fighting corruption was Modi’s aim, as he keeps declaring it to be, then why do opposition leaders who join the BJP emerge squeaky clean after being bathed in the BJP’s now infamous washing machine? For example, in 2017 the CBI filed an FIR against Suvendu Adhikari, then a minister in the Trinamool Congress government in connection with the Narada allegations. In 2019, the CBI sought sanction to prosecute Adhikari. In 2020, Adhikari joined the BJP. In 2021, when the ED filed a chargesheet on the Narada matter, hey presto, Adhikari’s name went missing from the list!

A recent report showed how, from 2014 onwards, 25 opposition leaders facing probes from investigating agencies joined the BJP and how cases against 23 of them were either stalled or stopped. Today, 95 per cent ED cases are targeted at opposition leaders, showing that politics, not corruption, determines against whom the agency acts.

Whether the public fully rallies behind Kejriwal depends on whether the case against him stands or falters. If charges of a so-called “Delhi liquor scam” don’t stick, Kejriwal will emerge from jail an undoubted hero. Almost all voters would line up behind a three-time CM who has been unfairly imprisoned. Recall how as Gujarat CM, Narendra Modi successfully built his image by playing “victim”, someone hounded by “secularists”.

Governments must thus tread warily in arresting or acting against opposition leaders. In fact, the hasty and rough fashion in which Kejriwal has been treated shows that Modi seems driven by a certain personal animus against the Delhi CM. Today, we know that Kejriwal is being held in Jail No. 2 in Tihar Jail, has lost weight, and even sweeps his own cell with a broom. Sisodia has apparently read 150 books in jail, including the Bhagavad Gita. These reports of quiet fortitude, unbending courage and a united AAP standing steadfast with its leaders may well resonate with voters. By arresting Kejriwal, it’s possible that the Modi government has created its own nemesis, if not today, then in the not-so-distant future.