The Consequences of Arresting Kejriwal

(This column first appeared in The Mint on March 24, 2024)

There might be some people who think like this: The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is an independent investigative body that has gone after some key people in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) purely to rid the nation of corruption. But I personally do not know a single sane person who thinks like this.

The general perception across the nation, no matter whom they are going to vote for, is that Arvind Kejriwal was arrested as a part of the ruling party’s attempt to destroy a rising political foe. Even so, people do think that ED must have some sort of dirt on AAP. Otherwise how can a sitting chief minister of Delhi be arrested from his home, and his former deputy, Manish Sisodia, spend so many months in jail? This brings us to the most baffling part. The ED has almost nothing to show.

The Supreme Court itself said so, though, confusingly, while denying bail to Sisodia who has been in prison since February 2023. The Court had observed that just because policy enriches some people, and it is natural for government policy to benefit some people, it does not automatically prove that politicians had done it for kickbacks. The Court could see that ED could not show the money trail, or the money it claimed AAP’s leaders received. It only has statements of co-accused who had turned approvers.

The liquor policy case has demonstrated the ease with which ED can put away popular politicians in jail under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), and the mysterious reluctance of the courts to grant bail despite the shoddy case of government agencies.

What is the consequence of this extraordinary phase in Indian politics? What is the consequence of the government throwing Kejriwal in jail on corruption charges?

I guess that the BJP’s analysis is that it only stands to gain. The typical BJP supporter is not going to be enraged by the arrest of Kejriwal. But I am certain there are millions of voters who are enraged. People don’t like bullies. Especially in the South. When a man is being bullied, ordinary people are reminded of their own bullies.  Also, even though the BJP is clearly wary of Kejriwal’s charms, it underestimates an aspect of his popularity.

Outside BJP’s core base, and outside the context of electoral politics, people like Kejriwal more than Narendra Modi. In my reading, many of the people who would be voting for Modi are not sure if they like him anymore because he is now a gigantic figure; and many of the people who will not be voting for Kejriwal are fairly certain that they like him as a person.

For instance, on the day the Ram temple in Ayodhya was consecrated, a hardcore BJP supporter told me, with a chuckle, that no one who follows politics is in any doubt that Kejriwal is being harassed. The man would never vote for Kejriwal in any of his rebirths, but he admired him for “understanding” what the average Indian wants  — good education for his children, and free quality healthcare.

The arrest of Kejriwal increases his heft as a politician.

Another consequence of his arrest is not so obvious — the de-intellectualization of the sacredness of institutions. It is now becoming very clear to the average Indian why institutions are important, and this realisation is dawning without the annoying mascots of institutions — the sanctimonious scholars and activists. It is not an easy realisation because from a voter’s point of view the government’s right of way is strong and obvious.

That institutions, like the courts, investigative agencies and the election commission, should be equal counterweights to an elected government contains within its pious posh argument the intellectual’s fight for relevance. A government is an expression of the people; how then can a government fulfil the broad wishes of the people if institutions come in the way? Aren’t institutions, after all, the fiefdom of eggheads and clerks whom people will never elect? In fact, aren’t modern governments in all democratic countries an expression of mass distaste for the intellectual class and bureaucracy? And when the government is unethical, isn’t this after all a reflection of human nature, of a majority condition? How then can scholars and clerks hinder the government elected by the people? And on the question of ethics and morality, what right do some babus have to decide on what is right?

But then Kejriwal’s arrest had amplified what happens when institutions that are meant to be independent collapse. What happens when investigative agencies appear to follow the instructions of an unseen hand.  And what happens when the courts take away the freedoms of politicians on the basis of arguments that are so clumsy they will not clear the desk of a quality newspaper. This government has, inadvertently, done more for the importance of independent institutions, especially the courts, than anyone else.

If it comes to be that the Supreme Court hears Kejriwal’s plea for justice, and he comes to court himself to exploit the occasion as a politician, the ludicrous nature of the money laundry act will be laid bare, and the Court may strike down some its extraordinary powers as illegal. If the Court can deem electoral bonds illegal, a draconian law is easy picking.

If that happens, the Court, and Kejriwal might be able to demonstrate that can be more democracy in unelected institutions than in a government elected by less than 40% of the voters. They might be able to show, and ordinary people might be able see, that an institution is an election of ideas — there is campaigning, persuasion, bias and superstars. Eventually, the fittest idea wins, and the fittest idea is usually the most ethical idea which has considerable public support. There is an aspect of a nation’s moral character cannot be measured by votes, and need not be measured.


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