India’s top court releases jailed Modi opponent on bail

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have been accused of orchestrating a “political conspiracy” by arresting rival party leaders [GETTY]

India’s top court on Friday ordered a jailed opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be released on bail, allowing him to campaign in an ongoing national election.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the capital, Delhi and a key leader in an opposition alliance formed to compete against Modi in the polls, was detained in March over a long-running corruption probe.

He is among several leaders of the bloc under criminal investigation, with one of his colleagues describing his arrest the month before national polls began as a “political conspiracy” orchestrated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Supreme Court Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta said Kejriwal could leave custody until 1 June, the last day of voting in the six-week election.

“No doubt, serious accusations have been made, but he has not been convicted,” their ruling said.

“He does not have any criminal antecedents. He is not a threat to the society.”

Kejriwal’s government was accused of corruption when it implemented a policy to liberalise the sale of liquor in 2021 and give up a lucrative government stake in the sector.

The policy was withdrawn the following year, but the resulting probe into the alleged corrupt allocation of licences has since led to the jailing of two top Kejriwal allies.

Rallies in support of Kejriwal, who has consistently denied wrongdoing and refused to relinquish his post after his arrest, were held in numerous other big cities around India after he was taken into custody.

After the ruling, crowds gathered at the headquarters of his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man Party, to celebrate his impending release with the customary distribution of sweets.

“The Supreme Court has come to the rescue of our constitution and democracy, which are facing an onslaught from the BJP,” Atishi, a minister in Kejriwal’s government who goes by one name, told reporters.

“Kejriwal will be out today and hopefully have dinner at home.”

Kejriwal, 55, has been chief minister for nearly a decade and first came to office as a staunch anti-corruption crusader.

He had resisted multiple summons from the Enforcement Directorate, India’s financial crimes agency, to be interrogated as part of the probe.

His release was conditional on his agreement not to make public comment on the case against him, not to interact with witnesses in the case, and not to visit the offices of the Delhi government.

‘Target political opponents’

Modi’s political opponents and international rights groups have long sounded the alarm on India’s shrinking democratic space.

US think-tank Freedom House said this year that the BJP had “increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents”.

Rahul Gandhi, the most prominent member of the opposition Congress party and scion of a dynasty that dominated Indian politics for decades, was convicted of criminal libel last year after a complaint by a member of Modi’s party.

His two-year prison sentence disqualified him from parliament until the verdict was suspended by a higher court, raising concerns over democratic norms in the world’s most populous country.

Hemant Soren, the former chief minister of the eastern state of Jharkhand, was also arrested in February in a separate corruption probe.

He was denied bail Friday in a separate court ruling by the same judges who ordered Kejriwal’s release.

Kejriwal, Gandhi, and Soren are members of an opposition alliance composed of more than two dozen parties contesting India’s election jointly.

But even without the criminal investigations targeting its most prominent leaders, few expect the bloc to make inroads against Modi, who remains popular a decade after first taking office.

Many analysts see Modi’s reelection as a foregone conclusion, partly because his assertive Hindu-nationalist politics resonates with members of the country’s majority faith.

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