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India arrests Delhi chief minister as crackdown on opposition spreads

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NEW DELHI — Indian law enforcement officials on Thursday arrested Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and an up-and-coming opposition leader, in an alleged money-laundering case that his supporters say has been trumped up by the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, which rules the Indian capital and the state of Punjab, is the second opposition party chief to be arrested in recent weeks after Hemant Soren, the leader of Jharkhand state, was taken into custody in January over an alleged land scam.

Since 2022, Kejriwal and his allies have been accused by the BJP of selling liquor licenses and receiving kickbacks from vendors in the capital. India’s Enforcement Directorate, which investigates money laundering, has alleged it has evidence that Kejriwal’s party received millions from a liquor group.

While Kejriwal’s role and culpability in the affair remains unclear — Kejriwal has denied wrongdoing — opposition parties in recent months have increasingly accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP of unfairly using federal investigative agencies to systematically pressure political rivals — or jail them outright ahead of crucial national elections that begin April 19. Aside from Kejriwal, three other leaders in his party, seen as a potent future challenger to the BJP in national politics, have been jailed in the past year in the liquor case.

The Indian National Congress, another opposition party, has similarly accused the BJP of using tax agencies to cripple its operations ahead of upcoming elections. On Thursday, Rahul Gandhi, a Congress leader, told a news conference that his party has not been able to access any funds for the past month, or “even buy a rail ticket,” because its bank accounts have been frozen by the government as part of a years-old tax case.

After news of Kejriwal’s arrest broke, Gandhi condemned the government’s move as autocratic.

Kejriwal’s AAP said late Thursday that it would challenge his arrest in the Supreme Court as his supporters flocked to his Delhi residence, blocked roads, and occasionally tussled with police. Speaking to television reporters outside his home, Kejriwal’s party colleagues said the Enforcement Directorate’s investigation was a ploy by Modi to prevent Kejriwal from campaigning in the upcoming election.

“It is clear to everyone who is afraid of a loss in the upcoming election,” AAP official Somnath Bharti told reporters. “Is this free and fair? Opposition leaders are being imprisoned, bank accounts of opposition parties are being frozen.”

BJP officials, meanwhile, doubled down on their accusations of Kejriwal’s alleged corruption and called the arrest justified.

While the BJP is viewed as the most popular in India and Modi is widely expected to win a third term in the upcoming polls, his Hindu nationalist party’s monopoly over the state machinery and its outsized dominance in campaign financing has raised intense public debate about the fairness and vigor of Indian elections.

This month, a landmark Indian Supreme Court judgement forced the government to reveal detailed records about an opaque campaign financing scheme that allowed Indian companies to give unlimited and anonymous campaign contributions. The data showed that the BJP had received more than half of the roughly $2 billion in donations made by companies since 2018 — or more than what 20 other parties combined received — leading some in the opposition to cry foul.

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.

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