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Will Arvind Kejriwal’s Release on Bail Be a Game Changer for AAP and INDIA?

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Will Arvind Kejriwal’s Release on Bail Be a Game Changer for AAP and INDIA?

The Delhi chief minister’s arrest is not only perceived as evidence of the BJP government’s vindictiveness but also has triggered sympathy for him.

Will Arvind Kejriwal’s Release on Bail Be a Game Changer for AAP and INDIA?

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal (in checked shirt) waves to his supporters following his release from jail on interim bail, New Delhi, India, May 10, 2024.

Credit: X/AAP

When Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was released from jail on interim bail on May 10, it put the wind back in the sails of his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the opposition INDIA coalition.

Kejriwal was arrested in connection with the liquor scam in the capital. His release on Friday came on the orders of the Supreme Court amid a fiercely fought multiphase general election in the country.

With three more weeks of campaigning to go, Kejriwal’s release could boost the prospects of the opposition, which has consistently alleged that the AAP leader’s arrest on March 21 and his 50-day incarceration was yet another attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to crush his political opponents.

Opposition leaders have accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of misusing central investigative agencies to harass opposition leaders in allegedly fraudulent corruption cases. Hemant Soren, who was chief minister of the opposition-ruled state of Jharkhand, was arrested earlier this year in a corruption case and is still languishing in jail.

Observing that the ongoing “general election supplies the force that moves a democracy,” the Supreme Court permitted Kejriwal, a leader of a national party and Delhi chief minister, to campaign in the elections. As part of his bail conditions, Kejriwal has been barred from visiting the office of the chief minister and the Delhi Secretariat.

Within hours of stepping out of prison, Kejriwal addressed a massive crowd of supporters and party workers amid a sea of the party’s yellow and blue flags. He highlighted the dangers of “Modi’s dictatorship” and the need to save democracy in India. Kejriwal warned voters that Modi intended to jail all opposition leaders and ultimately have “one nation, one leader.”

The AAP is a strong grassroots party. It strategically made it a point to leverage Kejriwal’s arrest to garner votes in the ongoing polls. The party launched a campaign titled “Jail ka jawaab, vote se (Answering jail with popular votes) to seek public support. With Kejriwal in jail, his wife Sunita, a former official of the Indian Revenue Service, stepped up to become the party’s star campaigner.

The arrest of a sitting chief minister and leader of an important opposition party made headlines abroad. The German and American governments raised concerns about Kejriwal’s arrest and the health of India’s democratic processes. Several analysts believed that the BJP scored an own goal by arresting Kejriwal, as it opened up space for the AAP leader to play the victim card and gain public support.

The AAP is a relatively new party. It is just over a decade old and emerged out of mass protests against corruption during the United Progressive Alliance regime. Kejriwal’s mass appeal lay in his image as a “common man” (aam aadmi).

In the one decade of its existence, the AAP has formed governments in Delhi and Punjab and has attempted to contest elections in several other states. Kejriwal is the party’s face and its main vote catcher in both Delhi and Punjab. His arrest and subsequent refusal to resign as chief minister, instead fighting the Modi government head on, has increased his popularity within the INDIA coalition. Acknowledging his popularity, several opposition parties have requested Kejriwal to campaign in their states.

Opposition leaders, including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, rejoiced with the news of Kejriwal’s interim bail. She said it would “help in the context of the current elections.”

His release from jail on court orders is a vindication for opposition leaders who have been highlighting the Modi government’s denial of an even playing field to the opposition in this election through its arrests of several leaders.

The AAP’s image, as epitomized by its chief Kejriwal, is that of a combative street fighter. Kejriwal knows how to get under the skin of the BJP and its top leadership. Within 24 hours of his release, Kejriwal put the BJP on the defensive.

Reminding voters that Modi will turn 75 years old in September 2025, Kejriwal said that  Modi is “not seeking votes for himself but for [Union Home Minister and close aide] Amit Shah as the future PM.” He pointed out that Modi had set 75 years as the retirement age for senior BJP leaders like L.K. Advani and Yashwant Sinha before this.

Kejriwal set the cat among the pigeons by asking who the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate would be after Modi retires. He also claimed that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP would be shunted out of office within two months if the BJP came to power. Hitherto, it was widely believed that the saffron-robed Adityanath was Modi’s likely successor.

The BJP has gone blue in the face trying to deny this.

“It is already decided, he [Modi] won’t be replaced,” Shah shot back.

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh jumped in to claim that Modi would be elected to office for the third time and would complete his tenure.

Of late, things have not been looking good for the BJP. The Congress’ manifesto attacking the staggering unemployment and inflation under ten years of Modi rule is resonating with voters. Furthermore, Modi recently made unprecedented attacks on his billionaire businessmen Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, which has put the BJP on the back foot.

The question is whether Kejriwal’s release from jail will be a game-changer for the AAP.

The AAP may be popular in Delhi, having swept assembly elections in the capital. However, it is the BJP that has won all seven parliamentary seats in Delhi since 2014. In fact, in the 2019 general elections, BJP got 57 percent of the vote. Neither the AAP nor the Congress has bagged parliamentary seats in the capital over the past decade.

However, things are looking different this time around. There is huge sympathy for Kejriwal and the AAP in Delhi. People are visibly angry and perceive Kejriwal being sent to jail as evidence of Modi’s vindictiveness.

Moreover, the Congress and the AAP have joined hands as part of the INDIA alliance. Both parties hope that the anti-BJP vote, which used to get fragmented earlier, will consolidate behind them. Burying their acrimonious past to contest elections together is no mean feat for the Congress and AAP.

The AAP is contesting in four constituencies in Delhi and Congress in three.

Interestingly, Kejriwal is working actively with the Congress to ensure the victory of the INDIA bloc. Congress candidate Kanhaiya Kumar, who met Kejriwal after his release, stated on X (formerly Twitter) that they “jointly discussed the strategy for the Delhi seats.” The Delhi chief minister is slated to campaign in Kanhaiya’s constituency as well.

A former bureaucrat turned activist, Kejriwal took to politics to give voice to the angst of the common man. It must be noted that he has never shied away from projecting “soft Hindutva.” Kejriwal publicly celebrates Hindu religious festivals and attempts to court the devout Hindu voter, who is uncomfortable with the BJP’s militant Hinduism. One of the criticisms often leveled at Kejriwal was his silence during the anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in 2020.

Significantly, while Kejriwal is out on interim bail, other senior AAP leaders like Manish Sisodia and Satyender Jain are still in jail, facing what the AAP terms as trumped-up corruption charges by the BJP.

2024 is certainly a year of reckoning for the AAP in Delhi. It needs to cash in on the anger against the BJP and the sympathy for Kejriwal to halt the BJP’s winning streak in elections. Will the Delhi chief minister succeed in trouncing the BJP in the capital? We will know on June 4 when results will be announced.