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India’s top court grants opposition leader bail, enabling him to campaign in elections

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May 10, 2024

India’s Supreme Court on Friday granted interim bail to a top opposition leader who was arrested nearly seven weeks ago in a bribery case that opposition parties called a political move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government against his rivals during a national election.

Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man’s Party, is the chief elected official in the city of New Delhi and one of the country’s most influential politicians of the past decade.

The court ordered Kejriwal’s release on interim bail, enabling him to campaign in the country’s national election until the voting ends on June 1, Kejriwal’s attorney said.

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Opposition leaders hailed the court verdict. “It will be very helpful in the context of the current elections,” said Mamta Banerjee, the top elected official of West Bengal state.

However, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, a leader of the ruling party, said the court’s decision did not mean that Kejriwal has been exonerated in the bribery case. He will have to go back to jail on June 2 as pre-trial court proceedings are still taking place.

Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta said in their order on Friday that the national election was an important event. They rejected the prosecuting agency’s plea that their decision would put Kejriwal in a beneficial position compared with ordinary citizens.

They did, however, imposed some conditions on Kejriwal for granting interim bail. He will not be allowed to visit his office and some decisions he makes as chief minister of New Delhi must be approved by the capital’s governor. Also, he cannot interact with any witnesses in the case, they said.

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Kejriwal was arrested by the federal Enforcement Directorate, India’s main financial investigation agency, on March 21. The agency, controlled by Modi’s government, accused Kejriwal’s party and ministers of accepting 1 billion rupees ($12 million) in bribes from liquor contractors nearly two years ago. The arrest triggered days of protests by party activists supported by other opposition parties.

Kejriwal, who has remained New Delhi’s chief minister, has denied the accusations. His party is part of a broad alliance of opposition parties called INDIA, which is the main challenger to Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s six-week-long general election, which began last month.

Kejriwal’s case was the first time that a chief minister in India was arrested while in office. His arrest, which occurred before the start of the election, dominated headlines for weeks.

His lawyer, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, said he was a serving chief minister and not a “habitual offender” and deserved to be released to campaign. Kejriwal’s deputy, Manish Sisodia, was also arrested in the case earlier, weakening his party’s campaign in national elections.

The Enforcement Directorate opposed his bail, saying that releasing Kejriwal to campaign would indicate that there were different judicial standards for politicians and other citizens.

“The right to campaign for an election is neither a fundamental right nor a constitutional right and not even a legal right,” it said, adding that Kejriwal is not a candidate in these elections.

Kejriwal’s party is the main challenger to Modi’s governing BJP in the Indian capital New Delhi and Punjab state where voting will take place on May 25 and June 1 respectively.

The national elections that started on April 19 are due to conclude on June 1. Votes will be counted on June 4.

While the federal agency accused Kejriwal of being a key conspirator in the liquor bribery case, the opposition parties said the government was misusing federal investigation agencies to harass and weaken its political opponents. They pointed to a series of raids, arrests and corruption investigations of key opposition figures.

Kejriwal called his arrest a “political conspiracy” to prevent him from campaigning, and accused the Enforcement Directorate of “manipulating investigative agencies for political motives.”

Modi’s party denies using law enforcement agencies to target the opposition and says the agencies act independently.

Kejriwal, a former civil servant, launched the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012. He promised to rid the Indian political system and governance of corruption and inefficiency.

The party’s symbol — a broom — and its promise to sweep the administration of graft struck a chord with Delhi residents, fed up with runaway inflation and slow economic growth.

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