India opposition protests in capital over Kejriwal’s arrest before election

Top leaders of India’s opposition coalition and thousands of supporters have rallied in the capital, decrying “autocracy” in protest against the arrest of a senior colleague ahead of the general election.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi and a key leader in an opposition alliance formed to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was arrested and jailed earlier in March in connection with a long-running corruption probe.

Kejriwal’s government is accused of receiving kickbacks while handing out liquor licences to private companies. A court on Thursday extended Kejriwal’s custody until April 1.

Kejriwal, 55, denies the charges. His Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) says the liquor policy case is fabricated and politically motivated.

India’s main financial investigation agency, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which arrested Kejriwal, has launched probes into at least four other state chief ministers or their family members.

Almost all the investigations involve political opponents of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In January, Hemant Soren, chief minister of the eastern state of Jharkhand, was arrested over corruption charges.

‘Taking the country to ruin’

Several leaders of the two dozen political parties of the INDIA opposition alliance – the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance – addressed the rally on Sunday.

“The country is headed towards autocracy,” Shiv Sena party leader Uddhav Thackeray, a former chief minister of Maharashtra state, told the flag-waving crowd, with many holding up posters showing Kejriwal behind bars as a large numbers of police officers watching.

“This one-man government is taking the country to ruin,” added Thackeray.

Tejashwi Yadav, another prominent opposition leader from Bihar state, accused Modi’s BJP of being “egoistical”.

“Today is the third rally and I want to tell wherever we are going, we are getting support from the people. We have come together to save the constitution,” said Yadav, adding that the biggest problems the country faces are inflation and unemployment.

“We will fight this battle and win,” he said.

D Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, in his address condemned Kejriwal’s arrest.

“Mr Modi, you cannot take the people of India for granted,” he said. “The government is using the Enforcement Directorate, income tax, and all central agencies to target the opposition parties.”

Kejriwal’s wife Sunita read out a message from her jailed husband. “The people of India stand with Arvind Kejriwal. He can’t be kept in jail forever,” she added in her speech.

Nearly a billion Indians will vote to elect a new government in a six-week-long parliamentary election starting on April 19, the largest democratic exercise in the world. The six-phase vote will end on June 1 and the ballots will be counted on June 4.

Many analysts see Modi’s re-election as a foregone conclusion, partly due to the resonance of his assertive Hindu nationalist politics with members of the country’s majority faith.

While Modi enjoys high levels of support, critics accuse him of using law enforcement agencies to intimidate the opposition leaders. All the main leaders of AAP were already imprisoned in the liquor policy case before Kejriwal was arrested.

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