National ambitions to anti-corruption card: Manish Sisodia’s arrest hurts Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP in more ways than one

Manish Sisodia is the second AAP minister in Delhi to be arrested in a case of alleged corruption after Satyendar Jain.

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia. (PTI Photo/File)
Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia. (PTI Photo/File)

Arresting a formidable opponent on some flimsy ground and then throwing the book at him is a rather common tactic governments have used to keep notorious criminals and political adversaries in check. Manish Sisodia’s case, however, stands in stark contrast. While AAP’s rise may have turned it into a disquieting adversary for the ruling BJP, the timing of Sisodia’s arrest and the charges against him cannot be dismissed as insubstantial.

On Sunday, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested Sisodia on graft charges in the Delhi liquor policy ‘scam’ case. According to the agency, the arrest was made after Sisodia, who had appeared before it for questioning, “did not cooperate with the investigators”, warranting his custodial interrogation. He was scheduled to be produced before a special CBI court at 1 PM on Monday.

AAP’s credentials hit?

For all his bravado, Kejriwal and his party know how significant Sisodia’s arrest is for them. The second tallest Aam Aadmi Party leader, Sisodia is the second AAP minister in Delhi to be arrested in a case of alleged corruption after Satyendar Jain who has been lodged at Tihar jail for the past 9 months on charges of alleged money laundering in a case being probed by the ED.

Like in the ED’s case against Jain, AAP claims that the CBI has no proof to implicate Sisodia in the liquor policy case. The BJP, however, has repeatedly questioned the AAP’s claims and wondered why Jain has failed to secure bail if he is innocent. In Sisodia’s case too, the BJP maintains that the law will take its own course. The arrest of two if its ministers will add significant heft to the BJP’s narrative challenging AAP’s claims of being a “kattar imaandaar” party ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.

The clear and present danger

The timing of Sisodia’s arrest could not have come at a worse time for Kejriwal who needs to address two challenges immediately. The first relates to the Delhi Budget, with the Assembly session expected to begin in a few days. Sisodia who handles the Finance portfolio was scheduled to present the Budget and had also cited Budget preparation as the reason when he sought a week’s time to appear before the CBI earlier this month. He handles 18 departments, including Finance.

The second, and possibly the bigger challenge before the Delhi Chief Minister is to decide whether to allot the ministries handled the Sisodia and Jain to other ministers, or continue with an even diminished strength of the cabinet. Rules allow for the Cabinet to have seven ministers, including the CM. The other ministers besides Kejriwal, Sisodia and Jain are Kailash Gahlot, Gopal Rai, Raaj Kumar Anand and Imran Hussain.

While functioning at a diminished strength will be a bigger challenge for the Kejriwal government now, it is unlikely to favour replacing Sisodia and Jain for fear of being seen as abandoning them. The AAP government retained Satyendar Jain despite his imprisonment. There is no apparent reason to believe it would act differently in Sisodia’s case.

AAP’s governance woes

The timing of Sisodia’s arrest could not have come at a worse time for AAP. Its anti-corruption credentials are already under scanner in Delhi. And troubles are mounting for AAP in Punjab, the sole state where it is in power besides Delhi. The Bhagwant Mann-led government in the border state is facing fire from the Opposition over the “deteriorating law and order situation” in the state.

The Ajnala incident and the emergence of pro-Khalistani leader Amritpal Singh, have brought massive embarrassment to the AAP government in Punjab. More so after the government buckled to the demands of Amritpal and his supporters who attacked the Ajnala police station, leaving six police personnel seriously injured. The Punjab Police on Thursday announced it would release Amritpal’s close aide Loverpreet Singh ‘Toofan’ moments after the ‘Waris Punjab De’ chief issued a one-hour ultimatum. Toofan was released the very next day.

The actions of the Punjab government have magnified the skepticism that AAP has faced all along – its ability to govern a large state. The narrative will be even tough to beat when it faces the onslaught of the Congress and the BJP in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

National ambitions: End of the road?

The development also casts a dark shadow on the national ambitions that Kejriwal and Sisodia together harboured for AAP. Having bagged the national party tag despite its dismal outing in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, the AAP had dug in its heels to expand nationally and test the waters in the coming Lok Sabha elections.

AAP has made no two bones about its plans to displace the Congress and emerge as the primary challenger to Narendra Modi and the BJP on the national level. On its part, the party can claim victory and vindication if Sisodia manages to walk out on bail ahead of the general elections. However, with the sword of arrest in the Feedback Unit case already dangling over his head, freedom could be easier said than done.

AAP can cry vendetta and play victim all it wants, but Kejriwal would know the damage Sisodia’s incarceration would do to AAP’s national prospects not just in terms of perception, but also its position among Opposition parties.

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First published on: 27-02-2023 at 15:30 IST
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