Indian Opposition Parties Say They Face Tide of Troubles as Vote Nears


The head of one of India’s leading opposition parties was arrested in dramatic fashion on Thursday, the same day another party said it had been blocked from access to its bank accounts — actions taken by the government of Narendra Modi, critics say, to put his rivals at a disadvantage before a pivotal general election in April.

The leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal, was taken into custody late on Thursday at his home in New Delhi, where hundreds of protesters had gathered to protest his arrest by the federal financial crime agency. Mr. Kejriwal, who is also the chief minister of the national capital region of New Delhi, was arrested on allegations of corruption involving the city’s liquor policy. His party’s leaders say the charges are fraudulent.

Campaigning is heating up for a six-week-long election that starts on April 19 and will determine the next prime minister for the world’s most populous democracy. To run election campaigns from the Himalayan mountains to India’s southern shores, political groups spend billions of dollars in what is seen as one of the world’s most expensive elections.

As the vote gets closer, opposition figures say they are fighting a tide of troubles from the government, including Mr. Modi unleashing the country’s major investigating agencies against them while shielding those who switch to his side.

Among them is Mr. Kejriwal, who had been stuck in a game of cat and mouse with the agents in recent months after at least two of his ministers were sent to jail. More than a dozen officers arrived at his home on Thursday night, and, according to leaders of his party, took away his cellphone and those of family members. He was arrested after hours of questioning.

“The central government wants to finish all opposition parties,” Atishi Marlena, a minister in the Delhi government, said outside Mr. Kejriwal’s residence, referring to Mr. Modi’s government.

She said Mr. Kejriwal was just about to launch the party’s general election campaign.

Mr. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has sought to contain the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party ever since it tried to expand outside the national capital region of New Delhi. The disputed 2021 New Delhi liquor policy apparently offered an opportunity.

Under the policy, the Delhi government allowed private vendors to make all liquor sales in the city, a departure from earlier regulations that permitted a mix of public and private vendors. The central government accuses officials of Mr. Kejriwal’s party of getting kickbacks.

Another politician, Hemant Soren, the chief minister in the eastern state of Jharkhand, was arrested in January after being accused by federal agents of corruption in land dealings. He denied the allegations, handing in his resignation before going to prison.

Mr. Kejriwal’s arrest capped a day of political turmoil in New Delhi, coming soon after India’s largest opposition party accused national authorities of paralyzing its political activities by blocking access to its bank accounts.

Officials with the party, the Indian National Congress, said that eight of its 11 main accounts at four banks had been frozen, and that there was no clear indication of when the party would regain access to the money.

“We can’t support our workers; we can’t support our candidates,” Rahul Gandhi, an Indian National Congress leader, said at a news conference in New Delhi. “Our leaders can’t fly. Forget flying — they can’t take a train.”

“Our ability to fight elections has been damaged,” he said.

The country’s Income Tax Department, which is controlled by Mr. Modi’s government, froze the Congress party’s accounts over its 2017-2018 filings, saying the party had been 45 days late in filing tax returns.

Under Indian law, political groups are exempted from paying income taxes on their funding from individuals and corporations, but must declare their income to the tax authorities each year. The current dispute relates to how heavily the Indian National Congress should be penalized for past irregularities.

The Congress party has acknowledged the returns were late, but argues that freezing its accounts so close to the elections is a heavy-handed political move aimed at crippling India’s main opposition group to make way for one-party rule.

“The idea that India is a democracy is a lie,” Mr. Gandhi said.

Mr. Modi’s officials rejected those claims, describing them as a desperate attempt by a political opposition that is struggling in an election campaign likely to return the Bharatiya Janata Party to power.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, a leader from the governing party, said the tax exemption for any political group remained valid only if the group declared any contributions to the national tax authorities on time.

The issue of political financing has exploded in India in recent weeks. The country’s top court recently forced the government-owned State Bank of India to release a list of all those who had made anonymous political donations through a financing mechanism known as “electoral bonds,” removing a veil of secrecy that opposition groups had long argued was helping those in power.

Mr. Modi’s party received the highest amount of the funds.


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