Democracy on a ventilator

A contest with several opposition leaders behind bars is not a fair election

Arvind Kejriwal at Delhi's Rouse Avenue Court (photo: PTI)
Arvind Kejriwal at Delhi's Rouse Avenue Court (photo: PTI)

Haresh Jagtiani

The Enforcement Directorate (ED), now widely believed to be the hand-maiden of the BJP, arrested Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal for his government’s excise policy, which it claims was formulated to favour a few.

The ‘few’ that the policy supposedly benefited, the ED claims, paid Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Rs 100 crore as a bribe, which the AAP allegedly utilised for its election campaigns in Goa and other states. It argues that the proceeds of crime were thus laundered for electoral purposes, attracting the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).

Kejriwal was arrested from his residence on 22 March and remanded to ED custody. On 1 April, he was remanded to judicial custody till 15 April after the ED complained that he was being uncooperative.

By all accounts, the evidence justifying the arrest in the case — in which a trial is yet to commence and for which a chargesheet is yet to be filed — is that one or more would-be approvers allegedly said that Kejriwal received the bribe. Kejriwal’s defiance in ignoring repeated ED summonses was a sign of his complicity, the ED claimed, and hence necessitated his arrest.

Not to be missed is the timing of the arrest, on the eve of the crucial Lok Sabha elections. The question that’s screaming for an answer is: what does this episode portend? Was the arrest of Arvind Kejriwal legally justified? Even if you begin with the premise that all politicians are dishonest, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’.

It is the function and responsibility of every political party in power to legislate fiscal policies; merely because such a policy benefits or may provide an advantage to a section of the public cannot by itself be construed as the genesis or the commission of a predicate offence, the proceeds from which fall within the purview of the PMLA.

The evidence disclosed so far is flimsy, suspect and appears to be motivated. There is no concrete evidence to substantiate any allegation of movement of funds from the ‘beneficiaries’ of the liquor policy to the coffers of AAP. It is now up to the judiciary to set matters right and order the release of Kejriwal on bail at the earliest. Lamentably, the bail jurisprudence in India is by and large dismal and heavily favours the State and the prosecution.

Courts often use denial of bail as a means to anticipate a suspect’s punishment (with women being somewhat privileged by statute in this regard), on the unacknowledged grounds that the actual trial may be inordinately delayed. The courts thereby deny the accused the right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

Suffice it to say the judicial system, especially the lower courts, can be manipulated by a more influential litigant to the disadvantage of his less influential adversary. In a Modi versus Kejriwal contest, the outcome is pre-determined. Kejriwal can be kept out of the electoral fray by merely ensuring that he’s denied bail. So, what happens to fair and free elections when the national leader of a national party is kept out of the race?

Democracy cries out for a ventilator. But who’s in charge of this life-sustaining device? At the moment, it would seem the government, or perhaps more accurately, Modi, but it’s imaginable that circumstances might still wrench his hand away from the switch.

First, the entire Opposition, including Mamata Banerjee and the Left, must sink their differences and fight a joint electoral war against the BJP. They indeed came together at the Ramlila Ground in solidarity with Kejriwal and with the stated intent to “save democracy”. Ideally, they should ensure that not a single Lok Sabha seat witnesses a triangular contest. The BJP has 36 per cent of the nation’s votes. The balance 64 per cent of voters, if not entirely disenchanted, are certainly not enamoured of the ruling party.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the judiciary — particularly the Supreme Court — must remain fiercely independent. Kejriwal must get timely bail, if only in the interest of fair elections. Even if a court granting bail to Kejriwal extracts an undertaking from him that after the elections he would again surrender to the ED, so be it. That would at least avoid the exclusion of a national party from the electoral fray, which would ring the death knell of democracy.

The Supreme Court struck down the electoral bond scheme only because it felt that secrecy in matters of public importance is a threat to democracy. This is an even graver situation where an aspirant to a third-term locks up his political rival in jail, thereby curtailing and diminishing, if not extinguishing, a legitimate challenge to his aspirations.

India’s democracy is a matter of global concern. We are surrounded by wannabe democracies, in a world where Russia and China are not even bothered by that pretence. Take away from our citizens the option to elect a legislator of their choice, and democracy is truly dead.

It doesn’t matter whether Kejriwal, when he is freed, fails to garner the requisite support to threaten a BJP victory. That’s immaterial, because then the BJP would have won democratically, if not entirely fairly. But an election conducted without him to mount that opposition is not a fair election.

Germany, the US and even the UN have questioned Kejriwal’s arrest but were told by India to mind their own business. Their concern can hardly be called “interference in Indian affairs”; on the contrary, it is indicative of the importance of India remaining robustly democratic. It matters to the civilised world.

It is time the combined Opposition publishes a joint manifesto in which they promise the abrogation of pernicious legislations like the PMLA, the UAPA and the MCOCA that are used as weapons of oppression against opponents by a mal-intentioned executive in power. Additionally, the combined Opposition must swear to energise and ensure the complete independence of our judicial machinery. Let the contest not be reduced to Judiciary vs ‘Modiciary’.

The prime minister must demonstrate democratically that he believe in himself.

Haresh Jagtiani is a senior advocate in the Supreme Court. Courtesy: The Billion Press

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