The Arvind Kejriwal case: Democracy in the dock

A chronology of events shreds any pretence of 'free and fair' elections under BJP rule

Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi chief minister and convenor of the Aam Aadmi may be out on bail; but case puts the BJP's idea of democracy in the dock (photo: Vipin/National Herald)
Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi chief minister and convenor of the Aam Aadmi may be out on bail; but case puts the BJP's idea of democracy in the dock (photo: Vipin/National Herald)

Aakar Patel

Arvind Kejriwal has been released for a few days to campaign, after which he has to return to jail.

He has not been convicted, of course, and is in jail merely because the BJP opposes his bail. What the judges observed about Kejriwal: He is 'the chief minister of Delhi and a leader of one of the national parties. No doubt, serious accusations have been made, but he has not been convicted. He does not have any criminal antecedents. He is not a threat to society'.

The court also noted that the case was registered in 2022, but Kejriwal was arrested on 21 March this year, days before voting began.

Voting began on 19 April. Kejriwal missed more than a month of the initial campaign and then was kept in jail while three phases of the election were carried out. It was his wife who was campaigning on his behalf around the country.

Will such an election be considered free and fair when results are out on 4 June?

Locking up your opponents while you are free to campaign is the sort of 'election' that happens in nations that are called autocracies.

Yesterday Kejriwal, tomorrow the rest?

The former chief minister of Jharkhand, the deputy chief minister of Delhi and Kalvakuntla Kavitha of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, which ran the previous government in Telangana, are all in jail. None of them has been convicted.

The BJP's argument in court is that politicians should not be treated differently from other accused, so they should not get bail just to campaign.

What it is not saying is that democracy is unimportant. Nor is it saying the elections are at all relevant to its desire to keep its opponents locked up, of course.

Again, we must note that not a single one of these politicians in jail is a convict. They are merely accused, and accused by the BJP, of having done something wrong.

Now, surely what the court noted in the Kejriwal case also applies to the rest? They have no antecedents of criminal activity; they are not any immediate threat to society—and yes, they are all leaders of political parties that are campaigning for these general elections.

Kejriwal got a rousing reception on his release; the BJP was not pleased. One of its national executive members tweeted that 'by picking a side right in the middle of elections, the lordships that be have made themselves a part of the campaign. When the billion ballots speak, they may not like it'.

The problem of course is that the courts are being forced into this. The real question is whether one should take the BJP at its word when it says that it is not attacking democracy with its actions. India is quite divided on this, with the prime minister's supporters egging him on.

But for argument’s sake, let us assume that the Opposition and its supporters are in fact totally biased and so their opinions should be ignored. What does the outside world, which presumably has less of a stake or no stake at all in the results of the Lok Sabha elections, feel about the route India has taken?

India in the eyes of the world

We need only go back to what has been said several times, over several years, including in this column.

The outside world says that India is not only sliding into authoritarianism, it no longer even is a democracy.

Freedom House has said 'the BJP has increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents'. This is a fact. Freedom House ranks India as being 'partly free'. This is also a fact—indeed, it reflects Kejriwal's current position as much as it does the state of our country.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index monitors civil liberties, pluralism, political culture and participation in political culture as well as in the electoral process. In 2014, India was ranked 27th.

In 2020, India was classified as a 'flawed democracy'. Last year, 2023, our ranking slipped to 41, as a 'result of democratic backsliding under the leadership of Narendra Modi'. There were also additional observations about the government's attack on minorities, which we need not go into here.

A global alliance of civil society organisations, CIVICUS, in 2017 rated India's civil space as 'obstructed'; it has since fallen to 'repressed'. Is 'repressed' the sort of word that is used for democracies? No.

In March 2022, CIVICUS said: 'India has been added to a watchlist of countries that have seen a rapid decline in civic freedoms' and that Modi 'continues to resort to drastic measures to silence critics'.

Jailing them during elections is one especially good measure to silence your critics, particularly articulate ones like Kejriwal and Sanjay Singh, who was also jailed by the Enforcement Directorate without a conviction and was also recently granted bail.

Finally, the University of Gothenburg's V-Dem report says India has suffered 'one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years'. It said that under Modi India lost its status as a democracy and was classified as an 'electoral autocracy', joining nations like Hungary and Turkey.

On freedom of expression, media and civil society, India was 'as autocratic as is Pakistan, and worse than both Bangladesh and Nepal'.

When these reports began to come out after 2014, the government and its supporters scoffed and said they biased. Today, in 2024, the BJP jails its opponents during an election and still believes—or at least wants us to believe—that it is only following the rules of democracy.

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