Cheques and Imbalances

The taming of the Election Commission of India

Shagnik Chakraborty
Shagnik Chakraborty
31 March, 2024

ON THE EVENING of 22 March, there was unusual activity at the Election Commission of India’s headquarters, on Delhi’s Ashoka Road. At about 5 pm, various representatives of opposition parties had started trickling onto the premises. A team of television reporters was already in place. Various leaders of the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance arrived, including Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress, Derek O’Brien of the All India Trinamool Congress, P Wilson of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). They had gathered together to protest a startling development: the arrest of Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, by the Directorate of Enforcement. This marked the first time in independent India that a sitting chief minister had been arrested. (Hemant Soren, the former chief minister of Jharkhand, resigned on the day he was taken into custody, on 31 January.) Kejriwal’s incarceration sent shockwaves across the political landscape, not least because it happened five days after polling dates had been announced for the upcoming general election.

On 21 March, the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with Delhi’s 2021 excise policy, which was scrapped the following year. The arrest marked the first time in independent India a sitting chief minister has been detained. Hindustan Times

The arrest was in connection with Delhi’s 2021 excise policy, which offered contracts for liquor shops to private players before being scrapped the following year. While the Enforcement Directorate alleged a Rs 600 crore scam, involving kickbacks to the ruling Aam Aadmi Party, it did not disclose specifics of the money trail. The ED had already arrested top AAP leaders, such as Manish Sisodia and Sanjay Singh in 2023, and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi leader K Kavitha just days earlier. On the same day as Kejriwal’s arrest, the Central Bureau of Investigation registered a first-information report against the AITC’s Mahua Moitra, for allegedly receiving bribes in exchange for raising questions in parliament, and the income tax department served a notice to the Congress in relation to its returns for 1994–95. Consequently, party leaders alleged that income tax officials began freezing the Congress’s bank accounts, and recovering dues and penalties.

Wilson told me that the Narendra Modi government was “waging a war,” using the ED, the CBI and the tax authorities, on the eve of the general election. “So where is the level playing field?” he said. “What is the necessity of arresting a chief minister during model code of conduct period? What you could not do all along, that you will do now?” In June 2023, this magazine published a cover story detailing how the government has used the ED to go after the opposition. The agency has been deployed to try and topple democratically elected governments, by coercing legislators to switch parties. In the last few months, however, all the investigative agencies have been on overdrive, conducting raids and arrests of leaders of various parties.