Kejriwal has a battle on his hands as Delhi excise ‘plot’ thickens

With former deputy CM Manish Sisodia put behind bars, the AAP supremo and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal has a huge task ahead to undo the damage thus caused even as the central agencies shift gears in their probes into the Delhi’s now-scrapped excise policy, reports Rajesh Moudgil

Till recently, the revamped health centres called Mohalla clinics and the government schools education in Delhi continued to be Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s much lauded models. While these gave AAP a huge political mileage across the country, the former Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain and former deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, who held 18 portfolios including education and excise departments were seen as Kejriwal’s confidants.

But it was only till the Central investigation agencies took up both these ministers for their probe. While Jain who was arrested by Enforcement Directorate (ED), is in judicial custody for alleged money laundering and Hawala transactions from Kolkata-based shell firms since May 30, last year, Sisodia is also in judicial custody in the alleged liquor policy scam since February 26, 2023.

The ‘murky’ case

Sisodia has been arrested in connection with the alleged corruption in the implementation of the now-scrapped Delhi excise policy for 2021-2022 after he reportedly failed to defend himself on the charges of destroying evidence related to the case by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and by ED for alleged money laundering linked with the said policy.

The CBI which grilled the former excise minister extensively booked him under Sections 12-B (criminal conspiracy), 477 A (intent to defraud) of IPC and Section 7 of prevention of corruption Act, held that Sisodia was not cooperating and his replies to its questions were not satisfactory when confronted with some documentary and digital evidences.

For record, the AAP government implemented its 2021-2022 excise policy from November 17, 2021 under which 849 liquor vends, divided into 32 zones, were awarded to private companies through open bidding for which it held bidding zone-by-zone instead of individual licences. The new policy also marked the exit of the government from the liquor business in an attempt to jack up its revenue as well as to end the black marketing and liquor mafia.

However, the policy saw opposition by civil society, religious fora and educational institutions against opening up of liquor vends near their close proximity, and subsequently by the opposition parties.

Even as the AAP government rolled back its policy and reverted back to old policy last year, another controversy got whipped up with allegations that undue favours were extended to the liquor licensees much after tenders were awarded thus causing huge losses to the government exchequer.

And with a report by the Delhi chief secretary suggesting irregularities in the policy, the Delhi Lieutenant Governor (LG) V K Saxena recommended a probe by CBI into it on July 22, 2022. The CBI registered an FIR against Sisodia and 14 others flagging alleged payments of crores of rupees to close associates of Sisodia by Sameer Mahendru, one of the liquor traders.

Meanwhile, the ED which had also begun grilling Sisodia in Tihar Jail arrested him on March 9, 2023. The ED officials have reportedly asked him about his association with Vijay Nair (AAP communication in-charge) and Dinesh Arora (alleged to be close to Sisodia), co-accused in the case. He was also quizzed about the decision to change profit margin from 5% to 12% for the wholesalers and about the kickbacks allegedly paid by “South Group’’ which reportedly comprises some politicians and businessmen from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh allegedly in lieu of giving nine out of the total 32 zones to the said lobby.

Meanwhile, according to reports, the ED has also arrested Arun Ramachandra Pillai, an accused who allegedly represented the South Group and particularly the interests of K Kavitha, daughter of Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao. Pillai was also alleged to have been involved in the formation of the liquor cartel as well as allegedly passing on the Rs 100 crore kickbacks from South Group to the AAP minister.

The minister’s former secretary C Arvind, now a key witness in the case, has also reportedly told investigating agencies that Sisodia had called him to the residence of chief minister Kejriwal where he was given the changed draft of group of ministers’ (GoM) report mentioning the profit margin for wholesalers as 12% which was earlier 5%.

 Opposition divided

Meanwhile, even though as many as nine opposition leaders took on the ruling BJP government at the Centre against what they termed as blatant misuse of Central agencies against the members of Opposition, the Congress, DMK and Left were not among them.

 The letter flaying Sisodia’s arrest and alleging blatant misuse of Central agencies which was sent to prime minister Narendra Modi was jointly signed by Kejriwal, his Punjab counterpart Bhagwant Mann, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress (TMC), Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao of Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS), Bihar deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), besides former Jammu and Kashmir CM and National Conference (NC) leader Farooq Abdullah, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, former Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray and the former UP CM and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav.

 However, the absence of said three parties showed the rifts in the anti-BJP camp which, otherwise, have had plans to have a united Opposition to take on BJP in the 2024 polls. The three parties have strained ties with different signatory parties.

So much so, while the Congress top leadership had maintained a cautious silence and only rapped the Central government for using Central agencies for “harassment’’, without taking any names, the Delhi Congress president Anil Chaudhary and senior party leader Sandeep Dikshit welcomed Sisodia’s arrest.

Another senior party leader Ajay Maken went a step ahead and attacked AAP for what he alleged was “corruption money’’. He went on to further say that those sympathising with Sisodia should know that the money earned by unfair means was being used by AAP to weaken Congress. He further alleged that it had now been established that AAP had got about Rs 100 crore which was used by it in Goa polls against the Congress.

However, reacting to Congress’ absence in the letter, AAP’s chief spokesperson Saurabh Bharadwaj told media that the Congress had never stood by the Opposition and whenever it came to raising the national issues, it had gone missing.