Can Kejriwal’s release reshape AAP and INDIA bloc’s fortunes?

With polling yet to take place in 18 of the 22 Lok Sabha constituencies where AAP is contesting election as part of INDIA bloc, the court order to grant interim bail to Delhi CM Kejriwal to enable him to campaign has come as a shot in the arm for the party. A report by Mudit Mathur

Brushing aside the strong objections raised by Enforcement Directorate, the Supreme Court finally granted interim bail to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who is imprisoned in connection with Delhi liquor policy scam case, allowing him to do campaigning for his Aam Aadmi Party in Lok Sabha polls till June 1st, 2024 but with certain restrictions imposed on him. He will have to surrender on the 2nd of June, 2024 after the last phase of polling.

The court order came as a shot in the arm of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which was anxious about the prospects of its leader Kejriwal leading the party’s poll campaign. The court verdict has re-energized the party cadre in Delhi and Punjab where the polls are due to be held during the sixth and seventh phase respectively. Polling is yet to take place in 18 of the 22 Lok Sabha constituencies that the AAP is contesting as part of INDIA bloc.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal came out of Tihar Jail seconds before 7 pm on Friday after spending around 50 days in custody in an alleged case of money laundering linked to the now-scrapped Delhi excise policy. “I am feeling very good being here. I had said that I would return soon; so here I am,” Kejriwal, clad in a grey T-shirt, said while addressing the cheering party workers. While thanking Lord Hanuman, Kejriwal announced that he would visit Connaught Place’s Hanuman Temple for the god’s blessings.

In his first reaction just after coming out from prison, Kejriwal said, “Hum sabko mil kar desh ko taanashahi se bachana hai, (We all have to unite to save the country from dictatorship)”. “Main tann, mann, dhan se lad raha hoon, sangharsh kar raha hoon, taanashahi ke khilaaf. Lekin 140 crore logon ko taanashahi se ladna padega,” (I’m fighting against dictatorship with all my might, but 140 crore people will have to do the same),” he added.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Bench comprising Justice Sanjiv Khanna and Justice Dipankar Dutta directed his release on following terms and conditions: (a) he shall furnish bail bonds in the sum of Rs.50,000/- with one surety of the like amount to the satisfaction of the Jail Superintendent; (b) he shall not visit the Office of the Chief Minister and the Delhi Secretariat; (c) he shall be bound by the statement made on his behalf that he shall not sign official files unless it is required and necessary for obtaining clearance/approval of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi; (d) he will not make any comment concerning his role in the present case; and (e) he will not interact with any of the witnesses and/or have access to any official files connected with the case.

Arvind Kejriwal had challenged his arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) on March 21 in the Delhi Liquor Policy case. He filed a Special Leave Petition (Criminal) before the Supreme Court in April this year after the dismissal of his petition by the Delhi High Court on April 9.

Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi made arguments on behalf of the AAP chief and questioned the necessity and timing of his arrest. When the matter was heard on the next day, i.e April 30, Singhvi alleged that ED withheld the material favouring Kejriwal.

While Singhvi concluded arguments on 3rd May, the ASG began leading the arguments for ED. Anticipating that the hearing might not conclude anytime soon, the bench put the ASG on notice that it may hear him on the question of Kejriwal’s interim bail given the Lok Sabha elections. The court posed five queries to ASG SV Raju, appearing for the agency, which were sought to be answered by him on May 3.

During the hearing, Justice Khanna asked Raju as to what was the first occasion when Kejriwal’s name came up during the recording of statements. In response, Raju referred to the statement of Buchi Babu made on February 23, 2023. The same was however countered by one of the counsels appearing for Kejriwal, pointing to the statement of C Arvind made in November/December 2022.

At a later point during the hearing, when witnesses’ statements were being read out by ASG Raju, Justice Khanna observed: “This will show the earliest moment in time you came to know about Kejriwal’s involvement was 12.11.2022”. He questioned the ASG as to why the agency delayed the investigation when Kejriwal’s name came up much before the date of his arrest.

Justice Khanna also criticised the agency for taking two years to investigate the case. “It is not good for an investigating agency to say that it took two years to unearth a controversy,” he observed. Justice Khanna also made it clear that the bench was not inclined to allow Kejriwal to attend office and sign official files if he got released in the interim because of Lok Sabha elections.

In response, the senior counsel Singhvi offered an undertaking on behalf of Kejriwal that he would not sign any official files, subject to a condition that the Delhi LG does not stop official work because the CM has not signed the file.

The Additional Solicitor General SV Raju argued on behalf of ED. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta supplemented Raju and was countered by Senior Advocate Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi on behalf of Kejriwal. These counsels cumulatively addressed the court on the question of interim bail for Kejriwal for about an hour.

Soon after the news spread about the interim bail granted to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP workers immediately stopped their campaign programme and started assembling at the party headquarters. While Delhi and Haryana are going to vote on May 25 in the sixth phase, Punjab goes to polls on June 1, the day Kejriwal’s interim bail expires.

Polling is yet to take place in 18 of the 22 Lok Sabha constituencies, where the AAP  is contesting. It comprises four in Delhi, 13 in Punjab, and one in Haryana. As Kejriwal headed home after leaving Tihar jail, he addressed the jubilant party workers who had assembled in numbers.

Punjab has been the main focus area after Delhi for Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party. It is one state where AAP is contesting the maximum number of seats and not in alliance with the Congress. Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, who has been holding the fort in the state, rushed to Delhi to meet Kejriwal, who campaigned for his party candidates in Delhi a day after he was set free by the court.

The senior leaders of AAP have centred their campaign so far on how vindictively the Modi government used ED and CBI targeting leaders of opposition parties including Kejriwal to discredit them before the masses and fabricating cases against them. Now, a vast perception change is expected in AAP’s  favour.

AAP has gained immense sympathy among the people because of the arrests of its senior leaders Manish Sisodia, Sanjay Singh and Kejriwal. Now, after Sanjay Singh, Kejriwal is set to campaign in the remaining phases of Lok Sabha polls along with other leaders of the INDIA bloc about the dictatorial behaviour and unfairness of this present government.

Reacting to the interim bail granted to Kejriwal, senior BJP leader and party national executive member Vinay Sahasrabuddhe put a question mark on the court’s motives. While talking to a  national daily newspaper, he remarked, “Lordships made themselves part of the campaign. 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!”

Now it is to be seen how voters respond to the cries of ‘victimhood’ being made by the  AAP leaders including Kejriwal.