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The Hounding of the Aam Aadmi Party

From his first year in office, Prime Minister Modi has targeted every political leader, every political party, and every institution that could become a threat to his ambition. Paradoxically, the party he seems to fear the most is the smallest among the INDIA alliance’s major constituents –  the Aam Aadmi Party.
File photo. AAP supporters at Kejriwal's swearing in. Photo: Twitter/@AamAadmiParty

No politician gives up power willingly. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone further than any political leader India has known to prove the truth of this dictum. From his first year in office, he has targeted every political leader, every political party, and every institution that could become a threat to his ambition, which is clearly to stay the prime minister of India for the rest of his natural life.

Paradoxically, the party he seems to fear the most is the smallest among the INDIA alliance’s major constituents –  the Aam Aadmi Party.

Modi’s animosity towards it goes back to the way in which it routed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2015 Delhi Vidhan Sabha elections, winning 67 out of the 70 Vidhan Sabha seats.

In the next four years, Modi has stopped at nothing in his bid to discredit the Delhi state government and force it out of power in the national capital. When the Kejriwal government changed the state’s liquor licensing policy in 2021, he and his advisers thought they had found the Achilles’ heel that they had been looking for. Liquor is not only the cash cow of all state governments in the country, contributing up to 20% of their annual revenues, but also one of the principal sources of kickbacks to state government lawmakers and administrators for favours granted to the ‘Liquor Mafia’.

When deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia replaced the outmoded government’s monopoly of liquor sales in Delhi, first re-imposed by the Janata Dal Prime Minister Morarji Desai after a brief period of privatisation in the mid-70s, with an auction-based private sales system for liquor, Modi’s advisers lost no time in unleashing the Enforcement Directorate upon Kejriwal’s government, in an attempt to find the Achilles’ heel that it was sure existed somewhere within the AAP cabinet in Delhi.

The opportunity to use AAP’s new liquor policy to malign and discredit the AAP government arose out of a report by Naresh Kumar, the chief Secretary of Delhi to the Lieutenant Governor, V.K Saxena, that alleged a variety of procedural lapses in the formulation of the new liquor policy.

The report said “arbitrary and unilateral decisions” taken by Sisodia in his capacity as excise minister had resulted in “financial losses to the exchequer” estimated at more than Rs 580 crore. It alleged that “kickbacks…received by the AAP Delhi government and AAP leaders” from owners and operators of alcohol businesses for preferential treatment such as discounts and extensions in licence fee, waiver on penalties and relief due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, etc. were used to “influence” the assembly elections held in Punjab and Goa in early 2022.

As chief secretary of Delhi, Kumar could have had the information needed to report what he considered “irregularities in procedure”. He may even have been misled by his officers into believing that there would be “heavy financial losses to the exchequer”. But there was no conceivable way in which he could have found out how much the party, or select members within it, received as kickbacks, or how these were being diverted into funding elections in other states. This could at most have been conjecture, but it gave the Modi government the pretext it wanted to begin its onslaught on the AAP.

The Modi government had passed eight amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in 2019 that gave the ED virtually unlimited powers of arrest and incarceration. The amendments also made it virtually impossible for indicted persons to obtain bail without first all-but-proving their innocence. So, all that the Modi government needed to do to destroy AAP’s reputation for total accountability to the electorate was to accuse it of an offence under the PMLA, send the members of its government directly responsible for the policy to judicial custody, and keep them there till the ordinary voter was convinced that they had to have committed some irregularity that justified keeping them in jail.

This is a tactic that the Modi government has been using against his opponents ever since he has begun to feel the throne on which he sits starting to shake. In Delhi, his first target was AAP’s industry minister and a key figure for the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, Satyendar Jain.

Jain was considered a ‘soft’ target by the Modi government since 2017, because in that year, and again in 2018, the Enforcement Directorate had investigated him in the hope of finding something indictable, but had failed. In 2022, however, now armed with the 2019 amendments to the PMLA, the ED was able to not only arrest him, but keep him in jail for 17 months without trial, conviction or even bail.

Ahead of the 2024 elections, it appears that Modi has started to feel insecure. His government is capitalising on the doubt that Jain’s long  incarceration has sown in ordinary peoples’ minds to redouble its attacks on AAP. On February 26, it arrested Sisodia.

Sisodia, too, has now been in jail without trial, constantly being denied bail, since February 26 this year.

Also read: Chronology Samajhiye: 5 Days, 4 Agencies Under Modi Govt Control Target Opposition, Journalists, Activists

In the eight months that have followed, despite scores of searches, the ED had not been able to find a shred of evidence that would justify keeping Sisodia in jail until only six weeks ago, on October 5, when it arrested an AAP member of the Rajya Sabha, Sanjay Singh.

The grounds the ED gave for his arrest were beyond flimsy, for his only stated crime was that he introduced a member of the Delhi “Liquor Mafia” to Manish Sisodia. Considering how many people a politician meets every day, one doubts whether Sisodia even remembered his name.

Sanjay Singh had, however, been arrested on the basis of information given by a businessman – one Dinesh Arora – who was himself under arrest at the time and had turned an ‘approver’ for the ED. The ED did not publicise the reason for his arrest, but admitted that he had been granted freedom in exchange for giving information that would allow the Modi government to keep Sisodia in jail for an indefinite period of time. This was necessary because Sisodia’s bail plea was coming up before the Supreme Court.

Keeping Sisodia in jail was essential because the BJP’s ultimate target was Arvind Kejriwal. Having sufficiently reinforced suspicions in the lay public’s mind by first arresting a minister and then the iconic deputy chief minister of the AAP government, Modi was about to unleash the ED on Chief Minister Kejriwal himself. That’s when businessman-turned-informer Dinesh Arora’s willingness to turn approver proved invaluable.

Based on Arora’s “information”, Singh was arrested on October 5. So great was the government’s hurry to discredit Kejriwal, that the ED issued its summons to him barely three weeks later. To say, therefore, that these arrests and so-called ‘disclosures’ were designed to destroy the credibility of a key rival political party only months before the next general elections, would therefore be an understatement.

Also read: The Uses (And Abuses) of Investigative Agencies

The truth about AAP’s liquor policy

It remains to be seen how far Prime minister Modi and home minister Amit Shah will pursue the attack on Kejriwal and AAP.

The truth about the new liquor policy that the Delhi government introduced in August 2021 is the exact opposite of what the Modi government and its utterly tamed print and audio-visual media outlets have portrayed it to be.

Under the ‘old’ liquor policy, the Delhi government was both the wholesaler and the retailer of alcohol in the city. The government paid the manufacturer his ex-factory price plus 5%, took control of the liquor and bore the cost of transportation and storage till the retail outlets. The retail outlets were all controlled by the government but licensed to the premise owners.

This bureaucratic wholesale-plus-monopolistic retail system had led to a number of shortcomings: the number of brands of any particular spirit stocked by the government liquor shops was limited and not responsive to changes in public tastes and incomes. The retail liquor shops were unevenly distributed with far fewer shops in poorer parts of the city. Consequently, a greater amount of country liquor was being sold in those areas.

AAP’s new policy made the government get out of the liquor trade altogether. The wholesalers paid a tax of 14% on their sales in Delhi. The retail trade was wholly privatised: The government had divided the city into 32 zones, of which 20 were classified as affluent, and the remaining 12 as relatively poor. Each zone was divided into a number of principalities, each to be served by up to three retail locations.

The government decided the number of retail locations and principalities in each zone and put these up for auction. The retail locations were evenly spaced to ensure that every mohalla, and every section of the population, had equal access to a liquor shop.

It then auctioned the liquor shop locations.

In the first auction, the government garnered Rs 5,300 crore from the auction of locations in the more affluent 20 zones, and Rs 3,180 crore from the auctions in the remaining 12 zones. The lower paying capacity of the poorer areas was automatically reflected in the lower bids for these locations. An important side benefit of the new policy was that by giving easier access to licensed liquor in poor areas, it reduced the sale of illicit liquor within those areas.

Two months after the new  policy came into operation, a civil servant, who withheld his name while sharing the above figures to Hindustan Times, told its correspondent that along with new brand licensing and some other minor taxes, the government expected to garner over Rs 10,000 crore a year from the sale of liquor in the capital. This was almost double the average of Rs 5,500-crore recorded in the previous three years, and the excise revenue of Rs 5,272 crore (excluding VAT) that was garnered between September 1, 2022 and August 31, 2023 after the return to the old policy.

If the entire liquor trade was privatised, and all allotments were made through public auction, where did the space remain for graft and favouritism? In the 18 months since Jain was imprisoned, no newspaper has asked this question. The omission speaks volumes for the moral decay that has settled into journalism today.

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