The slugfest between the Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia’s house and office over alleged irregularities in the local government’s excise policy, seems politically motivated keeping in mind the forthcoming Gujarat and Himachal polls and the big electoral battle of 2024. While the Aam Aadmi Party has accused the Narendra Modi government of pursuing a policy of blatant vendetta towards its political rivals by subverting investigating agencies, the BJP has refuted the charge and held Sisodia responsible for a scam of humongous proportions. Sisodia is under the scanner for alleged procedural lapses which benefited liquor licencees. The Delhi government's Excise Policy 2021-22, launched in November 2021, was meant to reform the retail liquor sector and increase revenue. The policy, introduced by the Arvind Kejriwal government, sought to shut down many government-operated vends to pave the way for privately owned shops and mark the gradual exit of the government from the liquor trade. The excise policy was implemented when Anil Baijal was the Delhi Lieutenant Governor but it was suddenly withdrawn in July this year by the Delhi government. Standing by the policy, Sisodia blamed Baijal for changing his mind at the last minute on allowing liquor shops in unauthorised colonies, causing a loss of thousands of crores to the Delhi government. Current LG V K Saxena recommended a CBI probe on the basis of a report filed by the Delhi Chief Secretary alleging irregularities in implementation of the policy, that culminated in the raids against Sisodia, who is accused number 1 in the case filed by the investigating agency.
As charges and counter-charges fly back and forth, one cannot help but wonder if the liquor ‘scam’ is only a smokescreen for a deeper political game as the Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party, buoyed by its massive success in Punjab, tries its electoral luck in state after state as a key contender to the BJP. It is creating a distinct buzz in Himachal Pradesh, where elections are due in November; it made an impressive debut in the Gujarat civic polls last year, especially in Surat. That may well prove to be a precursor to a solid performance by AAP in the Assembly elections in the state slated for the end of the year. By touting the Delhi model of governance of top-class education and medical facilities, and offering sops such as free electricity, water and free public transport for women, the AAP has struck a chord with the poor and middle-class voters. In aggressively taking on the prime minister on the controversial issue of freebies, Arvind Kejriwal has given welfarism a boost. With his repeated trips to Gujarat, this time accompanied by the allegedly tainted Sisodia, the Delhi CM has made his intentions clear. He sees himself as the real challenger to Narendra Modi in 2024. The AAP needs to win only one more state to be classified as a national party. While Kejriwal’s overarching ambition may be misplaced, there is no gainsaying that he successfully wrested Delhi and Punjab from an established Congress which had been ruling the two states for many years. The BJP and the Congress have a common enemy in the national capital which is why the latter, in a shortsighted move, welcomed the raids on Sisodia, siding with the former in demanding his arrest. This is the same Congress which has cried foul over investigating agencies targeting its own leaders and alleged a witch hunt. The city Congress unit is no doubt miffed with the AAP for the drubbing it received in two successive elections, but it was for the central leadership of the party to show some foresight and consider the impact the protest against Sisodia would have on the already tenuous opposition unity in the run-up to 2024 and plans to take on the BJP government at the centre.
The BJP’s pique over the international accolades the Kejriwal government is receiving was apparent when its spokespersons displayed appalling ignorance over journalistic practices by referring to a New York Times article praising Delhi’s education and health models as paid news, citing an identical article that had appeared in the Khaleej Times too, completely discounting the practice of publications sharing content by arrangement. Now Sisodia has set the cat among the pigeons by claiming that he received feelers from the BJP to join the party amid promises that all cases against him would be dropped and he would be considered for the chief minister’s post. AAP may be a new party but it is a past master at political games, as was apparent when Sisodia played the Rajput card and claimed to be a descendant of Rana Pratap who would not be cowed by anyone. Another Delhi minister, Satyendra Jain, has been behind bars for three months and Sisodia has predicted his own arrest soon. How ‘liquorgate’ will play out electorally or otherwise, in Delhi and in other states, remains to be seen.