The ongoing CBI raids at the residence of Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and nearly two dozen other locations across the National Capital Region (NCR) have become the latest flashpoint between the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party.
The CBI is investigating Sisodia over allegations of widespread irregularities and possible graft committed by him, in his capacity as Delhi’s excise minister, while drafting and implementing the national capital’s excise policy for 2021-22.
The Excise Policy, which paved the way for the Delhi government’s withdrawal from the retail liquor business and allowed a proliferation of privately owned liquor vends, had come into effect on November 17, 2021.
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Dry days reduced
Under this policy, private bidders were granted licences to open as many as 849 vends across Delhi’s 32 zones, against the 500 odd liquor shops that operated under the previous excise regime. Hotels, bars, and retailers were also allowed to offer a number of lucrative schemes to boost the sale of alcohol while the number of dry days in the national capital slashed from 21 to just three in a year.
The policy had immediately run into criticism from both the BJP and the Congress in Delhi, which had accused the AAP government of attempting to convert the national capital into an alcoholic’s den under the guise of increasing revenues for the exchequer. Later, Vinai Kumar Saxena, who took over from Anil Baijal as Delhi’s new Lt. Governor in May this year, too raised several red flags on the manner in which Sisodia got the policy approved.
Amid allegations that the new excise policy had caused a windfall gain for a handful of private liquor licensees while causing a massive loss of revenue to the exchequer, Saxena recommended that the CBI investigate the alleged lapses and violations caused by Sisodia and the excise department under him.
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Saxena’s recommendation for a CBI inquiry was apparently based on the findings in a report submitted by Delhi Chief Secretary Naresh Kumar, which reportedly claimed there was prima facie evidence of corruption and violation of transaction of business rules as well as other laws governing the NCT of Delhi by the Sisodia-led Excise Department and that undue benefits were granted to those who got liquor vend licenses in lieu of “kickbacks” and “commissions”.
Earlier this month, Saxena had also approved the suspension of 11 senior officers of the Excise Department, including then Excise Commissioner Arava Gopikrishna and Deputy Commissioner Anand Tiwari, and ordered initiation of disciplinary proceedings against them for various alleged lapses.
The primary allegations against Sisodia and his excise department are that through the Excise Policy 2021-22 a waiver of ₹144.36 crore was granted on the tendered licence fee to licensees and that the excise department had refunded the earnest money of ₹30 crore to the lowest bidder for the licence of the airport zone when the bidder failed to obtain an NOC from airport authorities.
Saxena’s argument is that as per provisions of the Delhi Excise Rules, 2010, the earnest money should have been forfeited and not refunded while the motivation behind the grant of the ₹144.36 crore waiver was the receipt of kickbacks by Sisodia and others in lieu of pushing a policy that is friendly to liquor cartels.
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Sisodia is also under fire over allegations that the manner in which he pushed the new policy was “illegal”. The LG office has alleged that Sisodia had asked the Cabinet to authorise him to tweak the policy, which enabled him to insert the clause on the one-time waiver of the tendered licence fee, thereby violating the Cabinet’s collective decision-making powers. Once the policy was tweaked, Sisodia, the LG Office claims, did not divulge the full details to the Cabinet or give sufficient time to the LG office to study the changes but proceeded with the implementation.
With Saxena recommending a CBI probe in the matter amid rising red flags that put Sisodia directly under the scanner for alleged acts of graft, impropriety and violation of rules, the policy was hastily scrapped by the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP government.
The AAP has, expectedly, denied all charges levelled against Kejriwal’s deputy and alleged that its leaders are being selectively targeted by central probe agencies under instructions of the Narendra Modi government because “the BJP is scared only of Arvind Kejriwal and AAP”.
That the CBI raids coincided with The New York Times publishing, in its international edition, a flattering piece on the Kejriwal government’s reforms in Delhi’s education system has also allowed the AAP to claim that the crackdown against Sisodia, who is also Delhi’s Education Minister, stemmed from Modi and the BJP’s sense of envy against the Kejriwal government as “Delhi’s education model is being celebrated across the world while Modi has no achievements to show after eight years of being Prime Minister”.
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AAP MP Sanjay Singh also alleged that his party was being targeted as Kejriwal’s growing popularity after the AAP’s landslide victory in the Punjab polls has now paved the way for massive electoral gains for the decade-old regional outfit at the cost of the BJP in poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The AAP has been eyeing an expansion in the two states that will go to polls at the end of this year and Kejriwal has been visiting Gujarat – Modi’s political fief – frequently, pitting his Delhi Model against Modi’s Gujarat Model.
AAP sources say the “persecution” of its leaders who are close to Kejriwal – Delhi health minister Satyendra Jail, who is being investigated by the ED for graft and assets disproportionate to known sources of income, is already in jail – is an intimidation tactic of the BJP but it “won’t scare us”. Sisodia is Kejriwal’s closest aide in the AAP and practically Delhi’s de facto chief minister as he helps all crucial ministries – ranging from home, finance, urban development and planning to education, vigilance, services, tourism, labour & employment, power, PWD, health and several others.
However, many in the Opposition, particularly the Congress and its allies, also believe that the crackdown against the AAP is a calculated political manoeuvre jointly crafted by Kejriwal and the BJP.
“Kejriwal has always been the BJP’s B-Team. Look at the AAP’s politics – whenever the Opposition comes together to corner the BJP in Parliament or outside it, the AAP conveniently disappears; when crucial Bills are taken up for passage in Rajya Sabha amid resistance from the Opposition, the AAP either abstains from voting or votes with the government. They do not realise that the BJP has always adopted a use and throw policy towards other parties – the AAP helped the BJP on Article 370, CAA and several other occasions, the Kejriwal government’s pro-Hindutva leanings are well known, and we also have before us their failure in reaching out to the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protestors or the victims of the North East Delhi riots. Now they are claiming the BJP is scared of them when they have actually been playing the BJP’s game all along,” said a senior Congress leader.
Also read: Delhi LG approves govt’s move to extend excise licences of liquor vends
Congress media wing chief Pawan Khera took a barely-veiled dig at Kejriwal on Twitter. “The flip side to relentless misuse of agencies against political rivals is that even legitimate, rightful actions of agencies come under a cloud of suspicion. In the process, the corrupt get away hiding behind the ‘misuse’ argument and the honest end up paying the price,” Khera tweeted.
एजेन्सीयों के निरंतर दुरुपयोग का एक बड़ा नुक़सान यह भी होता है कि जब वह एजेन्सी सही काम भी करे तब भी उसके कदम को शक की दृष्टि से देखा जाता है। ऐसे में भ्रष्ट लोग दुरुपयोग की दुहाई देकर बच निकलते हैं और जो ईमानदारी से जनता के मुद्दे उठाते हैं, वो दुरुपयोग का शिकार होते रहते हैं
— Pawan Khera 🇮🇳 (@Pawankhera) August 19, 2022
It is no secret that while Kejriwal has been crying foul over the alleged persecution of his party colleagues and Cabinet members by central agencies, he has rarely ever condemned similar action against leaders of other Opposition parties. That silence has now isolated the AAP within the broader Opposition bloc.
RJD MP Manoj Jha was on point when he condemned the CBI’s crackdown at Sisodia’s residence but also asserted that the “AAP must speak up when leaders of other Opposition parties are targeted by the BJP through central agencies in false cases… you can’t keep silent when others face such action and then expect the Opposition to stand with you when you are facing the same.”