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Ashutosh Interview: 'Running Govt from Jail As Kejriwal Can't See Anybody as CM'

On Badi Badi Baatein, ex AAP leader Ashutosh talks Arvind Kejriwal's arrest, effects on BJP & more.

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Video Editors: Abhishek Sharma, Purnendu Pritam

"Tomorrow, any jailed leader will do this. Where will be the accountability in the public sphere? Tomorrow if the prime minister is jailed and he runs the country from the prison, will it be acceptable? It should not be acceptable," said Ashutosh, former leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Since his arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) last week in the excise policy case, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and the party's strategy is that he shall not resign and a new CM will not be appointed till he is in prison.

While many believe it to be a good strategy for the 'Opposition leaders being targeted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)' narrative, many others, including Ashutosh, feel otherwise.

Even though Kejriwal's arrest was long time coming, Ashutosh feels that his arrest may boomerang on the BJP.

On 'Badi Badi Baatein', Ashutosh talks about the repercussions of Kejriwal's arrest, the moral grounds of running the government from prison, and what it means for India's democracy.
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Were you shocked with Arvind Kejriwal's arrest?

I was not shocked. I was expecting that. His arrest is imminent. The attitude of the central agencies and the central government clearly showed that along with other AAP leaders, Kejriwal will be cornered and arrested some day. I never doubted that Kejriwal will be sent to prison. But I didn't think he would be imprisoned before the elections.

The arrest is being seen as a way of headline management and to sideline the repercussions of the electoral bonds data. Do you see it that way?

I do not believe in conspiracy theories till I don't have solid proof or evidence to comment. I believe this is not just headline management as one of the key aspects of it is to not do something that is self sabotage. Arresting Kejriwal is a big decision which can boomerang on the BJP if not handled well. Kejriwal is a popular leader chosen by the people with over 60 seats (in Delhi Assembly) twice. The move is dangerous and the people in the BJP and the government know it. The arrest before the elections and in the middle of the election process shows that there is a mentality in this country to decimate the Opposition at any cost and not have any level-playing field during the elections. Before Kejriwal's arrest, Hemant Soren was arrested, Congress' accounts were frozen. All this sends a message that the Opposition parties must surrender or they will not get a level-playing field in the elections.

How do you think this may boomerang on the BJP?

Like I said, Kejriwal is not an ordinary leader. His arrest will be taken note of. You saw how the cadre clashed with the police on the streets immediately, there were emotional outbursts. Meanwhile, Opposition leaders of all top parties came together and they gave a petition to the Election Commission. It shows that Kejriwal is a popular leader. When a leader like that is arrested, it gets them sympathy. The biggest example of this is when Indira Gandhi lost the election after the Emergency and was arrested by the Morarji Desai government. She took advantage of it. People did not forgive that. They said okay, she was punished for what she did (electorally) but she cannot be victimised. If people get the perception that Kejriwal has been arrested on purpose and that there is no strong case against him, it may boomerang on the BJP.

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Many say that they vote for Mr Kejriwal in Delhi and for Mr Modi at the Centre. Do you think those voters will be swayed towards the AAP because of this arrest?

It is difficult to say. There is no doubt that there is an overlap between BJP and AAP voters. But it also depends on how big an issue can AAP make of it. If the AAP can send the message that Kejriwal was jailed for being a Modi critic and has raised his voice against him, and that the case against him isn't strong, the AAP can benefit from it and dent the BJP.

Do you see rationale behind running the government from jail?

I don't think so. It is a rhetoric. It also shows Kejriwal's insecurity that he cannot see anybody but himself from the party as the chief minister. That is bizzare because the party which spoke of accountability, transparency, democracy, and anti-high command is running the government from jail. It is unfortunate. At the same time, it is sacrificing the values that it originally stood up for and that is not a good situation. Ideally, he should have said that the allegations against me are serious and that I will not hold any post till I am proven innocent and somebody else should run the government instead. Not only would it have saved the government, but also given them a moral high standing.

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Many say that this move was necessary to counter the narrative that he is corrupt and that the BJP is after him only for political vendetta. Do you think it is a good counter to run the government from jail when it comes to specifically countering the BJP?

No, I don't find any basis to it. This country runs on the Constitution. How can you run a government from jail? Even if it is constitutionally acceptable, it is against the soul of the Constitution. Tomorrow, any jailed leader will do this. Where will be the accountability in the public sphere? Tomorrow, if the prime minister is jailed and he runs the country from the prison, will it be acceptable? It should not be acceptable.

There are two kinds of messaging going out — one that no matter how big you are, corruption will not be overlooked and second that the BJP is pursuing cases against only BJP leaders. Which one do you think will stick with the voters?

The media narrative is being spun in a way that it doesn't hold any BJP leader accountable. Kejriwal may have been arrested for some mistakes he made. The elections are underway and one of the tallest Opposition leaders has been arrested. All Opposition leaders are either being raided or FIRs are being registered against them in an attempt to send them to prison. How are all corrupt leaders only in the Opposition? How is the ED seeing corrupt practices only in the Opposition? Those associated with the BJP never see ED action. Is there even a rule of law in this country anymore? I am not saying that the corrupt should be spared but the yardstick to deal with the corrupt must be the same for the BJP and the Opposition. There should be raids on both sides. The electoral bonds matter clearly shows that there was quid pro quo. A man is arrested in the excise policy case, he donates Rs 5 crore to the BJP using electoral bonds five days later and turns an approver. How do you take Rs 5 crore from somebody who has been arrested? If you have accepted, there will be doubts in people's minds if he was released after donating or was he extorted with the raids. This is the biggest question. This is in public domain. Will there be raids on the BJP? Will you look for any proceeds of crime? The yardstick that has been set that only Opposition will be raided is weakening the democracy. Because if you weaken the Opposition, the ruling party will do whatever it wants. Democracy is not just about elections, it is about both people and Opposition being able to speak freely.

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Do you think the INDIA bloc is protesting as strongly as it should? What is the way forward for the INDIA bloc from this?

The water is way over the bridge for the INDIA bloc. If they don't unite and protest now, I don't see them having a future. There has to be a limit somewhere. In the previous Parliament session, 45 MPs were suspended and the Opposition did nothing. Now, two sitting chief ministers have been jailed, the accounts of the Congress have been frozen. How will they contest elections? If the Opposition doesn't do anything now, it will be deemed useless.

AAP came to power as an anti-corruption crusader. Today, most top leaders are in jail. There is one question that many struggle to answer — is the AAP corrupt?

I don't want to comment on that because I don't have enough information. But the allegations are serious and they should be addressed by the party.

How do you think the AAP should tackle this situation going forward?

These are exceptional situations and the Opposition needs to take exceptional measures. The run of the mill measures won't work. They have to show some mettle that they are willing to fight the government and that they are willing to take the battle to the logical end. I don't see that willingness yet.

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