The Rise And Fall Of Manish Sisodia

Until his arrest, former Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia followed a path similar to that of party convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Despite being soft-spoken, his remarks are sharp and spiteful. Though he takes pride in his education initiatives, he has not impressed his political opponents and even prominent educationists. But there seems to be more trouble ahead for Sisodia as the CBI has also lodged another FIR in a ‘snooping case’

By Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar
  • Manish Sisodia had taken the route of social work to enter politics. He joined Arvind Kejriwal in his NGO Parivartan
  • Being a CM, Kejriwal has himself never held crucial portfolios probably because he feared that he would get implicated
  • Manish Sisodia took pride in his initiatives and even wrote a book, ‘Shiksha: My Experiments as an Education Minister’
  • In Jan 2020, Congress attacked AAP’s education policy accusing it of not doing anything about ‘1.5 lakh students dropping out of school’

THE political journey of Aam Aadmi Party leader and former Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia had followed a path very similar to that of party convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal till the time of his arrest by the Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate in the Delhi liquor policy case.

A former journalist, who worked for All India Radio and Zee News among others, Manish Sisodia had, like Arvind Kejriwal, also taken the route of social work to enter politics. After being actively involved in the drafting of the Right to Information Bill, which finally became an act in 2005, he joined Kejriwal in his NGO Parivartan.

SOCIAL WORK A LAUNCHPAD FOR POLITICS  

Kejriwal and Sisodia then formed a non-profit organisation called Kabir that conducted public hearings. Later, both of them became a part of the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption (IAC) movement which pressed for the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Thereafter, they parted ways with Hazare and formed the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Politically, there has been no looking back for the two.

Riding the wave of popularity created by IAC, Aam Aadmi Party formed a government in Delhi following its maiden political election in December 2013. This ended the 15-year rule of the Congress, which incidentally supported AAP in government formation to keep the BJP out.

While Arvind Kejriwal became Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia was appointed Cabinet Minister. This government, however, only lasted 50 days as Kejriwal wanted to contest all the seats in the upcoming 2014 Lok Sabha polls. While AAP only managed to win four Lok Sabha seats in Punjab, it returned to power in Delhi in 2015, this time with a vast majority, winning 67 of the 70 seats. Sisodia, who was again elected from Patparganj, was this time elevated to the post of Deputy Chief Minister. In 2020 too, he won his seat and was again made
Deputy CM.

REMAINED POWERFUL WITH KEY PORTFOLIOS

A key part of the Kejriwal cabinet, Manish Sisodia also held important portfolios. Till as recently as March 1, when he resigned following his arrest, he was heading the finance, education, planning, urban development, revenue, services, local bodies, land and buildings, higher education, training and technical education, vigilance, cooperative societies, information technology, and information and publicity departments.

A reason for this is probably that Kejriwal has himself never held crucial portfolios – as Sheila Dikshit of Congress did before him – probably because he feared that he would get implicated in cases just the way many of his Cabinet colleagues have.

Sisodia has through his political career also taken an approach which has been very akin to that of Kejriwal. He is soft-spoken but more often than not his remarks are sharp, at times spiteful. Like Kejriwal, Sisodia also realised early that for AAP to be seen as an alternative to BJP, it was important that senior leaders of the BJP be targeted as often as possible. As such he has often directly attacked the BJP big-wigs.

EDUCATION REFORMS DID NOT IMPRESS OPPOSITION

Sisodia is also credited with ushering in school education reforms in Delhi. Along with Atishi Singh, who has been given the department following his arrest, he had taken several steps which have been hailed as revolutionary – including by some foreign publications. He also took pride in his initiatives and even wrote a book, ‘Shiksha: My Experiments as an Education Minister’, to claim how his efforts bore fruit. It is another matter though that these have left his political opponents and even leading educationists unimpressed.

Riding the wave of popularity created by the India Against Corruption movement, Aam Aadmi Party formed a government in Delhi following its maiden political election in December 2013. This ended the 15-year rule of the Congress, which incidentally supported AAP in government formation to keep the BJP out

It may be recalled that in January 2020, Congress had launched a scathing attack on AAP’s education policy and accused it of not doing anything about ‘1.5 lakh students dropping out of school’. The charge was denied by Sisodia. However, it is also a fact that several education rights groups like Social Jurist which is run by Delhi High Court advocate Ashok Agarwal have also highlighted this issue in the past.

Incidentally, AAP formulated its campaign policy around the twin issues of education and health. In the latter, it has everywhere showcased its mohalla clinics as centres which show its sincerity in delivering for the downtrodden and the poor. However, the Opposition has also often pointed to the inadequacies linked to these clinics and how they have been used as a cover for not constructing adequate numbers of new hospitals.

HANDLING EDUCATION AND LIQUOR SIMULTANEOUSLY

Ironically, for Sisodia, his arrest came in a case related to the Finance Department and pertaining to the Delhi Excise Policy 2021-22 which was scrapped on July 31, 2022. He was arrested by the CBI on February 26 following nearly eight hours of interrogation.

The FIR in the case was filed by the CBI on August 17, 2022. Sisodia was named along with then excise department officials and businessmen on charges of cheating and bribery in the new excise policy. Two days later CBI raided his residence as it conducted searches across multiple locations.

Prior to this, a report by the Chief Secretary of Delhi dated July 8, 2022, had prima facie established violations of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment), Act 1991, Transaction of Business Rules (ToBR) 1993, Delhi Excise Act 2009 and Delhi Excise Rules 2010. It had also pointed out deliberate violations and gross procedural lapses to provide post-tender undue benefits to liquor licensees for the year 2021-22.

Based on this, the Delhi Lieutenant Governor VK Saxena had on July 22, 2022, recommended a CBI probe into alleged rule violations and procedural flaws in the implementation of the new excise policy. He also directed the Chief Secretary to conduct an investigation into the role of excise department officials in the alleged irregularities, as well as a complaint of ‘cartelisation’ in the bidding process for retail liquor licences. The Enforcement Directorate came into the picture on August 22, 2022, when it sought details from the CBI on the excise policy issue and filed a money laundering case in connection with it. On September 6 and 16, the ED conducted raids at 35 locations across the country and on September 19 it summoned and questioned AAP MLA Durgesh Pathak as he was alleged to have been present inside the Mumbai home of a liquor scam accused and AAP communication in-charge Vijay Nair during the searches.

The first arrest in the case was of Nair, who was arrested on September 27. A day later, ED arrested Sameer Mahendru, a liquor trader. As per the FIR, at least two payments running into crores were allegedly made to Sisodia’s ‘close associates’ by Mahendru, who was the owner of Indo Spirits.

CBI PROBE INITIATED 

Thereafter on October 17, the CBI questioned Sisodia for nine hours. Following the raid, Sisodia alleged that he was being pressurised into leaving AAP and joining the BJP.

When Manish Sisodia resigned following his arrest, he was heading the finance, education, planning, urban development, revenue, services, local bodies, land and buildings, higher education, training and technical education, vigilance, cooperative societies, information technology, and information and publicity departments

In mid-November, the BJP launched a scathing attack on AAP and Sisodia and put out ‘Lootera’ posters against him on various social media platforms. Party spokesperson Shehzad Poonawala said, “the BJP Delhi today has put out only the sentiment of the people of Delhi”. These allegations from the BJP came just when AAP had just started its campaign for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi polls.

The CBI filed its first chargesheet in the Delhi excise policy case on November 25 but Sisodia was not named in this as an accused. This chargesheet had named seven accused. Then on November 30, ED arrested Amit Arora, an aide of Sisodia.

On February 2, 2023, the ED in its chargesheet stated that Kejriwal had spoken with accused Mahendru over a video call and asked him to trust Vijay Nair. A week later, it arrested Rajesh Joshi of Chariot Advertising and claimed that money from the excise scam was allegedly used by AAP in its Goa election campaign.

AN ACCUSATION OF “KICKBACKS” & “COMMISSIONS”

Sisodia was subsequently summoned by CBI on February 18 but he urged them to defer the questioning in view of the Delhi budget preparation. Subsequently, Sisodia was summoned on February 26 and arrested after questioning.

He was accused of allegedly providing undue benefits to liquor vend licensees in lieu of “kickbacks” and “commissions”, which were allegedly used by the AAP in the Punjab Assembly elections in February 2022.

Sisodia’s arrest triggered a war of words between the BJP and AAP. Soon after his arrest, the BJP charged that Kejriwal was the “real kingpin” of the scam and that while alluding to his possible arrest said, “he was next”.

There appears to be more trouble ahead for Sisodia as CBI has also lodged another FIR against him and six others, in a ‘snooping case’. This FIR was registered on March 14 under the Prevention of Corruption Act in connection with a snooping case related to the AAP’s alleged ‘Feedback Unit’ (FBU)

BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra took a dig at Sisodia saying, “It is unfortunate that today, an Education Minister has been arrested in relation to an Excise Policy…” He added that “this is the same Aam Aadmi Party which earlier used to bring out a list every day of what it claimed were the most corrupt people in the country.”

A national daily reported how some leaders were left surprised that it was the CBI and not the ED which arrested Sisodia. “We were under the impression that the ED had a stronger case against Sisodia under the Prevention for Money Laundering Act (PMLA) – especially since it has connections to the alleged utilisation of the proceeds of crime from the excise policy scam in the Punjab and Goa Assembly elections; his arrest by the CBI was a surprise for us as well,” it cited an unnamed leader as saying.

North East Delhi BJP MP Manoj Tiwari asked why was the new excise policy withdrawn if there was nothing wrong with it. “When issues with it were raised, they took back the policy which they used to say is the best excise policy,” he said.

KEJRIWAL DEFENDS SISODIA

Kejriwal came out in defence of Sisodia and tweeted: “I am told that most CBI officers were against Manish’s arrest. They respect him and there is no evidence against him. But the political pressure to arrest him was so high that they had to obey their masters.”

The Congress has indulged in doublespeak in the matter. Some of its leaders like Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot have slammed Sisodia’s arrest as another attack on the Opposition. Gehlot had equated the arrest with “terror” of the central agencies and argued that “many Sisodias” have been arrested in the country.

Other party leaders like former Delhi minister and party national general secretary Ajay Maken see valid reasons behind the move. Maken cautioned that those sympathising with Sisodia should remember that AAP was using “corruption money” to fight elections and weaken the Congress. Maken says AAP got Rs 100 crore from a liquor scam, and used money in Goa polls. “It has now been established that the Aam Aadmi Party got around Rs 100 crore. This money was used by the AAP against Congress in the Goa elections. So I am telling everyone who is sympathising with Sisodia that this corruption money is being used to weaken the Congress party,” he told The Indian Express.

Sisodia’s arrest triggered a war of words between the BJP and AAP. Soon after his arrest, the BJP charged that Kejriwal was the “real kingpin” of the scam and that while alluding to his possible arrest said, “he was next”

Maken insisted that the new excise policy, which was scrapped, was “full of corruption” and the AAP government had gone against the recommendations of a committee on three important aspects. “On wholesale trade, the committee had suggested that the wholesale sale of liquor be with the government .. The government not just disagreed with the committee… the earlier wholesale commission was 6 per cent, they doubled it to 12 percent. And it has now been established in one of the FIRs that they were asked to pay back 6 percent of this enhanced value to the Aam Aadmi Party,” he charged.

To avoid monopoly, he said, the committee suggested that only one retail liquor vend be given by auction to one person. But “They (the AAP government) went against this recommendation too and divided Delhi into various zones and gave retail licences zone-wise. Because of this, some of the liquor traders formed a fictitious company and secured wholesale trade licence, and formed another fictitious company and got retail trade licence and monopolised the entire trade.” Due to this, Maken said, “initially the total liquor trade went up by 59.6 per cent but there were huge revenue losses to the tune of Rs 2,000 crore annually.” Asking how this was possible, he had added: “If liquor sales had gone up, the revenue earnings of the government should have also gone up. But the revenue earnings came down. That is corruption.”

MORE TROUBLE FOR SISODIA

There appears to be more trouble ahead for Sisodia as CBI has also lodged another FIR against him and six others, in a ‘snooping case’. This FIR was registered on March 14 under the Prevention of Corruption Act in connection with a snooping case related to the AAP’s alleged ‘Feedback Unit’ (FBU).

The case was registered on the basis of a March 9 complaint from Inspector CBI (Anti Corruption Branch) Vijay A Desai, who had stated that an inquiry revealed that the FBU, in addition to collecting the mandated information, had also collected political intelligence, which accounted for about 40 percent of the total reports generated by it and was beyond the scope and ambit of functions for which it was manifestly created.

Following the registration of this case, Kejriwal had tweeted that this was a conspiracy to keep Sisodia behind bars for long. “The PM’s plan is to slap several false cases against Manish and keep him in custody for a long period. Sad for the country!” he wrote.

Meanwhile, there has been no respite for Sisodia in the Delhi excise policy case. On March 22, a Delhi court, on the expiry of his custody under ED, rejected his bail application and sent him to judicial custody till April 5.

The ED had arrested Sisodia on March 9 in the Tihar jail, where he was lodged in connection with the excise policy case being probed by the CBI. The ED had charged that Sisodia was involved in the “large-scale destruction of digital evidence to impede the investigation” in the liquor policy case and had changed and destroyed 14 phones.

The central agency had also accused Sisodia of withholding information which was in his “exclusive knowledge” and “extremely relevant to the investigation”.

Sisodia’s lawyers had claimed in court that none of the CBI’s searches revealed anything exceptional that would require his further custody. The CBI, however, opposed his bail application saying he remained a risk as he could destroy evidence. “A person is a saint till his irregularities and illegalities are not discovered,” its counsel argued.

Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar is a senior journalist who has worked with The Statesman, The Hindu and The Wire covering diverse issues ranging from politics and governance to law and order and rights

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