NEW DELHI — Last week, the spokesman for the opposition Indian National Congress sat before television cameras and demanded a probe into Gautam Adani, an ally to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and business tycoon who has been at the center of an international controversy involving allegations of fraud.
Why has there been no investigation by the government led by “Narendra Gautamdas Modi?” asked Pawan Khera, who wryly swapped Modi’s patronymic middle name Damodardas with “Gautamdas” — implying the billionaire was so influential, he might as well be the prime minister’s father.
Khera glanced at his supporters, chuckled and claimed it was a slip of the tongue. But for many Modi supporters, the dig was neither accidental nor excusable.
As Khera traveled to his party’s national convention on Thursday, he was arrested and police escorted him off a plane at New Delhi’s airport on suspicion of a bevy of crimes including defaming Modi, insulting the Indian leader’s father, promoting enmity between groups, and criminal conspiracy.
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Khera was released on bail seven hours later, after the Supreme Court intervened in the case. But the detention of an opposition leader, however brief, dominated national news and reverberated through Indian politics, offering the newest example of how those who oppose the Indian leadership face increasingly swift and heavy-handed retribution.
“The brazen misuse of the police force to lodge baseless cases against India’s main opposition and its leaders is an attempt to scare and threaten us,” said Supriya Shrinate, a Congress spokesperson who was traveling with Khera at the time of his arrest.
In a series of statements, the Congress party denounced Khera’s seizure as “undemocratic” and “dictatorial.”
Earlier this month, Indian tax officials spent three days rifling through the Delhi and Mumbai offices of the BBC and cloning some employees’ phones. The move came after the BBC aired a documentary critical of Modi’s handling of a 2002 sectarian riot.
Although tax officials said their search yielded evidence of financial irregularities, members of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) openly described the tax raid as a response to what they said was the BBC’s record of airing propaganda attacking India.
Before Khera was seized, BJP officials similarly warned that he would face consequences. From Amit Shah, the powerful home minister, to local-level activists, BJP officials issued a flurry of statements condemning the Congress spokesman for what they argued was a low blow.
In a country where class and caste identities often represent powerful forces that mobilize voters and rouse passions, Modi and his supporters have often highlighted his humble roots — rising from assisting his father, Damodardas, at his tea stall to becoming India’s top elected leader — as a testament to his hard-working persona and populist bona fides.
By making a joke that touched on Modi’s parentage, Khera crossed a line, Modi’s allies said.
“Make no mistake- pathetic remarks by courtier Pawan Khera on PM’s father have blessings of the top levels of Congress, which is full of entitlement and disdain against a person of humble origins being PM,” Himanta Biswa Sarma, a member of Modi’s party and the leader of Assam state, said on Twitter on Monday, days before Khera’s arrest. “India will not forget or forgive these horrible remarks.”
On Thursday, Delhi police, working at the behest of Assam police under Sarma’s command, seized Khera as his flight to central India, which included several other Congress party leaders traveling to their annual party conference, was due to take off. A spokesman for Sarma declined to comment.
The arrest came at a time when Modi has come under increasing fire from Congress leaders for his ties to Adani, who was accused by the U.S. investment firm Hindenburg Research of defrauding investors with the help of weak oversight and political favors. Those allegations triggered a stock market sell-off, which supporters of Adani and Modi have called a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the Indian economy.
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Under the terms of an emergency decision by the Supreme Court, Khera was granted his freedom for four days, pending another hearing. He will return to court next week to face the defamation charges.
“I was asked to deplane as if I were a terrorist,” he told reporters as he left a West Delhi court. “This is not the only example of people’s rights and liberties being curtailed. Today it’s me, tomorrow it could be anyone.”