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Electoral Laws flouted in Modi's India

In his bid for re-election, the Indian PM is ramping up sectarian rhetoric and weaponising state agencies against his opponents

Abh ke baar 400 paar (“More than 400 seats this time”) has been the rallying cry of Narendra Modi’s election campaign, as voting for India’s 543-member lower house stretches on through the hottest months of the year.

The prime minister’s method of ruling a once vibrant and now wounded democracy relies heavily on a heady mix of religious polarisation, subservient institutions and the apparent misuse of state-controlled agencies against his opponents. On the campaign trail, he and his party have been busy peppering his speeches with anti-Muslim rhetoric, in a seeming violation of India’s election law, which expressly prohibits electioneering based on sectarian appeals to religion, caste, language or region.

So what is it like to stand as an opposition candidate in today’s India? Let me give you a sense of what we have to contend with.

The first line of defence is the election commission of India (ECI), which is supposed to ensure free and fair elections but has become a helpless spectator. The ECI’s members were always appointed by the government of the day, but the institution has never before appeared so partisan. This is the reason that the supreme court last year said that election commissioners should henceforth be chosen by a panel in which the government does not have a majority. To this end, it recommended a three-member panel comprising the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and India’s highest-ranking judge. Modi, however, passed a law that made the third member of the panel merely another government minister, and then pushed two appointments through this flawed panel, an action which the supreme court declined to stop.

It is no wonder then that the ECI has been largely silent on allegations of egregious violations of the electoral law by Modi and various members of his ruling party, the BJP. More important, it has refused to intervene in the face of the government’s blatant harassment of opposition parties by various official agencies during the campaign season – something previously unseen.

On the eve of the election, the income tax authorities – controlled by the ministry of finance – froze the accounts of the Congress party, India’s largest opposition party. (The authorities said it was a “routine procedure” against defaulters.) This denied it access to party funds for the campaign. The enforcement directorate, the economic offences wing of the finance ministry, has arrested two opposition chief ministers and keeps issuing summons against opposition politicians in what are decried as unsound cases. Under the constitution, the ECI has a sweeping mandate to intervene whenever government agencies at the federal or state level engage in actions that can affect electoral outcomes. While the election commissioners are keen to act against opposition-run state governments at the slightest provocation, Modi’s apparent misuse of federal agencies does not appear to concern them.

But nothing illustrates the un-level playing field that India’s opposition is forced to operate in better than the Modi government’s “electoral bonds” scheme – an opaque, anonymous political funding system. In March, India’s supreme court finally came down hard on it, banning the scheme and ordering the country’s largest government-owned bank, the State Bank of India, as well as the election commission, to publicly release all details of donors and their funding to specific parties. Introduced in 2017 by Modi in the face of strong reservations by India’s central bank and the ECI, the scheme effectively allowed shell companies and anonymous donors to give huge sums of money to political parties.

The largest chunk of the money, almost 50% of the total, went to Modi’s BJP. The State Bank of India at first refused to release the compromising data until it was rapped hard on the knuckles by a persistent three-judge bench. The results, though astonishing to some, seemed to confirm what India’s opposition had been saying for years: that the scheme operated in the BJP’s interests. Indian media has since reported on several companies that bought electoral bonds after being raided by central government agencies – leading to allegations of “extortion”. Opposition politicians have also made quid pro quo allegations about companies that donated to the BJP and received government contracts.

Apart from outspending the opposition in every election, the BJP has suborned large sections of the media and launched a blitzkrieg of propaganda to minimise the importance of every burning national issue, such as joblessness and inflation, the incursions by China into Indian territory, and a civil war-like situation in the eastern state of Manipur that has taken the lives of more than 200 people, and which Modi has failed to address. In place of critical scrutiny, big media propitiates Modi’s personality cult. “What is that power that gives you this strong resolve to move forward?” a major TV news channel asked him this week. “God has probably sent me to do this work,” Modi replied.

Unfortunately for Modi, his gamble of a lengthy election during which he hoped to tire out the opposition may well turn out to be his undoing. The first four phases showed a marked reduction in in voter turnout, which doesn’t bode well for the BJP getting an absolute majority for the third election in a row.

India’s electorate, used to treating elections as a celebration where, once every five years, the poorest citizens can exert their power, is keeping its cards close to its chest. A desperate BJP is doubling down on its sectarian rhetoric. This time, that may not be enough to push it across the finishing line of a simple majority on its own. Modi owns the track and the man with the whistle is his guy, but what the crowds seem to want is a real contest.

Authored by Mahua Moitra

  • Mahua Moitra is an opposition politician with the Trinamool Congress party

© 2024 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


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