A Cloud on the Integrity of the Election!

Dr. G. Ramachandram Dr. G. Ramachandram
08 Apr 2024

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) forced Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren to resign and then arrested him within minutes of his resignation on 31 January 2024, under the draconian law – Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) – for alleged money laundering in a land scam. On 21 March, the ED arrested Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal under the PMLA for suspected money laundering in the liquor policy case. The arrests were made amid the general election, scheduled for 19 April, the outcome of which will determine the next national government.

The IT Department, in an unprecedented move, froze the bank accounts of the principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, for alleged violation of tax norms; reopened the IT returns of the party going back to the years 1993-94; imposed heavy penalty, and took away some Rs. 135 crores, by browbeating the bank officials, after the election schedule was announced. The Congress called it 'tax terrorism' to cripple it financially and disable it from carrying out the election campaign, thereby denying it a level playing field, while the ruling party is allowed to get away by violating the tax norms. The IT Department applied the double standards to target the principal opposition party.

Germany, America and the UN expressed concern about these developments. Reacting to the arrest of Kejriwal and freezing of the accounts of the Congress, a spokesman of the US State Department said: "We encourage fair, transparent, timely legal process". The spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said: "we very much hope that in India, as in any country that is having elections, that everyone's rights are protected, including political and civil rights, and everyone is able to vote in an atmosphere that is free and fair." It is an indictment of a vitiated election process in India.

To express solidary against the arrests of Soren and Kejriwal and the high handedness of the Central Agencies, and in a show of strength and unity, all the major opposition parties that constitute a formidable anti-BJP alliance attended the Loktantra Bachao (save democracy) rally on 31 March at the historical Ramlila Maidan, New Delhi. The leaders who participated in the rally, inter alia, included the Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, the Gandhi Family - Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka – Shiv Sena (UBT) supremo Uddhav Thackeray, AAP leader and Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann, NCP (SP) chief Sharad Pawar, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, NC chief Farooq Abdullah, PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, Left leaders Sitaram Yechury, D. Raja, CPI(ML) Liberation leader Dipankar B Bhattacharya, TMC leader Derek O'Brien and the wives of Kejriwal and Soren.

The opposition leaders castigated Modi's dictatorial regime. They accused the Modi government of weaponising the central agencies - ED, CBI and IT – to stifle the opposition's voice and undermine the democratic process of elections, with the playing field rigged in favour of the ruling BJP. Tejaswi Yadav called it an undeclared emergency. The opposition leader spoke about the erosion of institutional governance, the rule of law, crony capitalism favouring the people close to the establishment, and extortion through electoral bonds. They exhorted the people that this election was a fight to save democracy and the Constitution. Uddhav Thackeray raised the slogan: "Abki Baar BJP hogi Tadipaar". Akhilesh Yadav told the people: "The country will be saved only by your vote. Your vote will save democracy. Your vote will save the Constitution." It is a call for Loktantra bachao and Tanashahi hatao. 

Addressing the rally, Rahul Gandhi said: You must have heard about match-fixing. When a match is won illegally, putting pressure on umpires, buying players, and intimidating the captain… it is called match-fixing in cricket. We have Lok Sabha polls before us … Before the match started, two players from our team were arrested … Match-fixing ki ja rahi hai… you have frozen our bank accounts… you want the opposition not to fight the elections… that is why you have frozen the bank accounts of Congress, installed your people in the EC…, and are pressuring the judiciary…kyun ki aap chahte ho ki match fix ho… Samvidhan radd kiya jaaye, and you remain in power... This match-fixing is not just being done by Narendra Modi alone. It is being done by Modi and three or four of India's billionaires together… Our Constitution is the people's voice; it is India's heartbeat, and India will not survive without it. Alag Alag states ho jayenge… Agar Hindustan main match-fixing ka chunav BJP jeete aur uske baad Samvidhan ko unhone badla, toh is poore desh main aag lagne ja rahi hai… (If the BJP wins this rigged election and changes the Constitution after that, it will set the country on fire; this country will not survive… This is not an ordinary election. This election is to save the country and protect our Constitution).

At the conclusion of the rally, on behalf of the INDIA block, the Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi presented a charter of five demands: The Election Commission of India must ensure a level playing field in Lok Sabha elections; stop the coercive action by IT, ED and CBI against Opposition political parties; releasing Hemant Soren and Arvind Kejriwal immediately; coercive action to financially strangulate political parties in the opposition during the elections must stop; and to set up a Special Investigation Team, under the supervision of Supreme Court, to probe the allegation of quid pro quo, extortion and money laundering by the BJP using the Electoral Bonds.

That under the bogey of corruption, the Opposition leaders are targeted by the central agencies is obvious. An investigation conducted by The Indian Express in 2022 reveals that 95 per cent of prominent politicians that the ED and the CBI took action against after 2014 were from the opposition. Since 2014, as many as 25 opposition leaders facing serious corruption charges have crossed over to the BLP, 23 of them got reprieve. Three cases were closed, while 20 remain in cold storage. The opposition calls it the 'washing machine', the mechanism by which politicians accused of corruption don't face legal consequences if they quit their party and join the BJP. This makes a mockery of democracy, subverting the people's mandate.

The EC should address these concerns. It has immense power to exercise once the MCC comes into force, as the former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan did. The level playing field is a sine qua non for free and fair elections, the levelling being specific to the advantage that the ruling party enjoys vis the opposition, an even-handed approach by the Election Commission. "That indeed is the genesis of the Model Code of Conduct that the EC is expected to enforce during elections", says former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. The EC should determine whether the series of unprecedented actions by the enforcement agencies during elections is a misuse of authority and violates healthy democratic practices. For instance, invoking the stringent PMLA and arresting Chief Ministers and opposition leaders and putting them in jail, is a gross abuse of power that should not go unchecked. It is a cloud on the integrity of the election. The recent actions of the IT department and the ED against opposition parties and their leaders are an attempt to disrupt the level playing field during elections. It directly interferes with free and fair elections. The Election Commission cannot remain mute.

The former Secretary General of Lok Sabha, P D T Acharya, believes the PMLA is outdated and misused. He says, "The provisions contained in it are draconian, which were meant to deal with the dangerous men involved in drug trafficking and the money chain… A very disturbing thing about the PMLA is that an accused under this law is presumed to be guilty until proven innocent. A fundamental principle of jurisprudence is that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The PMLA turns this principle upside down".

Incidentally, a Pew Research Center survey report in 2023, based on face-to-face interviews of Indians, reveals that a staggering 85% of people favoured military rule or rule by an authoritarian leader, the highest among the 24 countries surveyed, in contrast to just 8% in Sweden. India had the third lowest share of people who considered the freedom of Opposition parties crucial for ensuring accountability, and only 36% of Indians believed in representative democracy. The Indian society is essentially an authoritarian structure. That explains why the people are indifferent to the loss of independence of institutions and to the rise of electoral autocracy.
 

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