Lok Sabha 2024: Fighting Institutional Takeover Odds Stacked Against the Opposition
Odds Stacked Against the Opposition

The opposition’s performance despite institutional inaction, subversion of the Election Commission, strategic silences of the part of the judiciary, blatant violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) by none other than the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), voter suppression, attacks on Muslim voters, and so on, is a testament to the peoples’ resilience. The opposition prevented a disastrous (and possibly decisive) defeat and salvaged enough space to stage a comeback.

Misuse of Law Enforcement Agencies

Over the last few years, the BJP-led union government has brazenly used the federal investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to harass and intimidate opposition leaders across the country. Leaders of non-BJP state governments have been key targets. In the months leading up to the elections, bank accounts of the Congress have been frozen.

Since 2014, when Modi came to power, around 95 percent of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) related cases have been against opposition leaders. Clearly, this pattern reflects the politics of vengeance by unleashing ED against those who speak against the Modi regime's anti-people policies.

The law enforcement agencies were used to imprison two elected Chief Ministers – Hemant Soren of Jharkhand and Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi – in dubious cases. Both were powerful opponents of the BJP. Soren had repeatedly demanded the constitutional recognition of a separate Sarna religious code for the Adivasis: a clear rebuff to the Hindutva politics of appropriation. Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been steadily building a welfare-ist politics focusing on civic amenities, health and education: a sharp contrast to the Hindu majoritarian politics of the BJP.

Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest came at a time when the BJP government was under the scanner for its use of electoral bonds to acquire vast amounts of wealth from big corporations. The Supreme Court had declared these bonds unconstitutional and their details had been made public. Kejriwal’s arrest seemed like a desperate and draconian method to try and flip the narrative.

Subversion of the ECI

Serious doubts arose over the neutrality of the ECI, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed the composition of the three-member selection committee for the picking the members of the ECI. In 2023, the BJP government had brought in a Union Cabinet minister in place of the Chief Justice of India into the committee.

The manner in which the two members of the ECI were selected and appointed on March 14 this year, compelling the third member, the leader of the opposition Congress, to boycott, reflected the use of partisanship in the appointment. It was later alleged that the stretched election schedule worked out by the ECI was at the instruction of the government to facilitate campaigning for the BJP. This allegation looks quite correct, as the stretched schedule gave the BJP ample time to pick up its election campaign after faring poorly in the earlier rounds.

Violations of MCC

The already compromised ECI closed its eyes to the regular violations of the MCC by the PM Narendra Modi. His (and his party’s) repeated negative invocations of the Muslim community, and manipulative interpretation of the Congress manifesto, were in direct contravention to the MCC. The MCC disallows activities that “aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.” The MCC also states that “criticism of other parties or their workers based on unverified allegations or distortion shall be avoided.”

Speaking at a pre-poll rally in southern Rajasthan town on 21 April, Modi said, “When they (the Congress) were in power, they said that Muslims had the first right to the properties of the state. This means that they would collect these properties and give them to the ones who have more kids (insinuating Muslims). They will give it to the ghusapethyon (infiltrators). Do you want to give away your hard-earned money to the intruders?” This was his response to the opposition agenda of wealth redistribution.

The PM’s behavior set the tone, allowing many BJP leaders – especially Himanta Biswa Sarma – to invoke hatred and Islamophobia on a regular basis. Sarma, for example, said on May 15 in Jharkhand, that India is a Hindu nation and hence the government should not fund “mullah-producing” madrasas. Some BJP members openly called for the changing the constitution. Yet neither the Supreme Court (SC) nor the ECI dared to act against the ruling party. The judicial inaction against blatant violations of the constitution was galling, but not unexpected in the context of a right-wing takeover of institutions.

Judiciary Compromised

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the age of Modi has been how politically beneficial the Supreme Court’s rulings have been for the Union executive. Not only have controversial laws either been upheld but, in some cases, they have never been heard, this allowing the policies to continue. On the other hand, dissenting voices have been systematically imprisoned under stringent anti-terror laws in concocted cases.

Going back to 2019, the Modi government amended the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) to make it retrospectively applicable. This further helped it weaponize the Enforcement Directorate to go after India’s Opposition.

Later that year, the court also upheld the Modi government’s move to provide quotas to upper castes based on an income threshold. The order radically changed how India’s reservations work, changing their logic from social backwardness, defined using caste, to one based on wealth.

Back in 2016, the judiciary had given a clean chit to the Modi government on accusations of corruption in buying Rafale fighter aircraft. In 2019, the SC sat quietly as the discriminatory and unequal Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed into law and Jammu and Kashmir was decimated as political entities.

Even though the controversial Electoral Bonds was struck down by SC during Justice DY Chandrachud’s tenure, the fact that it was allowed to come into force and run for a few years was a cause of concern. In the run up to the election, the erosion of judicial autonomy raised critical questions about the separation of powers, transparency, and the rule of law.

Polling Day Incidents and Number Fudging

With a weakened Supreme Court and inactive ECI, polling days were marked with irregularities. slow voting, deletion of names from voter lists, and violence at polling booths were reported from all over the country, especially from areas where there was a tight contest and areas which had a large number of Muslim voters. For example, in Sambhal, Muslims alleged that the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police stormed booths, snatched voter identity cards, and beat up voters on polling day. In Uttar Pradesh, the attacks were reported from Muslim-majority villages that voted overwhelmingly for Samajwadi Party in the 2022 Assembly polls.

The Wire found a network of data brokers and several booth management mobile apps that supply voter data to political parties under the garb of providing these unofficial voter slips. According to data released by The Wire, at least 4000 candidates had used these apps. The pervasive use of such slips across parties is a result of increase in private firms supplying voter data and orienting services to political candidates. These apps help parties identify favorable voters, breaches principles of data privacy, and compromises the integrity of the electoral process. The ECI failed to check this practice.

Most worryingly, the polling data released (or not) by the ECI seemed rather bizarre at time. The aggregate voting figures were not made public by the Election Commission of India (ECI) till 11 days after the first phase and 4 days after the second. About 1 crore 7 lakh votes increased and the percentage of votes polled jumped by about 5.7 percent during this period. The Quint has also reported that the ECI discarded 5, 54, 598 votes across 362 Lok Sabha seats is a discrepancy between votes polled and votes counted in several parliamentary constituencies.

In the light of these developments, it can be safely said that restoring institutional integrity should be one of the top priorities of the rejuvenated opposition. It must do so by constantly monitoring the government’s activities as well as by raising peoples’ consciousness about these issues and mobilizing on the ground against all attempts at takeover of democratic institutions by the government.