A Campaign Under Modi’s Heel
Maria Tavernini 19 April 2024

India, a country that loves to be defined as the world’s largest democracy, or the “mother of democracy” – using the words of its Prime Minister Narendra Modi – has just started its 18th general election. The massive democratic exercise is going to take place from today through June 1, with 970 million people heading to the polls in seven phases, with results expected to be announced on June 4. However, many have pointed out that it is not only simply the fact of holding elections that makes a country a democracy. According to V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report, India dropped down to an “electoral autocracy” in 2018 and stayed in this category up to now.

The Swedish institute defines four transitional phases between democratization and democratization: liberal democracy, electoral democracy, electoral autocracy, and closed autocracy. In an electoral autocracy, multiparty elections for the executive do take place but with “insufficient levels of fundamental requisites such as freedom of expression and association, and free and fair elections.” The report states that the process of autocratization is ongoing in 42 countries – including India. In the run-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections, a number of events seem to confirm that the country is steadily walking away from what is generally considered a functioning democracy.

On March 21, the Indian Enforcement Directorate, or the federal police for financial crimes, arrested New Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has been in power in the city of Delhi since 2015 and is part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a huge coalition that brings together the parties that oppose the BJP government. His party and state ministers are accused of having taken one billion rupees (over ten million euros) in bribes for handing out liquor licenses to private resellers in the capital, but Kejriwal denies all charges. The AAP claims the case is clearly “politically motivated.”

The arrest of Kejriwal, who has been detained in Tihar Jail, has stirred up the opposition as well as the debate about the BJP using the Enforcement Directorate, income tax, and all central agencies to target the opposition just weeks before the elections. On March 31, top leaders of the INDIA coalition rallied in the capital under the banner Loktantra Bachao, or “Save Democracy.” The very participated protest, which has seen the opposition come together in solidarity with Kejriwal, was attended by thousands of supporters expressing growing concern over the state of democracy in India under the BJP’s tenure.

While addressing the crowd during the “Save Democracy” rally in Ramlila Maidan, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty and the leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) said that Prime Minister Modi had “fixed the match of the election” and before the polls sent two chief ministers to jail. The reference is to Kejriwal but also to former Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who was arrested on January 31 in a case of alleged money laundering linked to a land scam. “If the BJP wins these fixed elections and changes the Constitution, the country will be on fire,” Gandhi asserted. A claim that has prompted a vitriolic reaction from the ruling party.

Furthermore, since mid-February the bank accounts of the Indian National Congress have been temporarily frozen by the authorities in a tax dispute ahead of national elections. The party is accused of having failed to file an income tax return for cash donations received in 2017-18. The Congress, India’s main opposition political group, accused Modi’s government of “stifling democracy and crippling the party” by freezing its bank accounts, as it has been unable to support its candidates and conduct the election campaign. “This is a criminal action on the Congress party done by the prime minister and the home minister. The idea that India is a democracy is a lie. There is no democracy in India today,” Gandhi said.

Democracy is dying in India. The government is pressing its boots on its neck. It is gasping for breath. All the organs of the state are involved: administration, police, Enforcement Directorate, central investigative agencies, income tax authorities, and to a large extent the judiciary. India’s big media is clapping and laughing at this scene of the murder of democracy. The public is numbed and confused,” writes Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University and an attentive observer of Indian politics. “Elections renew democracy in India. How is democracy expected to survive if the election process itself is corrupted or vitiated?” he asks.

Some have argued that the brazen targeting of the opposition parties on the eve of the general elections was also a way to divert the public attention from the electoral bonds scam. On March 14, the Election Commission of India published data relating to electoral bonds purchased from 2019 to today. Electoral bonds were a financial instrument introduced in 2017 by the Modi government that allowed individuals and companies to anonymously donate money to parties through bonds issued by the State Bank of India (SBI). In February, a landmark, unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court declared the electoral bond system unconstitutional and ordered SBI to publish all the data. The Court said it feared the scheme would lead to quid pro quo agreements and corruption.

In fact, the first dataset released by SBI showed that the biggest purchaser was Future Gaming and Hotels Pvt Ltd, a lottery company run by Santiago Martin who made donations worth 1,300 crore rupees (150 thousand euros). Of these, 100 crore rupees were purchased a few days after a raid by the Enforcement Directorate over charges of money laundering. The second and fifth biggest donors – Megha Engineering and Infrastructures Ltd and Vedanta Limited – also faced investigations by law enforcement agencies. The third biggest donor – Qwik Supply Chain – was accused of being a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, the conglomerate of billionaire Mukesh Ambani whose closeness to Narendra Modi is no secret.

Initially, SBI published a list with the names of the entities that purchased the bonds and another with how many bonds each party collected. Unsurprisingly, it has emerged that the BJP was by far the party that collected the most with over 670 million euros. Then the Court ordered SBI to also disclose the unique alphanumeric code of each bond that would allow to link the purchaser to the redeemer. This was revealed in the final tranche of data shared by the SBI that made it possible to draw a detailed map of donors and beneficiaries in the opaque Indian plutocracy, now under investigation by the authorities. On the same day, SBI published the complete data on bonds, and Kejriwal was arrested. Gandhi posted on X that “a scared dictator wants to create a dead democracy.”

With the ongoing parliamentary elections and Narendra Modi seeking a third consecutive term in office, all eyes are on India and questions are arising – nationally and internationally – on the state of democracy in the country and the fairness of the polling process. Renewed psephologist and political commentator Yogendra Yadav wrote, “Here is a safe election forecast: 2024 is going to be the least free and fair national election in Independent India. We do not yet know if it will eventually turn out to be a seriously compromised election or a complete farce. Going by recent developments including the arrest of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, however, it seems fairly certain that this election would slide below the minimum threshold of a credible election.”



Cover photo: Voters queue up to cast their ballot outside a polling station during the first phase of voting for the India’s general election, in Dugeli village of Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh state on April 19, 2024. (Photo by Idrees Mohammed / AFP)

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