India poll watchdog’s inaction lets PM Modi commit ‘brazen’ violations, opposition says

Published May 11, 2024
Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) addresses his supporters during a public meeting in Hyderabad on May 10, 2024, ahead of the fourth phase of voting of the country’s general election. — AFP
Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) addresses his supporters during a public meeting in Hyderabad on May 10, 2024, ahead of the fourth phase of voting of the country’s general election. — AFP

India’s opposition said the nation’s election commission was allowing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to continue “unchecked and brazen” violations by not taking action on opposition complaints of religious hate speech and misrepresentation.

More than halfway through India’s six-week national elections, the world’s biggest, the Congress party-led opposition complained in a letter to the Election Commission of India on Friday that “no meaningful action has been taken to penalize those who are guilty in the ruling regime”.

This was a “complete abdication” of the commission’s duty, it said. “As a result there has been an unchecked and brazen continuation of these violations, which are now committed with impunity and utter disregard.” The watchdog is responsible for ensuring political parties do not violate election rules against promoting division along religious, caste or linguistic lines in the multiethnic South Asian nation.

In his campaign speeches, Modi, seeking a rare third consecutive term, has targeted the Congress, claiming it wants to help minority Muslims at the expense of other socially disadvantaged groups.

Representatives for the commission and Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Election results in the world’s most populous nation are to be announced on June 4.

The commission on Tuesday ordered social media platform X to take down a video posted by a BJP state unit that accused Congress leaders of planning to extend welfare benefits to Muslims at the cost of other disadvantaged tribal and Hindu caste groups.

While not making any rulings on the complaints, the commission has sought a response from BJP chief JP Nadda for an April 21 speech in which Modi said the Congress planned to redistribute wealth from Hindus among Muslims, whom he called “infiltrators” and “those with many children”.

The commission has also sent a notice to the Congress regarding complaints by the BJP, which says it has filed three complaints.

“The delay puts a question mark on the credibility of the election commission and therefore on the election process,” said SY Qureshi, a former head of the three-member election commission. “Any damage to its reputation will cause incalculable harm to the legitimacy of India’s democracy.”

The opposition letter mentions 10 complaints the Congress had lodged since April 6 against Modi and key aides for what it calls “divisive”, “false” and “provocative” statements that sow sectarian division and misrepresent Congress’ positions.

“We are not told what is the response, what is the action being taken,” Congress lawmaker Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters after meeting commission officials on Friday.

“This is an irreversible window,” Singhvi said. “If they don’t act promptly it would be a complete abdication of constitutional duty.” Ashok Lavasa, who was an election commissioner during the 2019 general election, said the process from receiving a complaint to deciding on it “should not take more than three to four days because otherwise it loses purpose”, as the campaign phase is quite short.

Released opposition leader Arvind Kejriwal urges Indians to battle ‘dictatorship’

A top opponent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged his compatriots to resist “dictatorship” on Saturday, after the country’s top court provisionally released him from jail to campaign in national elections.

Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of the capital Delhi and a key leader in an opposition alliance formed to compete against Modi in the polls, was granted bail on Friday after weeks in custody.

He is among several leaders of the bloc under criminal investigation, with his party describing his arrest as a “political conspiracy” orchestrated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to sideline its opponents ahead of the vote.

In a defiant press conference the day after his release, Kejriwal said the outcome of the election would determine whether India remained a democracy.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal gestures as he speaks during a press conference at the Aam Aadmi Party office  after India’s Supreme Court gave temporary bail to the AAP national conveyor in a liquor policy case, in New Delhi, India, May 11, 2024. — Reuters
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal gestures as he speaks during a press conference at the Aam Aadmi Party office after India’s Supreme Court gave temporary bail to the AAP national conveyor in a liquor policy case, in New Delhi, India, May 11, 2024. — Reuters

“I have come to beg 1.4 billion people to save my country,” he said. “Save my country from this dictatorship.” Kejriwal also personally accused the prime minister of targeting his opponents with criminal probes.

“Modi has started a very dangerous mission,” he said. “Modi will send all opposition leaders to jail.” Kejriwal’s government was accused of corruption when it liberalised the sale of liquor in 2021 and gave up a lucrative government stake in the sector.

The policy was withdrawn the following year, but the resulting probe into the alleged corrupt allocation of licences has since led to the jailing of two top Kejriwal allies.

Rallies in support of Kejriwal, who refused to relinquish his post after his arrest, were held in numerous other big cities around India after he was taken into custody.

More than 1,000 cheering supporters greeted him as he walked free from the capital’s Tihar Jail on Friday night.

Kejriwal, 55, has been chief minister for nearly a decade and first came to office as a staunch anti-corruption crusader.

He had resisted multiple summons from the Enforcement Directorate, India’s financial crimes agency, to be interrogated as part of the probe.

‘Fighting against corruption’

Kejriwal has consistently denied any wrongdoing since allegations of corruption were first levelled against him, including again on Saturday.

“They sent me to jail and the PM says he is fighting against corruption,” he said.

“If you want to fight corruption, learn from Arvind Kejriwal.” The Supreme Court said on Friday he could temporarily leave jail to campaign, on the condition that he returns to custody after the last day of voting on June 1.

“No doubt, serious accusations have been made, but he has not been convicted,” the court’s ruling said. “He is not a threat to the society.”

His release was also made conditional on his agreement not to make public comment on the case against him, not to interact with witnesses in the case and not to visit the offices of the Delhi government.

‘Target political opponents’

Modi’s political opponents and international rights groups have long sounded the alarm on India’s shrinking democratic space.

US think tank Freedom House said this year that the BJP had “increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents”.

Rahul Gandhi, the most prominent member of the opposition Congress party and scion of a dynasty that dominated Indian politics for decades, was convicted of criminal libel last year after a complaint by a member of Modi’s party.

His two-year prison sentence saw him disqualified from parliament until the verdict was suspended by a higher court, and raised concerns over democratic norms.

Kejriwal and Gandhi are both leading members of an opposition alliance composed of more than two dozen parties that is jointly contesting India’s election.

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