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Saturday May 25, 2024

India’s descent into dictatorship

BJP is on Mission Takeover: as explained by some politicians from BJP itself – win 400 seats and get constituent authority to amend constitution

By Ali Tahir
April 09, 2024
Indian Prime Minister Modi attends the inauguration of the Global Trade Show ahead of the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit 2024 in Gandhinagar on January 9, 2024. — AFP
Indian Prime Minister Modi attends the inauguration of the Global Trade Show ahead of the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit 2024 in Gandhinagar on January 9, 2024. — AFP

General elections will be held in India from April 19, 2024 to June 1, 2024 to elect the 543 members of the 18th Lok Sabha. The BJP is on Mission Takeover: as explained by some politicians from the BJP itself – win more than 400 seats and get constituent authority to amend the constitution.

Just look at what’s going on: Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, remains in custody without any formal conviction. Two of the three election commissioners were selected based on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's preference. The controversy surrounding Electoral Bonds, deemed as one of the largest scams in history, mysteriously vanished from media coverage. Congress’ bank accounts have been subjected to freezing. Opposition parties are not able to campaign. Just before the 2024 elections, the Income Tax Department has levied major penalties on opposition parties. Across India, opposition candidates are receiving notices from both the Enforcement Directorate (ED) (the Indian version of NAB) and the Income Tax department. Major opposition parties cannot publish advertisements. The Modi government has used laws like sedition and defamation to suppress the voices against it.

The Aam Admi Party (AAP) is a prime target: for the first time in Indian history post-independence, a chief minister has been arrested while in power, without any conviction. Earlier, Delhi's Education Minister Manish Sisodia, Delhi's Health Minister Satyendra Jain and AAP's Member of Parliament Sanjay Singh were arrested and all of them are still in jail. Sisodia has remained in custody for over a year and Jain has remained incarcerated for the last two years.

But why are all these leaders in jail and not on bail? Think of Musharraf’s NAB Ordinance or Modi’s PMLA. In 2018 Modi made an amendment, changing the conditions for bail, reversing the presumption of innocence in matters of bail. The 2018 amendment also empowers ED, and the result is uncanny.

Kejriwal was arrested by ED, based on the statements of four people. One of them was Sarath Chandra Reddy, a rich businessman. He was summoned by the ED and arrested, but five days after his arrest, his company Aurobindo Pharma donated INR 50 million to BJP through electoral bonds. Subsequently, the ED granted him bail and he became an approver in this case. His company then made another donation of INR 250 million to the BJP.

Perhaps the plan is simple; take over all institutions including the media and break up parties, by freezing accounts and arresting leaders. For instance, last year, a strange defamation case was filed against Rahul Gandhi on the accusation of defaming prime minister Narendra Modi's surname, after conviction he was disqualified from holding political office.

The Supreme Court stepped in, so the government went on a different course and froze Congress bank accounts, the IT department claiming that Congress did not file its returns timely before the deadline. Seemingly straight out of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. But since this seems to be a reason meek in its substance, a 31-year-old case against Congress is also on the deck and the IT department has already issued a notice for INR 17 billion to the Congress Party.

The institutional takeover that I was referring to includes the Election Commission. The Indian Election Commission has three members. On March 9, 2024, Election Commissioner Arun Goel resigned from his post. Goel had tenure till November 2027 and he would have become the CEC next year. It is said he had resigned under pressure from Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar. The third post of election commissioner is already vacant. The appointment of election commissioners takes place by a committee of three people: the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, and the chief justice of India (CJI).

But only a few months ago, the government introduced a new law and removed the CJI from the committee to appoint the election commissioners. Instead, it will include a union minister from the government, the prime minister, and the leader of the opposition. This gave the government a two-thirds majority and accordingly, two new election commissioners were appointed. Yet the leader of the opposition claimed that he was given a list of 212 names the night before the meeting and just before the meeting, he was given the short list of six names.

Mission Takeover also includes the courts. Nobody would ever imagine a high court judge in Pakistan resigning before his tenure and joining a political party, but Calcutta High Court Judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay resigned from his position and formally joined the BJP, admitting that he approached the BJP before his resignation.

Mission Takeover also includes social media; controlling it has become a major pain for the Modi government. Under the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill 2023 (yet to become an Act), the government is trying to shut down criticism on social media. Under the rules, there is a broad definition of broadcasting. People who have a YouTube channel, Facebook account, Instagram handle, or even a WhatsApp channel, will all be categorized as broadcasters. Every broadcaster will have to register with the government and the government will have a Central Evaluation Committee that has been bestowed with a lot of powers. Broadcasters can send only the videos or messages that have been approved by this committee. The government will also have the authority to seize any YouTuber's equipment without any prior notice.

Only time will tell if the BJP will succeed in this mission and turn India into a proper dictatorship, but it all seems very probable. Nevertheless, the pre-poll rigging is in full swing and no institution seems powerful enough to stop the tide.

The writer is a Karachi-basedbarrister practising constitutional and administrative law.