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  Opinion   Columnists  01 Apr 2024  Aakar Patel | With CM in jail, Opposition accounts frozen, election not free and fair

Aakar Patel | With CM in jail, Opposition accounts frozen, election not free and fair

Aakar Patel is a senior journalist and columnist
Published : Apr 2, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Apr 2, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Allegations of election rigging raise concerns about the integrity of India's democracy.

In this Thursday, March 28, 2024 file photo Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal leaves the Rouse Avenue Court where he was produced in the excise policy-linked money laundering case, in New Delhi. A Delhi court Monday sent Kejriwal to judicial custody till April 15. (PTI Photo/Atul Yadav)
 In this Thursday, March 28, 2024 file photo Delhi Chief Minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal leaves the Rouse Avenue Court where he was produced in the excise policy-linked money laundering case, in New Delhi. A Delhi court Monday sent Kejriwal to judicial custody till April 15. (PTI Photo/Atul Yadav)

It is becoming quite apparent that this is not going to be a free and fair election. The repercussions and ramifications of this rigging and fixing will be felt all through Narendra Modi’s third time in office. And this election has damaged and will further damage our republic.

One does not need to labour to make the point that the election has been rigged. Two chief ministers are in jail. Why? Not because they are convicted but because they have been jailed by agencies controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Congress Party has no access to its bank accounts. Why? Not because it has been convicted but because it is being manhandled by agencies controlled by Mr Modi. Those who have been previously booked by the same agencies have now been given clean chits after they switched their allegiance to the NDA.

In no real democracy does this happen. We don’t even have to go into the electoral bonds scandal. The strange thing is that most people had already assumed that Mr Modi would return to power in 2024, so why do this? Perhaps it is just who he is. That is the most natural explanation for those who have noted with alarm the sequence of events that led to this pass.

This includes the outside world, and especially the institutions that study democracy. They have been telling us for years now that India is not fully free, that its democracy has slid and that it has become authoritarian. V-Dem inside the University of Gothenburg in Sweden had classified India as an “electoral autocracy” in 2018. In its 2024 report, released in March, it said that India was “one of the worst autocratisers”. In 2020, the Economist Intelligence Unit classified India as a “flawed democracy”, saying that “democratic norms have been under pressure since 2015”.

In 2021, Freedom House, the think tank in Washington, said that India was now not free but only “partly free”. The rating has remained since.

The government’s response to the Freedom House finding was to trot out a press release which said: “Many states in India under its federal structure are ruled by parties other than the one at the national level, through an election process which is free and fair and which is conducted by an independent election body. This reflects the working of a vibrant democracy, which gives space to those who hold varying views.”

This was dishonest. The Freedom House report had two parts. The first, given 40 per cent weightage, was on political rights. Here India got a score of 34/40 (falling to 33/40 in 2023), including full marks for free and fair elections, election commission impartiality, freedom to start political parties and opportunities for the Opposition to increase their power. In this part, India did not get full marks on whether voting was unhampered by violence and unaffected by communal tension.

This is hardly arguable. In fact, the government even got 3/4 on transparency, which was probably overly generous.

The government response was therefore merely repeating what Freedom House had anyway said. Where India’s rating was hurt was in the other 60 per cent, for civil liberties, which are also a part of freedom. Here it performed poorly (33/60). On the issues of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, academic freedom, freedom of assembly, freedom for NGOs to work (the report named the government’s attack on my organisation Amnesty International India specifically), rule of law, independence of judiciary and due process by the police, India’s rating was poor. But the scores merely reflected the reality.

In fact, as readers may have noted, India should expect that on the side of political rights, the score will now crater. It is not possible to jail your Opposition and pretend you are a democracy with political rights.

When the scores began to fall at first the government appeared baffled by the results, because Mr Modi was convinced that he was doing a good job. The government sought details from ministries of the parameters used by the Economist Intelligence Unit in its downgrading of India to a “flawed democracy”, though the report itself cites the reasons clearly. It said the “primary cause was an erosion of civil liberties” and the introduction of religion into citizenship. Again, all this was already on view, what is new now in New India is the direct assault on democracy and its processes.

What should we now expect in the elections and after? If Mr Modi is able to get a very large majority and 400-plus seats, as he is claiming he will, then the election will be seen as those in Russia and North Korea are. There will be no credibility and that will remain through the term.

On the other hand, if he gets fewer seats than in 2019 and has a simple majority, the Opposition will not be cowed down easily. They know he will misuse authority and abuse office to put them in jail.

India has become like Bangladesh is, a democracy where the Opposition is not allowed to function. This same state of affairs had happened in Pakistan as well, most famously in 1977.

Prime Minister Modi can coin grand phrases like “mother of democracy” but it has been apparent for quite some time now that this is not only untrue but a joke.

Tags: arvind kejriwal arrest, 2024 lok sabha elections, indian democracy