15 May 2024

India election: Modi rivals hit by string of raids and arrests

India is more than halfway through its marathon six-week long general election, which is due to end on 1 June.

Narendra Modi is hoping to secure a supermajority in parliament for the BJP, despite being up against a broad opposition alliance.

In recent weeks, his rivals have suffered a string of raids and arrests, most notably Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, prompting the opposition to accuse the government of using investigative agencies to damage it.

The spirit of campaigning in this long election process is at no risk of fizzling out. But many at an opposition rally are emphatic that democracy is.

“Democracy in India is not dead. It is bleeding profusely. I put Modi along with Putin and Xi Jinping,” said one rally attendee.

As results day draws closer, the outcry over a so-called opposition crackdown intensifies. One man is dominating the agenda: Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s Chief Minister. His arrest in March became the symbol of democracy in decline.

“What has happened is complete dictatorship and against democracy. They are suppressing the voices of elected representatives,” said an opposition supporter.

Opposition arrests

It was the first time in India’s political history that a chief minister had been arrested. Now a 26-party coalition known as the India Alliance is desperate to puncture the ruling party’s power. Kejriwal’s release on bail last week was a moment of jubilation for the counter-campaign. But the arrest of opposition politicians is now commonplace – an example, they say, of the BJP manipulating government agencies to hold on to power.

Saket Gokhale, an MP for a centre-left party, spent six months in prison last year accused of money laundering. The police say they are also looking into crowd funding that he allegedly used for personal use.
“I was arrested by Mr Modi’s government on the charges of laundering 500 rupees, which is £5,” said Gokhale.
A small sum, he says, for a high price inside prison. Mr Gokhale said the BJP tried to buy his allegiance, a common tactic during this election, many claim.
“The first 15 days, I had people coming in. Random mysterious people. Policemen, a lawyer, some other unidentified people coming in, asking me and telling me ‘join the BJP, we’ll give you $3 million US.’ So that followed about another two weeks of beatings and torture and they beat you up until you pass out, sleep deprivation,” Gokhale added.

At the time of his arrest, the BJP said Gokhale’s party stood for terror and corruption.

“Dictators come, dictators go. Democracy gets under threat,” he said.

And if it is under threat, a strong opposition is crucial to its survival. There are a lot of people who say the opposition is in complete disarray.

“I don’t know where that comes from because the opposition is not a homogenous bloc in India. You know, the India Alliance is about 26 parties from different states of India that have come together,” Gokhale said.

‘It is the opposition’s job to feel miserable’

At a polling station in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, a BJP stronghold, voters are completely disillusioned with the opposition. If any of them wanted to vote for the opposition Congress candidate, hard luck. He joined the BJP this week.

“There is no opposition. What can we do? So even if they stand, it’s pointless,” one voter said.

“I have read newspaper reports that claim he was forced to join the BJP,” added another.

We first meet Bansuri Swaraj, a BJP candidate, amidst the mayhem of her rally. We ask about the opposition feeling quite miserable, as they’re saying that the BJP is misusing government agencies to hold on to power.

“First, they are the opposition. It is their job to feel a little bit miserable,” she responded.

Next time, she answers all questions with a painting of her mother behind her, who was once foreign minister to Prime Minister Modi. Swaraj insists the electoral agencies are autonomous and the BJP welcomes dissent from opposition parties.

“In fact, if you actually see, all your questions are stemming from that dissent. Even the opposition, the fact that they have forged an alliance, is stemming out of that dissent. Dissent seems to be extremely selfish, self-driven, self-serving. But then so be it. I’m again telling you, democracy in the country is alive and thriving,” Swaraj said.

Opposition remains optimistic

Well, that’s decided then, according to the BJP. There are 20 days till the world’s largest democracy announces its election results. But many say the process has been tainted by a party hellbent on holding on to power.

The opposition is fired up. We saw that at their rally. People say that Narendra Modi boasts to the world that India will be the Vishwa Guru – that means a world leader. But in reality he’s hollowing away at India’s democratic institutions.

Take the Congress Party: they ran India for years and years, but then last year they had their bank accounts frozen by the government for allegedly not paying their taxes. The Congress Party said that really crippled its ability to fight this election. Also last year, 141 opposition MPs were suspended temporarily from parliament. In that time, the government passed several landmark bills, including a controversial policing law, and there was no opposition to that. There was no debate, it just happened.

So you might be wondering what voters think about this. A lot of people that we’ve spoken to here say what they really care about is public infrastructure, wages, the cost of living, the price of rice. But actually, there are also millions of people here who are deeply worried about where this country is going in terms of democracy.