The Wire
Anand K. Sahay

Why so? Because Watergate was not about fundamentally altering the political system of democracy in the US, as seems to be the case in the instance of the Indian government preventing the Congress party from using its own funds to fight the upcoming national election.

As derail democracy projects go, the Watergate scandal of the early ‘70s, which forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon, is exceeded in its egregious import by the blockade imposed on Congress party funds by the Narendra Modi regime four weeks before national elections. This seems plausibly a part of a wider plan to ensure a thumping victory at any cost for the Modi regime in the upcoming Lok Sabha election, so as to enable it to and take a shot at changing the look of India’s constitutional democracy.

In the Watergate affair in Washington DC, revelations showed the Nixon administration sanctioned the burglary and stealing of sensitive political information from the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters. After the defeat of fascism in the Second World War, this was the first instance of putting election processes out of kilter in the world’s most important democracy.

A major Hollywood film brought the disgraceful Watergate saga to viewers around the world, underlining what unscrupulous rulers could do to retain power even in an advanced democracy such as the US.

But Watergate was not about fundamentally altering the political system of democracy in the US, as seems to be the case in the instance of the Indian government preventing the Congress party from using its own funds to fight the upcoming national election.

The Congress is the largest and the most significant national opposition party in the world’s largest democracy, and is historically credited with ushering in non-discriminatory parliamentary democracy of the Westminster type after leading the effort to end colonial rule through a non-violent national upsurge that came to fruition 77 years ago. India’s case has been an example to the world, especially at a time when the footprint of autocracies is expanding around the globe.

The roll-back of the democratic ethos in India could seal the fate of fledgling democracies outside of Western Europe and the US, and possibly in parts of the former too where atavistic tendencies seem to be on the rise.

Bully tactics against the Congress that ab initio mar its chances of giving Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party an effective fight at the head of a national coalition suggest that the ruling clique would stop at nothing to keep its hold on power. Deploying corrupt political practices, and the indiscriminate use of various questionable devices to disrupt parties and discredit opponents with a view to putting them out of the race, seem par for the course in India these days.

The brazen government effort to stop the Congress from contesting the election effectively comes along with a bunch of moves, including the imprisonment of opposition chief ministers on corruption charges that appear to be of dubious intent, aimed at changing the basic schema of India’s election process while retaining the formal panoply of things.

Topping these is the recent change of legislation to appoint an Election Commission (EC) which can no longer be deemed independent as appointments were made after the new law took effect. In any meaningful way, this change in law can only be interpreted as a lunge by the Modi dispensation to win a third consecutive term at any cost to legislatively enable it to make effective changes to the Constitution in a politically authoritarian direction and ideologically aimed at diminishing India’s minorities and curbing their civic space.

It is not without significance that for the past eight months, far from seeking to assuage the opposition parties, the EC has blocked their efforts for a meeting to discuss widespread suspicions among the people about the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) not recording their vote accurately, and favouring the ruling party instead.

Election held under the superintendence of the present EC cannot be deemed to be free, fair and transparent by any acceptable definition of democratic practice. In the conduct of the last parliament election in 2019, the previous EC, under its chief Sunil Kumar, was also mired in controversies on account of ignoring opposition parties’ complaints and blatant favours shown to the Modi regime, enabling it to surpass its win of 2014. However, the constitution of the Commission had been under an independent process and the opposition parties had to lump it when their vociferous objections went unaddressed.

In the Indian Constitution, the EC is a constitutional authority, much like the Supreme Court. The poll watchdog has to be guaranteed total independence to shield the process of elections for the national and state legislatures and keep it uncontaminated from governmental control in any form. Disregarding this requirement, the Narendra Modi government has not demurred from dropping the Chief Justice of India from the selection panel for Chief Election Commissioner and two Election Commissioners who make up the EC, and loading it with government ministers.

The latest and most dramatic of government actions to dispirit the opposition is the arrest on March 24 of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of the Aam Admi Party (AAP), once a political adversary and now a Congress ally in INDIA, the opposition front cobbled together to defeat the ruling party’s perceived design to push for a religion-based, majoritarian order and foist authoritarian rule with the undisguised aid of big capital and its international financial and political allies.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, political parties registered with the Election Commission of India are exempt from paying income tax under Section 13A of the Income Tax Act, 1961 although they are required to file annual returns and a statement of income and expenditure.

All of Congress’s 11 bank accounts have been frozen, with the Income Tax Department discovering in the weeks and months before the Lok Sabha polls that the party has received unaccounted money. India’s largest opposition has thus been crippled with the Lok Sabha election season unrolling. In fact, it is mind-boggling that tax demands with penalty should go back to the 1990s. Typically, all parties have traditionally collected donations from individuals and companies. In the absence of state funding of elections, there can be no other way.

The Electoral Bonds Scheme introduced by the Modi government seven years ago was found by the Supreme Court to be “unconstitutional” in a recent order, although the top court had declined to stay the dubious EB scheme shortly after it was launched.

It is now being revealed through careful journalistic work by relatively small news organisations that companies that have routinely been raided by the government have then been into paying the BJP through election bonds, and big favours and contracts, and favourable policy changes, have been granted to corporate entities that funded the ruling party through this channel.

The ruling BJP, with its bulging coffers that represent magnitudes probably way larger than the incomes of all other parties taken together, does not pay income tax. Leave alone the Congress, any official move to trouble any registered party on the tax front stinks, given BJP’s election bonds-related activities which appear to be blowing up into being the country’s biggest ever political and financial scandal.

In spite of its numerous organisational weaknesses which have led to poor electoral performance in recent times, the Congress party is the RSS and BJP’s biggest ideological adversary and bug-bear on the national level. In spite of sustained efforts to harass it, the party continues to command over a fifth of the national vote.

Small wonder that when he came on the scene in 2014, Modi had made it his mission to make India “Congress-mukt” or free of the Congress. That project seems to be in gallop mode on the eve of the 2024 parliament election. The rulers seem to have got a scare with Rahul Gandhi’s two journeys across the length and breadth of the country which have been met with rising popular enthusiasm, discomfiting the regime.

For the parliamentary election to be credible this time, Congress’s frozen bank accounts need to be restored and all income tax proceedings kept in abeyance till the polls are over, arrested chief ministers of Delhi and Jharkhand (on the eve of his arrest, the latter CM had quit his position) released forthwith, Enforcement Directorate, CBI and IT proceeding dropped against opposition leaders at least for now, and opposition demands as regards EVMs met without delay. In short, vendetta against political opponents must end.

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